Taking on the dinosaurs

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 35, Summer 1997.

After three decades of British occupation, sectarian violence and the predominance of nationalism in politics, a prospect for peace emerged in Northern Ireland. The cease-fire by the paramilitaries forced politicians to consider a political solution. A complex model for electing representatives to the formal peace talks, and the broader forum for peace and reconciliation was created. Liz Kelly interviews Monica McWilliams about how women decided that they would not be excluded, and in the process created the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition: an exciting, inclusive, creative and visionary women’s organisation.

Liz Kelly:  Let’s begin with how the Women’s Coalition came into being?

Monica McWilliams:  It was around about April of last year, 1996, the government published a list of parties they had decided were going to stand in the elections for the peace talks and to a new elected body called The Forum. I and the women I know were furious when we saw this because we had been engaged in a whole range of conferences with women’s groups across Northern Ireland about the increasing participation of women in main­stream decision making. One of these, Women, Politics and the Ways Forward was in response to the framework document published by the British and Irish Governments. They hadn’t mentioned women once in the entire document and we wanted to make sure we were going to be agents of change in any new political structuring that took place about the governance of Northern Ireland.

Representing Women

It wasn’t that we weren’t political animals and political agents, we have been extremely active in grassroots politics, community politics, trade union politics and the various professional and voluntary sectors. Yet here was this opportunity that was being denied to us, to have a role in the new negotiating machinery. At the same time another organisation called the European Women’s Platform had written to all the political parties asking them: if they were going to be ‘equity proofing’ their list; where they were putting women in their lists; whether they had given serious attention to the number of women that would be elected — not just in terms of the women that were going to be standing but where, and what position had they been selected on. The response to that was abysmal with replies from only three small parties — the Communist Party, the Democratic Left, and the Workers Party.

There was the view that not only had we lobbied the parties on the one hand but actually needed to do something ourselves as a kind of vanguard action. We figured that if we wrote to the government and demanded they change the legislation if they said no then we would publicly go to press on it, and if they said yes we would have to do something quickly. They responded by saying that they had taken on board our views and they had agreed to change it — and what was the name of the party! We called meetings of over 200 groups, faxed every group we could think of. We called meetings in Belfast and other areas and we still had not made a decision whether or not to stand but we were informing people that there was now an opportunity to create a women’s party.

There were different views at those meet­ings: that this wasn’t the election for us because these were constitutional issues; if we did stand and didn’t do well we would be doing a disservice to the whole idea of women going into politics. Those were the views against. The views for were that this was a unique election because it was about getting the small parties to the table. They had created a particular type of election where you only needed about 1% of the vote, approximately 10,000, and we could do it. If we stood 100 women and each of them went out to seek 100 votes, knowing that they didn’t have to be elected themselves because they would be aggregated across the whole board, every woman would be standing for someone else, she wasn’t necessarily standing to be elected for herself. That was a very comfortable space to be in. Also we said if we did engage in it we would put in the skills training, the media training, and we would prepare the pledges for what they believed in and would engage them in producing their policies. It was going to be a tough exercise but we knew that the actual catching of the votes mightn’t be the most difficult part of it — that would be the actual machinery that we would need to put in place. Those women who chose to disagree said that was fine and in fact some of them went on to give us financial donations whilst voting for other parties. Others who were in other parties chose to leave their parties and come into ours.

Realising that we were going to form a coalition the other parties suddenly began to say that they were promoting women, they were doing this and that. So we had already met one of our objectives which was to put pressure on the other parties. That has gone from strength to strength because in the forthcoming general election there will be more women standing than ever before in Northern Ireland. We took a decision that we would stand and took the name Women’s Coalition with Northern Ireland in front as that would put us around the middle of the ballot paper whereas Women’s Coalition would have been at the end.

Getting organised

All along these decisions were made at open meetings which were advertised in newspapers. We also advertised for candidates because we felt that just using the networks was not always the best way to do it. We wanted to be as public and as transparent about it as possible. It was fun but chaotic in that we just covered walls in huge sheets of paper and put up all the names of constituencies and went round the rooms and women put their names up and when they saw that other women were prepared to do it then others came up. It was like an evangelical meeting. Women saying, well if she can do it, I can do it. We had the youngest candidate standing ever in an election and we had disabled candidates. We equity proofed our lists as far as possible so everybody felt comfortable with the groups and in every constituency we had at least three or four candidates standing. Then the machinery was put in place — we had no offices, no fax machine, no telephone, no nothing so we had to start fundraising and we had to get an office and we had to start running press releases.

We found many interesting things along the way. For instance in relation to disability the lack of access into the polling stations — the fact that you could only take a male or female partner according to marriage to the count with you, you couldn’t take a female partner. There were lots of things like that which we managed to have changed when the election was over.

Creating feminist structures

The structure we operated through was never the management structure of an executive. We built teams of people: a press team, a campaign team, an administrative team, a finance team, and to this day that’s still the way we operate. We opened three offices, one in Eniskillen, one in Derry and one in Belfast and we ran our election campaign from those three offices.

It was only six weeks from the start of the campaign to the day of the election. We had to get the media on board so we started working really hard with them, all they want is sound bites so we had to train women. We ran lots of training sessions for all the local women because that was the part they were most terrified of, actually having to take on the media. We had to keep reassuring them — did they ever hear much better from the people who’d been elected over the last 25 years. We managed to get a lovely little leaflet into 600,000 households with the word WOMEN and for each of those letters we had a couple of sentences. So we used it as an acronym it was Women Working for Solutions, but we were able to start each of the sentences with a W, O, M, E or N. We picked the suffragette colours, green white and purple, and our slogan was Women For Talks, Women in Talks. For our canvassing papers we had just the manifesto and the joke in the papers was that was the only ‘man’ we had about us. The press kept that line up, another one was that the closest we would get to the negotiating table would be to polish it!

The election was first past the post. People who would otherwise have said oh I would have given you my second choice, or people that didn’t necessarily hear about us but would have been sympathetic to women, said oh, we’ll give you our second choice. We had to convince people that we needed to get their first choice and that was tough going. The mainstream SDLP lost votes to Sinn Fein and likewise on the unionist side with the mainstream Unionist party losing votes to the most extreme unionist party which is Paisley’s party. It was a very bitter kind of election. We were delighted to have polled in 9th place considering we had only been in formation for six weeks.

Taking everyone by surprise

When we got elected the journalists were so ill prepared. They had produced these graphics for the front of the main Belfast newspaper showing ten little men with black ties on sitting around the table. Someone informed them by the evening edition that they’d better change it because we’d been elected so they took the little black ties off the graphic in the last edition of the paper. I guess they felt they were paying us a compliment when they titled their piece ‘The Hen Party Leaves The Nest In Style’. We picked the slogan ‘Wave Goodbye to Dinosaurs’ and produced these huge purple white and green posters with that spread across them and white T shirts with a large X saying ‘eXpress yourself’ and ‘Vote Women’s Coalition’.

But the hard work started after that. Luckily enough the Beijing conference happened the year before, so we had a lot of policies around that we had already prepared for Beijing that we took as our policy statements, on the economy, on social policy.

Liz:  When you say we, who was it that had prepared things from Beijing?

Monica:  Various groups came together under a Beijing platform and they had been producing policies. People say ‘did the coalition come out of nowhere’, well it didn’t. Many of us have been around for the last 20 years in different parts of the women’s movement and what this brought together was a kind of very disparate collective from across both sides of the commu­nity including very different kinds of women. What we tried to do was have a dialogue across our differences it was very much a politics of transition. We were trying to see if we could work from out of a fixed position into positions that people felt were more accommodating of each other. That was a very interesting process and that’s a process we still use.

One of the most difficult things after we were elected was the actual abuse that we were given, both in terms of the fact that we were women, but also the fact that we came from a different background than either of the main Nationalist or Unionist parties. We have stayed in the forum even though the SDLP withdrew so we were the only non-Unionist party. As a result the main Unionist parties, such as those led by Ian Paisley (DUP — Democratic Unionist Party) and David Trimble (UUP — Ulster Unionist Party) called us traitors, rebels, Pan Nationalist Front, whinging women, whining women, it gets worse and worse as each week goes on.

Liz:  To go back a bit how did you decide which were the two women who were going to go into the talks?

Monica:  We decided at a public meeting that there should be a woman who would be catholic and active in the women’s movement and there should be a woman from a working class protestant/loyalist area. The group decided that one of those women should be me. I didn’t really want to stand at all but women were quite fearful of putting themselves forward. Also we didn’t actually know what it was going to entail, whether the talks were going to last for a day and collapse or whether you were giving up a year or two years of your life. The other woman is Pearl Seger a loyalist working class woman with a community activist background. Some people saw me as rural because I’m originally from County Derry even though I’m living in Belfast, but it was more the catholic nationalist background that I was put forward under. Part of it was that I was away in Australia for one of the weeks when all of this was going on and things happen in your absence!

Liz:  You got nominated in your absence?

Monica:  I got nominated as the leader of the Coalition. Even though we don’t use the titles of leaders they had to fill in somebody’s name on the electoral papers and they nominated mine. One of the things we have done is to try and get away from this notion of leader. When we went into the talks each of the parties had a room and alongside each of the party rooms there’s a leader’s room and we couldn’t believe it. So I took snopake and snopaked out the word ‘leader’, because it said ‘Leader — Women’s Coalition’. Of course somebody thought our door had been vandalised and reported it and I said no it was me who did it because we don’t believe in these titles. To this day, everywhere we go, people have difficulty with that. They still can’t accept that we’re a collective, that there are two of us elected with equal rights not one of us as a leader and the other as a follower. In fact everything we do in terms of media coverage or visits or anything we take turn about to do and to delegate as widely as possible the media stuff so that the coalition doesn’t become seen as one or two people.

Naming, blaming and shaming

Liz:  Tell us a little bit about the experience of the talks, I know the more recent stuff will be more current in your head but maybe thinking back to the beginnings?

Monica:  The beginning was incredible. I mean the first day was intense — it was a very historic occasion. The world’s media were there and incredible crowds of people. We were walking into this room which had a negotiating table in it and we sat down, Pearl and I and the three women who were our negotiators sitting behind us. I looked around and we were the only women in the room. We had been confirmed in everything we had thought the whole way through because all the other parties had said that of course they were going to be putting women in their negotiating teams, but when it came to the crunch they didn’t. So we were the only two women at the negotiating table. That was something. For me it was historical. After all the work that women had done over the 25 years we had created a space for them to have their voices heard at the table.

It’s been sexist and sectarian. We are the double other and we are confusing as the other because we are coming from different back­grounds — we are not them as they see it. So we have become a target of their abuse. They threaten us, stand and shout at us, they prevent us from having our emergency motions heard. Whenever I’m speaking I have to make sure that the chairman calls order because I can’t hear myself talking. They even comment on what we’re wearing, if we’re not wearing skirts and are wearing trousers. We’ve invaded their space, space that they feel belonged to them. We frighten them. They say this is radical, because when we feel that something’s wrong we go out and shame them. We blame them and we name them and they’ve never had this done to them before. So they accuse us of running to the media all the time, but since there’s no sanction on their behaviour internally and since they’re not prepared to restrain themselves inside the place we’ve decided that the only sanction we have is to publicly expose them and we will do that at every stage of the process.

That has never happened to them before and what they’ve tried to do is intimidate us and silence us in the usual bellowing fashion and we’ve stood up to that because if we had allowed that to happen at the very early stages then they would have got their way. Now it’s been extremely difficult for us and in a sense quite dangerous for Pearl as a loyalist woman because we voted against the Union Jack because they inserted a rule which should never have been there. We succeeded in getting the Secretary of State to make them take the rule out so they then had a motion and got their Union Jack up inside the chamber itself. The reason why we took that stand was because this was a private building. We have a Flags and Emblems Act in Northern Ireland which opposes any flags or any emblems being hung in any workplaces, or in any buildings that would make it uncomfortable for a member of the other community, and it was under that piece of legislation that we were advocating that they not put up a flag and that we keep this a comfort­able space. At one stage they were actually proposing that we each individually carry in a Union Jack and put it in front of our seats! One day they argued for an hour over the word ‘may’ fly, or ‘shall’ fly. I got up and started shouting at them saying, ‘you people are really unbelievable that you’ve caught yourself in this trap of ‘may’ or ‘shall’ when the country is coming down round us’. Robinson jumped up and said how dare I call him ‘you people’ and would I address him in the proper fashion to which they were accustomed. I then said ‘the fine members of this forum’ because I really thought he was going to hit me.

It’s been rough treatment. I’ve had fingers poked at me, pushed up against a wall, but we’ve stuck it and we will stick it, and believe me, Liz, we’ve succeeded in getting them now to stop all of that in terms of the physical stuff. Verbally they are still at it and will be but what we’ve now done is quoted a lot of this stuff. It’s all recorded publicly at the forum in a Hansard, so we extract every week from the Hansard and quote it in different places. We’ve got an insult of the week notice board up at the inner offices and we just write down everything with the date. So what we’re doing is letting them know they are under surveillance. That’s the tactic that we’ll continue to do. The press all know that we’re doing this too.

Keeping up the momentum

Liz:  What do you think the future looks like?

Monica:  We’ll be staying together for at least the next two years because the talks will go on for two years. So the Coalition will be in place in terms of the talks. We will stand in the local elections and that’s where we could do well because it’s proportional representation. We will be putting up candidates for the general election but know we won’t do well because it’s going to be a bitter election. But we will put up three candidates to continue to get across our message and highlight the lack of women in politics. Also to get across our policies on domestic violence, on equal pay, on the issues that we feel very strongly about and that no one has bothered to raise. So we’ll continue on all of those fronts but it’s going to be difficult. We’re going to have to get a lot of money together again because this is now a deposit election where we have to put up money and we’re going to have to get an awful lot of money together just to keep that campaign going. But we will do it because we have to.

Liz:  I’m sure you will. Talk about how you’ve taken what’s going on in the talks back out to women and how you’ve been building the coalition in terms of its life outside the talks?

Monica:  Let me tell you how it works. On the last Saturday of every month we hold a public open meeting which is actually a coalition meeting but we make it known that we welcome any woman who wishes to attend. Occasionally men have attended as journalists and we ask them to declare what they are there for and when they’ve got their bits down we ask them to leave, or if there are women journalists we ask are women comfortable and they can either stay or go. We are so open that it could be a problem for us but so far we prefer to stay open. If there are problems we prefer to let other people see how we work them out. We rotate those meetings across Northern Ireland, so they are not always in Belfast. We try to ensure that there’s disabled access, there’s always a creche and that every woman has transport to the meetings. Those are quite well attended, big meetings. In between we have team meetings and they are held in peoples houses.

Then we have consultative conferences that we hold every three months which are big public open conferences that everyone is free to attend and everybody gets their lunch. One was in Belfast and one has been down in the middle of Northern Ireland in Dungannon. The first one was on confidence building measures, to let everybody know what was going on at the talks, confidence building around prisoners issues, negotiations and we had somebody from South Africa speaking. The last one was on decision making so we had somebody from Zero Toler­ance and somebody speaking on women in the mainstream and what we needed to do. We have made a point of ensuring that they are not coalition member only meetings, that they are meetings for other women from outside of the coalition as well as from other parties. We also have a newsletter that we send to everybody who is a member as well as to anybody that’s made contact with us and has written their name on a sheet of paper. Every week we do a mailing on something.

On International Women’s Day we all went down to Harryville in Balymena. There’s been a huge picket on a church down there, the Orange Order have been picketing a church for 26 weeks preventing people from attending the church and the women down there asked if we would come down and give them some support. We’re doing that and we’re also doing the Roisin McAliskey protest as well. Those decisions were all taken through open meetings with women speaking for and against.

What we try to do as much as possible is to do outreach, to disseminate our decisions when they are taken to others who haven’t been at the meetings, and to ensure that the meeting itself has as many opinions about what we’re doing, so that no woman feels in a dangerous or vulnerable position when she leaves the meeting that she could be attacked afterwards for having taken a decision that other people would disagree with or that she feels she couldn’t go back into her community and live with. Those are the kinds of reasons why we take the decisions we take.

Making compromise a virtue

Liz:  We both know that the women’s movement is often fraught with conflict, but that we find it difficult to openly disagree with one another, and then continue working together. How have you managed to build this atmosphere that enables this?

Monica:  That’s a good question. I know that it’s something that burns people out. So far I think it is because women feel there’s a space where they can really make their voices heard. But when you get a different viewpoint coming in there’s a listening going on and maybe that’s because we have worked out of such a terrible struggle and because it’s been dangerous for us not to listen. Women know what happens when there’s too much grandstanding and so there’s a preparedness there that this thing has to work. Also I think it’s facilitated by the process. I think if decisions were taken that people felt they hadn’t been involved in then maybe there would be an awful lot of ill feeling. It’s also because there’s such honesty. Some of it is so honest and so blunt that it goes right to the jugular but that’s not a bad thing because it then means the person has said it and we’ve got to work out of that position towards a position in which that person may end up saying well I can agree with that but I couldn’t have agreed with what we started out with. That’s why we end up with compromise. Compromise sounds like a terrible bloody word, in Northern Ireland people are told not to use it because it’s seen as such an extreme word, can you believe that. We try and use the word accommodation. For us it’s the most difficult thing to arrive at but we’re determined when we get there that it’s some­thing that people actually do feel comfortable around.

Liz:  Can you give an example that would illustrate this happening?

Monica:  The issue on the flag is a perfect example, we chose not to insult anybody’s culture, but we said it was because of attempts to create that as a neutral space that we were taking this stand on the flag. Had it been a public building in Northern Ireland the Union Jack flies in public buildings, but you are not allowed to have flags in private buildings. So that’s a perfect example. The Roisin McAliskey case is another, where because of her particular mother’s name that was a real difficulty for some women who were coming out of a more Unionist tradition, because Bernadette was not just Republican but she was perceived to be anti-ceasefire. That was a difficulty for women because of her background. But we said look forget the background, forget the name, this is a human rights issue, this is about a woman who’s pregnant, this is about prison conditions, this is about health and human rights issues. Since we opposed strip searching all those years ago we can take a stand on this from the Coalition’s viewpoint. There was debate over that but in the end women were resolved that was the right thing to do, that we needed to make a strong statement and we made it before the bandwagon was created.

Creating credibility

Liz:  When we talked last year you mentioned opposition from women in other parties to the idea of the Coalition. I get a sense that some of that has shifted?

Monica:  It has, it has. There was some opposition from Republican women at the very start. Interestingly not from Sinn Fein but from women who would have seen themselves as Republican sympathisers of Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein have been quite supportive because they argued that since we took the principle of inclusion then they supported that, but also they think it’s a good thing to have more women in politics. In fact the day that we walked into the talks we had a letter in our hands that we walked out to the gate and gave to Sinn Fein letting them know that we had asked for them to come inside.

There was some antipathy towards us from the Republican women at first. They press released a protest without actually calling a meeting with us. We discovered afterwards that a couple of people whose names were on the press release hadn’t even been asked to sign it and were furious. But all of that has gone and the antipathy has gone because they now realise that we have been the brunt of sectarianism and in some senses have acknowledged the stand that we have had to take which has been a fairly tough stand. I think they were worried that we were only going to take a stand on women’s issues and not stand on constitutional issues. We said from the very start how dare anybody be so patronising to think, first, that women’s issues weren’t constitutional issues and secondly that we wouldn’t have a strong say on anything like police reform, prisoners, and the list of things like that. We said look we have policy statements on every one of these things and by the way when we say reform the police we say reform the criminal justice system of which the police is only one part, we want the whole criminal justice system to be reformed. We have produced papers to that effect. They obviously had not read any of our documents. Now that has changed a bit.

The other parties, the mainstream parties, had their noses put out of joint. The Unionist party was totally opposed to positive action and said that women would get there in their own right, (they’ve done such a good job that they have one woman out of 35 men). The SDLP argued that we were opportunistic and that we had engaged in a cult factor and when it grows in on itself it becomes unhealthy. They began to change their views a bit but because an election has started they are actually going out saying don’t vote for the Women’s Coalition they are single issue and don’t have a stand on the constitution. They do us down again because we are entering an election. I’ve been on TV that much that people now know that we have stands on everything, that we’re not one of these that say we don’t know the answer to that.

Liz:  It sounds like the women in the Coalition are fantastic!

Monica:  They are just wonderful. Every time you turn around somebody’s got a press statement, a policy statement, a speech, they’ve got ready for you. There’s a terrific team atmosphere in the place. The women who are quietly working in the background are the strategists who don’t seek media attention, who people don’t even know belong to the Coalition and yet have probably taken the most important roles. For some there is the difficulty that because the Coalition is seen as a political group they can’t publicly let it be known that they belong because their jobs would be in jeopardy, or because their centres wouldn’t get any money, the women’s centres in particular. Councillors have threatened to close down the centres if they find out that any single one of them has been involved with the Coalition. They can’t do it publicly so they do it privately either through financial donations or by writing speeches or by giving us whatever support they can, and they’ve been brilliant.

Liz:  For me it’s an example of just what women can do if they set their minds to it.

Monica:  Oh absolutely, absolutely right Liz. We never thought that we would be where we are and it has made such a difference to politics here. People say they’ll never behave like that again because we’ve exposed the culture and the TV keeps repeating the ritual humiliation of me and Pearl and people say look, that’s working because if they are doing that to women what must they have been doing over the years to the political negotiations. As I said we never stood for election simply to be humiliated but if that is an outcome of exposing ‘men behaving badly’ then so be it. The other thing that I think is beginning to change is that they now realise that we are serious players here and that every strategy that we’ve engaged in has been so effective that they are now becoming quite intimidated by us.

Yesterday for instance at the Talks after my speech Ian Paisley berated me for one hour, the guts of which was that he was going to ensure at the end of the day that his people would breed for Ulster, so that they could outbreed the likes of me and others. Everybody just nearly died and the tension was broken with the quick witted remark: ‘that puts a fast breeding reactor into perspective’!

Last week we walked out in protest, we just picked up our books and walked out. We had been promised that our Emergency Motion would be heard, we’d asked for the suspension of one of the committees on the grounds of corruption and Paisley got to the chair and said ‘if you dare let those women speak’ and the Chair gave into him. So they wouldn’t let me speak, I had to get up three times on a point of order and remind him that he wasn’t sticking to the rules. When he refused to hear me Pearl and I picked up our stuff and walked out and went straight to the press and told them what we thought of what had happened.

Liz:  Has the Coalition had lots of links with other women’s organisations internationally?

Monica:  Slowly but surely we have, we’re building those up. We’ve got some links with German women’s groups and links with groups in the States. I’m going to the States on Tuesday but it’s mainly to raise funds. We’ve been invited to the White House and the American Consulate here is paying because we couldn’t afford to go. We decided we would try and raise some money amongst various groups there. The following two weeks I’m going to Boston to do the same. We really don’t have any money. Now because the talks are in recess we don’t get any administrative costs, so any money that we were getting from the talks process has all gone now. We have to fund raise to contest the general and local elections — so it’s back out on the streets again.

Liz:  It is difficult to imagine doing something similar in England, Scotland and Wales without proportional representation, but do you think that as a political strategy it’s a good thing for women to do?

Monica:  Absolutely and don’t let anybody start putting you down, because it’s separatist and it’s single issue and nobody will be interested in you. It was really important. Our time was right, one of those times when there was a window of opportunity, we couldn’t have forgiven our­selves if we had let it go by. As one of the lobbyists, advocates and researchers I know those are really important strategies but direct action should never be set aside when it’s offered to you. What we did was take it on board and use it alongside lobbying and alongside the tactic of producing the research and the facts and figures. I think that’s the thing that was such a threat, and it still is to the other parties. We could have waited around and they would have solved the Irish question before they would have resolved any attempts to be more inclusive of women!

Liz:  What have you personally have gained most from this chain of events that wasn’t what you anticipated in your life?

Monica:  Well it’s certainly been risk taking. I’ve learnt how to experience a kind of public humiliation and yet believe that I can turn that around. I now no longer feel fear in the way that I did. I felt terrible fear at the start. These guys were real bullies and I have to say they really did get to me. I did lose sleep and I ended up in despair at times. Remember it was also Drum­cree. Now I am a much stronger woman, but that’s because I’ve had to put myself in there and just get a skin and get a support system around me to ensure that when they started attacking me that I had women round me. I’ve learnt a lot of skills I suppose. But there are days when I ask myself what am I doing here. So there’s been elements of ups and downs, joys and pain. Just finding time for everybody. Finding time for the kids. The usual things that women experience trying to be everywhere at once. But I’m really glad I did it. I’m really glad I did it because I’ve learned a lot and I suppose I’m now facing a bit of a crisis in the sense that my year is almost up and I have got to work hard now deciding whether I go on for another year or whether I stand down and go back to the University.

Liz:  Has the Coalition been a route for women to discover feminism?

Monica:  Absolutely. There’s no question about that at all. Some of the women would have had difficulty owning that label at the start but they are much more comfortable with it now. Working class women in Northern Ireland in particular would have found that a difficult label, and even middle class women. It does cross class that antipathy that existed in more conservative society towards feminism. But they wouldn’t have a difficulty with it now. There are women, but they would be small in number, who would still not be prepared to say I’m a feminist but the vast majority of the women in the Coalition are there because they believe in feminism.

The 1996 elections were for both the Peace Talks and the Peace Forum. The first ten parties in the poll would be elected; three people from the large parties and two from the smaller ones are allowed to sit at the negotiating table for the Peace Talks. Sinn Fein have been excluded from the outset, the grounds being that the IRA ceasefire broke down. The small parties linked to Loyalist paramilitary groups have taken part, since their ceasefire held (although it too has broken in 1997). The two elected women from the Coalition are the only women at the table. The Talks are in session four days each week.

About 115 were elected to the Forum, which meets every Friday and is akin to mini parliament. Sinn Fein did not take their seats on June 15th 1996, and the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party — the other nationalist party) walked out after Drumcree — the stand-off in relation to one of the protestant marching band marches in the summer of 1996. The Women’s Coalition continues to attend the Forum.

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