Lasting peace in Northern Ireland will not be achieved if women are not fully involved in the prolonged task of post-conflict reconstruction. The importance of women's full and equal participation has been described elsewhere. This article provides an insight into one of the attempts being made to listen to and put forward the voices of women today. The Women's Resource and Development Agency (WRDA), the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland and the National Women's Council of Ireland are partners in a project called Women and Peacebuilding: Sharing the Learning. The project aims to capture the experiences of women who lived through the conflict and through the subsequent period of conflict resolution and peacebuilding. Over the last two years, over six hundred women have been brought together on a cross community and cross border basis from Northern Ireland and the Southern border areas and have engaged in facilitated discussions. The following areas have been addressed: violence; personal safety and security; decision-making and representation; women and social justice; women and institutional change; women and the legacies of the past.
In September, Dr. Richard Haass and Professor Meghan O'Sullivan were invited by the First Minister and Deputy to co-chair all-party talks “to consider parades and protests; flags, symbols and emblems and related matters; and the past”. This was extremely fortuitous and added an additional timeliness to the Women and Peace Building Project, leading to an unprecedented interest from women across the region. In October 2013, more than two hundred grassroots women attended an event in Belfast ‘Women: Dealing with the Past'. More recently, over a hundred women attended a follow up event on Saturday 1st March, ‘Haass – O'Sullivan Talks: What do Women Think?'
The Haass/O'Sullivan talks failed to reach an agreement by the deadline of December 2013, and efforts since then have stalled amidst the On the Run crisis concerning individuals suspected of crimes committed during the conflict. However, it remains important that WRDA and the Community Foundation used the opportunity of Haass – O'Sullivan to publicise the currently silenced views of women. In October 2013, Dr Megan O'Sullivan convened a meeting with representatives from women's organisations, and the WRDA was able to inform her of key issues raised by participants involved with the project. An overview of these are outlined below. For the full reports, see the WRDA website.
In Northern Ireland the months of April to August are often referred to as the ‘Marching Season', with most marches concentrated in the July period. While some marches remain contentious, recently it has been the ‘flag protests' that have grabbed the media headlines. In December 2012, Belfast City Council voted to limit the days the union flag flies from City Hall. Prior to this the Union flag flew from City Hall every day of the year. Since December 2013 ‘flag protests' held by Ulster loyalists have been a common occurrence on the streets of Belfast (see Anne McVicker's account of a confrontation with protesters at this year's International Women's Day).
Some of the women involved in the ‘Women and Peacebuilding Project' and living in Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist (PUL) areas saw the Belfast City Hall flag issue as a direct attack on their culture. In some areas the street protests are organised by the community and women claim to have been at the forefront of these. The women said their “cultural identity” was continually under threat and while nationalist culture was becoming more mainstream, Protestant/Unionist culture was being pushed to the sidelines. For some women it was necessary that they were part of the protests to keep an eye on their children. Participation in the ‘marching bands' in some PUL areas was seen as a positive alternative to paramilitary involvement for young boys. Paramilitarism and drugs are forbidden in the bands and for the women in these communities they provided “safe spaces” for young boys in the communities. They perceived this “safe space” for the boys as threatened when the bands paraded during marching season last summer and came under attack from people living in Nationalist/Republican areas.
For many participants from all areas and communities, the protests pose a serious and unwelcome disruption to everyday life. They disrupt normal routines such as bringing children to school, attending hospital appointments etc. They pose particular problems in interface areas between communities. There is a palpable rise in anxiety levels in areas were protests have taken place and in many ‘mixed' areas reasonably good community relations have been damaged. There is a real fear that tensions will escalate. In some communities women are withdrawing from cross-community activity due to rising tensions and fear.
Overall there was a consensus amongst the women that the crux of the flag protest is “fear of losing identity”. Some participants believed that the protests were orchestrated by people holding power in paramilitary organisations. The women were being sucked into the protests by male partners and had little choice but to take part. Intimidation within many communities persists.
While communities may seem to be at peace, this is often superficial. Participants spoke of how the underlying sectarianism in some areas has been exposed since the flag protests began. For some it is more difficult to move through the City of Belfast than during the period of the ‘Troubles'. Peace Walls persist and while for some people they enhance safety, for others the existence of the Peace Walls consolidates a culture of “them and us”. What are categorised as “neutral areas” to some, are “no-go areas” for others. There is still an apprehension of walking in “other” areas for fear of being identified as Catholic or Protestant.In rural areas interfaces are less visible but still loom large in the lives of residents. Essentially, segregation permeates much of life in Northern Ireland and the unsolved legacy issues have exacerbated segregation and destabilised mixed communities.
Thus far the Haass/O'Sullivan negotiations have not delivered for the people of Northern Ireland. Still, there is no consensus on how we should deal with the past and legacy issues of the conflict. It is also evident from listening to the women who attended the discussion workshops that peacebuilding is perceived as male territory and they believe they are excluded from these important discussions. A clear message from the views of women gathered during this ‘Women and Peacebuilding' project conducted over the past two years is that women have been and continue to be directly impacted by these issues. They are frustrated at their exclusion and they want to speak and be heard.
The final part of this project will involve developing a toolkit on ‘Women and Peacebuilding'. The toolkit will focus on effecting institutional change in Northern Ireland using a UN 1325 framework. It will be aimed at key statutory stakeholders in the domestic context and in the Republic of Ireland. It is crucial that we continue to challenge the status quo and the predominance of male voices and views in our conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction. We must carve out a space for women, to ensure their voices and experiences fully inform the peace process in Northern Ireland.