In anticipation of the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the individuals and groups who were imperative to its development are sure to be eulogised by writers, academics, and others. Among those parties involved, it is the lasting legacies of the women- whose roles were vital to the Agreement- that this piece will focus on, celebrating their participation in bringing such a monumental political development into fruition.
From Secretary of State Mo Mowlam to the members of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, those who made a mark on the canon of this country by helping to shape and facilitate not just the Good Friday Agreement, but the country’s greater peacebuilding efforts, should be rightfully accredited as helping to establish a tradition of protest and progress among our state’s women- getting on with things long before the men decided to.
So what does this tradition entail? Moving past the peace process and into 2018, how do the legacies of these women transition into modern day activism? In the time that has passed since April 1998, the superficial face of Northern Ireland has found itself changing rapidly, ushering out an era of violence and fear in favour of TV tourism and boutique hotels. While the physical landscape of Belfast city centre begins to closely resemble that of cities like Liverpool or Glasgow, some things haven’t quite changed. Women here still find ourselves trying to “wave goodbye to dinosaurs”, more than two decades after the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition first did.
For a start, the dinosaurs are slightly different now. The NIWC’s main objective was to provide women with a seat at the table; they “believed that women had particular experiences and insights which could help to move the process forward”. Hypothesising that our current table isn’t broken and non-functioning, the number of female elected representatives today remains far lower than that of their male counterparts. Some may point to the sex of the three leaders of some of our largest parties (the DUP, Sinn Fein, and the Alliance Party) to dispel the need for further inclusion, yet Northern Ireland finds itself without a scheme like 50:50 Parliament in Westminster, and Women 50:50 in Scotland. Only the Green Party in Northern Ireland have expressed commitment to 50/50 representation. Nevertheless, the issue of political representation in Northern Ireland is perhaps not as pressing as it was in 1998 when the Agreement made provisions for “the right of women to full and equal political participation”. In 2018, we ask- what use is a seat at the table if it won’t enact positive progress for this country’s women?
For activists today, perhaps the most glaring example of stagnant progress on women’s issues is Northern Ireland’s lack of abortion reform. Northern Ireland limits abortion access to cases wherein it is vital to “preserve the life of the woman”, according to Marie Stopes, who closed their Belfast clinic in December of 2017. CEDAW, the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, outlines this severe restriction as a systematic violation of human rights. If the referendum in the Republic of Ireland to repeal the 8th Amendment is to pass in May this year, Northern Ireland will be one of two states (alongside the Isle of Man) within the United Kingdom and Ireland where women cannot access free, safe, and legal abortion care. This will have obvious implications on the Agreement’s provisions for citizenship, meaning that Irish and British women living in Northern Ireland will not have equal access to healthcare as their counterparts in either Dundalk or Dundee.
Groups like Alliance For Choice approach this issue of abortion reform in the tradition of non-sectarian and indiscriminate activism among women, and reflect the true spirit of protest that has cultivated from years of inequality. The NIWC’s Monica McWilliams once said that she and others involved in the Women’s Coalition were “accidental activists”; women who adapted to the changing situation around them- something recognisable within the current wave of young women turning to activism. It might be the case where someone’s first engagements with an issue come in the form of liking a tweet or an Instagram post, and from there becoming more involved with the movement, armed with a smartphone instead of a megaphone. This kind of activism has fallen foul from sneering voices who think of it as slacktivism, or simply an attempt to be trendy and commodify an issue. Some even suggest that this kind of activism runs the risk of over-representing support for a cause. Attitudes like these dismiss the power of grassroots campaigns in mobilising anyone- any ordinary woman- who feels frustrated with a lack of progress, peace, or justice, in 1998 or in 2018. The issues may change, but the power of frustrated women to conduct change does not.
As we approach next month’s anniversary, I hope the contributions of the women who ensured our seat at the table are recognised in others’ writings, and that we as activists can continue in their tradition by pulling up a chair for new activists to become not-so-accidental, empowering them to help us wave away the remaining dinosaurs together.
Rebecca is a postgraduate student at Ulster University, studying Communication and Public Relations. She enjoys writing about pop culture, LGBT rights, and feminism. You can follow her on Twitter - @vodkarebtools