© Jan 2001
Monica McWilliams1. How did you first get into politics?
I have been involved in informal politics since the mid 70s, in particular around the woman's rights movement. The Sex Discrimination Act was not going to be extended to Northern Ireland so several people got together to lobby very hard for that. As a result we opened the first women's centre in Belfast. I was a University lecturer and developing access courses for women returners. These were accredited and enabled the women to come in to do undergraduate degrees. I also developed a Masters degree in Women's Studies at the same time.
I was then commissioned by the Government to do a large piece of research on domestic violence. This became one of the first policies on domestic violence in the UK. In fact, it's the only one that still exists. We then set up a task force, which became very active implementing the recommendations of the research. I felt that much of the work we did - developing and implementing policy - was political and pushing forward the agenda.
Then in 1996 the opportunity came for the Peace negotiations, the Multi-party talks that led to the (Belfast) Good Friday Agreement. After 25 years' experience of working in the community and with women's groups, we decided it would be important if some women were at the negotiating table. We called meetings across the country and asked women whether we should form a women's coalition to put pressure on the other parties to increase the number of women. When the majority of other parties didn't respond to us, nor even consider this an issue, we decided to do it ourselves. We formed our own party and stood for election 6 weeks before the election - which was pretty tight. Six weeks later we got elected and won the right to have two representatives at the negotiating table.
I had not been in formal politics before then - not in representative politics. Northern Ireland had direct rule so we didn't have a government here. We did not really have any local Ministers so it was impossible to lobby or hold anyone accountable. We did that by holding meetings with the Ministers appointed to Northern Ireland, the Secretary of State and others. We had no mandate nor had we stood for election, but we became very effective politicians who knew the system backwards. We had to in order to get things done.
2. Are women in Northern Ireland politically very active?
Most of the women's activism is at grassroots level but the extent of women's involvement now is quite remarkable. Mainly as a result of the conflict, women decided to put their energies into civic society and became very politically active. They became agents of change, reaching out across the communities and doing work that had a common value to people on either side of the divide. They also did work on rape, domestic violence and reproductive rights, particularly around criminal justice and court cases. Many women felt politically homeless, that there was no party that represented them. So the coalition was of its time. Women wanted to find a cross-community party but one that also represented their interests as women.
3. Have you been able to influence thinking in the other parties?
At a practical level, women have carried out some phenomenal pieces of work but that did not have an impact on the Equal Opportunities thinking of the mainstream political parties. It is only now as a result of the coalition having come along and acted as a vanguard that the other parties are really beginning to pull up their socks. They realise that if we could get elected on the back of Equal Opportunities, then there is a message there that they were not doing something right. Now they are starting to talk about Equal Opportunities and promoting women in politics.
4. What impact did this have on the Assembly?
There was going to be an Equality Unit in the new Assembly as part of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister's Office. We were going to assert the right to see what work it was doing, putting stuff on the agenda and seeing what each department was going to do in relation to Equal Opportunities for women. So the potential was there to really change the place. The other parties were putting women forward as spokespersons, there was a woman deputy speaker, and it was good that two women were nominated as Ministers. In the Assembly itself, we introduced family-friendly policies, got a childcare allowance and we were demanding that women be on interview panels. They admit that that may never have happened had we not been around. But we have a long way to go. The attitudes towards us two as women is still incredibly traditional. This Assembly is a very conservative place.
5. How do you feel about the suspension of the Assembly?
I am disappointed but you have to put it into context: I have grown up here and seen the worst of thirty years of conflict. I believe it will work in the end because I think no-one has the appetite to go back to what we had. There is still a tendency for a lot of violence overnight by a small group whole piece of work being carried out on the women's agenda for the Northern Ireland Assembly. This was being undertaken jointly by the new Equality Commission and the NI women's committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. The institutional arrangements for Northern Ireland also include the establishment of a Civic Forum which will comprise representatives of the business and voluntary sector along with trade unions. It is expected that when the Civic Forum is set up, it will include as many women as men amongst its members. The proposal for the Civic Forum came directly from the Women's Coalition and reflected the high level of women's participation in civic society throughout the conflict.
7. What are your current priorities?
Constitutional issues and resolution of the Good Friday Agreement are number one because, in the end, that leads to more opportunities and resources to make progress on other priorities. If the conflict continues, then resources get redirected away. The area of women and health is a high priority. Northern Ireland has suffered high levels of deprivation, which has mainly impacted on women. We also want to see health policy focusing again on community development and the whole area of mental health. People here have not wanted to talk about the impact of the Troubles on their lives, or even the impact of domestic violence, but now that we have opened that up, we need to put the services in place that can deal with it. I think there is a kind of frozen watchfulness whenever there are high levels of violence but, when that starts to melt, you get people really wanting to talk and then they start having breakdowns and real periods of trauma.
We need resources at grassroots level in local communities where people can put the pieces together through personal development, then community and economic development, and eventually begin to take on leadership and even team roles themselves. I want women to be recognised as having economic independence because most of the policy attention here has been on getting men back to work. I think we now need to make sure that, in any future plans, women are considered equally alongside men in terms of employment and training opportunities.
8. How has it felt being a pioneer?
Not easy, but not impossible. We built a support structure along the way and I am working with the most fantastic group of women that ever existed. I would not be here it that was not the case. There is no denying the difficulties we face because it is on the television, it is on the corridors and in the meetings, so everybody is very aware of it.
9. Do you see yourself doing things differently as women?
A lot of people see the public part of what we do and are constantly asking why we are not on the television every day or in the press, but a lot of the work that is successfully done is done quietly behind the scenes. That is difficult for people to accept - that women do things differently in politics. Most women feel uncomfortable always having to come up with the public soundbites. Many of the civil servants and administrators comment on how efficient we are in getting all our submissions in and actually affecting policy, whereas the boys are out jumping up and down on the television and saying what they are going to do, but they do not actually follow it through. So we complete the tasks but people do not know that. It is a real dilemma. In many ways we should be doing both, but I find it difficult to run out there and get angry and shout out a soundbite.
10. I also believe that women often empower others but do not always get credit for this.
I agree, but that is still a better way because you are developing people who can carry on the work and pass the baton. Whereas the other way, if it all rests with you, you break a leg and the work is over. That's extremely important in the way that we organise, that is to pass that baton.
11. Can people find out more about the Women's Coalition?
We have written a book called 'Women's Work: the story of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition'. It is edited by Kate Fearon and published by Blackstaff. You can get copies either direct from the Women's Coalition, price £10, or from the publisher, price £11.99. It gives details of our background, what the other parties had to say about us, the impact of the Peace process and what we achieved in the negotiations. It ends with our election to the new Assembly. It describes our policies and is a very good, easy read. We have just recently set up our own website, which we intend to manage ourselves and which will be updated on a weekly basis, so it will be a good source of ongoing information. The address is www.niwc.org.
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