Northern Ireland: The importance of women & the grass roots in creating recipes for endurable peace Print E-mail

Sunday Magazine ~~ June 17 2007


Recipe for peace

Northern Ireland is an example of how ordinary women and men can make a difference to changing entrenched prejudices.

Starting anew: The first sitting of the new Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont Parliament Building in Belfast on May 8, 2007. Photo: AP

WAR always makes it to the front pages of newspapers. Peace also does, when there is a political agreement and warring groups come together. But once the fact of peace is established, the story is over, at least for the media. Unless, of course, the peace breaks down. But what preceded the peace and what is needed to sustain it, is not the stuff of which headlines, or even lead stories are made.

Amazing turnaround
On May 8, 2007, newspapers around the world carried an amazing photograph, that of two men who led the decades old conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland sitting together and smiling. Leaders of the Sinn Fein and the Unionists Party are now in government, together. This has happened less than a decade after the Good Friday agreement of 1998 for power sharing that went through many hiccups and often appeared on the verge of breaking down. Yet, a political solution for the virtually intractable problem of Northern Ireland has been found. It is the result not just of political negotiations at the top but because of pressure from below, a demand for peace from civil society groups on both sides of the sectarian divide led by very ordinary women. The agreement, and the run-up to it, sets out an encouraging precedent and example for dozens of other such conflicts around the world, not least on our subcontinent.

In 2003, on a brief visit to Northern Ireland I saw first-hand how the memory of history works against efforts to build peace. In Belfast, high walls, ironically called “peace” lines, still separate Catholics and Protestants. During “the Troubles”, as the years of bloody sectarian wars are called, these walls were a challenge to youth on either side to hurl fire bombs at their “enemy”. Yet even as the first tentative steps towards peace were being taken, these walls remained, as did the suspicion and hatred nurtured over decades of conflict. It will take some time before real “peace” lines substitute these brick and mortar walls. But an important step has been taken in that direction.

This build up leading to the May 8 agreement in Northern Ireland was one of the subjects discussed at a remarkable gathering at Galway in the Republic of Ireland from May 29-31. The conference was organised by the Nobel Women’s Initiative, a group of women who have received the Nobel Peace Prize, women like Shirin Ebadi from Iran, Wangari Mathai from Kenya and Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire from Northern Ireland. Over 80 women from all over the world met to share experiences of peace building and to explore what more could be done in a world where war remains an abiding motif for conflict settlement.

Coalition of women

One of the women from Northern Ireland who has been instrumental in the peace-building process is Anne Carr. As a Protestant teenager growing up in the deeply divided Northern Ireland capital of Belfast in the 1970s, she did the unthinkable by marrying a Catholic. If you married into the “other side”, you were virtually an outcaste. But she and other women, part of a larger coalition of peace builders called Women Together, worked to create mixed educational institutions and provided many opportunities for dialogue between ordinary people from the two warring sides. Around five years ago, several of these women formed a Women’s Coalition and contested the elections. They were successful in attracting the vote of thousands of men and women who did not want to vote “tribally”, as a member of the Coalition told me in Northern Ireland in 2003. They were able to provide an alternative agenda centred on human rights. Anne Carr was one of those elected.

Emotional speech
Speaking at the conference, Ms. Carr spoke about peace in Northern Ireland. She said:

“On May 8, 2007 our Northern Ireland devolved assembly met, inclusive of all our elected representatives, from the Democratic Unionist Party to Sinn Féin, to inaugurate a new political era. The 108 assembly members elected on March 8 sat down together, agreeing to share power and to work together for the good of all our people.

“And I for one had to pinch myself to see if I was really witnessing this with my own eyes.

“This was because what I was witnessing was not begrudging, dismissive, demonising behaviour and body language from previous arch-enemies in the staunch Unionist and Republican camps, but eye contact, smiles, laughter and good-humoured banter.

“For me the for-so-long-impossible had happened ­ and tears trickled down my cheeks.

“After the death of over 3,600 people and injuries to tens of thousands more, after all the pain and all the false dawns ­ something new and special was emerging. A seemingly unsolvable centuries-old conflict in Ireland was coming to an end and an acknowledgement that whatever our different and just aspirations, politics rather than violence was the way forward and compromises had to be made. Even the reporters present admitted that this ‘good news story’ left them almost unable to believe their eyes.”

Important lessons
Northern Ireland holds out several important lessons for conflict resolution. The principal one is the importance of building a constituency of peace. After the Good Friday agreement, despite the problems of arriving at a final settlement, it is this constituency that pushed for a lasting peace. Second, it illustrates how very ordinary people, without special qualifications, can play a crucial role in nurturing this constituency of peace. The women who were part of Women Together, including the two Nobel laureates, exemplified this. And thirdly, that the political establishment must be willing to demonstrate innovation and flexibility in face of such grassroots demands for peace. It is a combination of these elements that makes for an endurable recipe for peace.