July 15, 2020

Peace-makers, keepers, and builders: Women and the politics of conflict

There are many stories, some successful, most not so, about the role women have played in politics worldwide. From Rwanda, the first country in the world to achieve gender equality in elected representation, to the United States where not one woman has been elected as President, the story of women in politics is a sad reflection of a society which still treats women’s success as novel and lack of success as understandable, even acceptable!

Few would deny there is a difference between the culture, attitude, and approach to politics adopted my men and women in the modern world. The best and most current example is the marked difference between the handling of the coronavirus pandemic by men and women leaders in the Western world. The success rate in controlling the virus speaks for itself.

There have been notable women leaders, which will remain nameless for the sake of diplomacy, who, to coin a phrase, pull the ladder up behind them. Our story is different. The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC), of which I was a founding member, was the first women’s political party ever to achieve elected representation. We used our collective power to help others climb the ladder and change the face of male-dominated politics in Northern Ireland after 30 years of conflict.

Northern Ireland in the early 1990s was preparing for peace negotiations to end the sectarian conflict which had torn communities apart for thirty years. These were dangerous times in our sorry history. With more than 3,000 people killed during years of bombing, shooting, and rioting on city streets and rural villages, politics was “no place for a woman”. We were told this many times when we set up the NIWC in 1996. Critics often told us to “get back to the kitchen”. “A woman’s place is in the home not the House” was the popular jibe.

Undeterred, we adopted a completely new cross-community approach. Our three driving principles were equality, inclusion, and human rights and we crossed the divide in every direction. We were British, Irish, Catholic, Protestant, Unionist, Nationalist, and other identities. We also had male members. I firmly believe we would not have won our seats without the male vote.

With six weeks to go before the start of the peace negotiations, we stood for election, became the ninth political party in Northern Ireland, and got two women elected to the peace talks.

Our role in those talks was as go-between, pushing for an economic and social way forward alongside the justice and security issues surrounding decommissioning of weapons, prisoner release, and police reform. Our success was the introduction of the notion of equality as a concept wider than political aspiration, the encouragement of integrated education between Catholic and Protestant children, and the need to take the interests of victims into account in the forthcoming peace process.

This led to the Good Friday Agreement two years later and the setting up of the new Northern Ireland power-sharing Assembly in 1998.

The NIWC disbanded in 2006 after 10 years having successfully completed its mission of contributing to peace to the region. Its legacy is one of the value of women bringing a new and different dimension to conflict resolution and peace negotiations the world over. This is reflected in the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 stressing the importance of women in peace-building before, during, and after conflict.

In conflict resolution three roles are needed the achieve peace, and women play a key part in each. Solving conflict requires peace-makers, mainly diplomats and politicians negotiating deals, peace-keepers, the forces of law and order, armed and unarmed, and peace-builders, civil society activists, including women and youth.

In all three cases, gender equality should be positively encouraged and the ‘soft’ skills mainly deployed by women should be of equal value to the ‘hard’ skills over which men for centuries have the monopoly.

By Jane Morrice, Member of the WIIS Brussels Advisory Committee and former Deputy Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, former Head of the European Commission Office in Northern Ireland and former reporter for BBC Belfast

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Jane Morrice

Jane Morrice

WIIS Advisory Board member

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