By Rebecca Turkington
On Tuesday, Northern Irish Assembly leaders announced a deal that ended weeks of political crisis. Titled “A Fresh Start,” the agreement is the latest in a number of cross-party negotiations since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement established a power-sharing arrangement between unionist and nationalist parties at Stormont, the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The Good Friday Agreement brought an end to decades of armed conflict in Northern Ireland, and dealt with a wide range of social and political issues, from the decommissioning of weapons to the creation of new political institutions to equality and human rights. However, in each negotiation since 1998, the space for issues of human rights and reconciliation has grown incrementally smaller. The Stormont House Agreement of January 2015 relegated all mentions of equality, tolerance, social inclusion and reconciliation to one paragraph in a section on ‘outstanding commitments.’ Last week’s deal – intended to spur implementation of the Stormont Agreement – faced criticism for tabling critical legacy issues and failing to deal with the past.
The prominence given to equality and inclusion in the Good Friday Agreement was, in large measure, due to the impact of women in the peace negotiations of 1996-1998. Women civil society leaders, who had long worked across the Catholic and Protestant community divide, took advantage of a change in the electoral law that allowed smaller political parties, including their own, to win a seat at the peace talks through a regional list. The recent study from the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, entitled “Women Leading Peace,” traces the creation of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC), and its influence on the process and language of the Agreement. The NIWC had a diverse constituency, and focused on “bread and butter” issues facing women in both communities, rather than taking a position on the constitutional question of Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. They insisted on the inclusion of integrated education, women’s participation in public life, victims’ rights, and the creation of a Civic Forum that would ensure continued input from civil society. All these interventions were steps towards a more inclusive society and a more sustainable peace.
Since 1998, avenues for civil society voices – and the diverse agenda they bring – have narrowed. One of the greatest regrets of women who participated in the Good Friday process was their failure to permanently change the electoral system. The regional ‘top-up’ list that had allowed the NIWC to challenge larger parties was scrapped after the 1996 elections. Northern Ireland’s electoral system entrenches sectarian voting, with shrinking political space for cross-community parties. Members of the Legislative Assembly are mandated to self-identify as “unionist,” “nationalist” or “other,” and certain issues cannot pass without a supermajority based on these designations. In 2002, the United Kingdom suspended the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, and with it the Civic Forum. But when devolved powers were reinstated in 2007, the Civic Forum was not, and has since remained dormant.
Input from women in civil society has a profound impact on what peace agreements look like and how successfully they are implemented. “Women Leading Peace” shows that it is not only important that women are included in peace processes, but also which women are included. Women from civil society with deep community roots may bring a different set of issues to the table than women acting on behalf of major political parties. They may also serve an essential bridging role between sectarian divides. In Northern Ireland, the NIWC was able to act as an honest broker between parties, and their commitment to inclusion meant they were willing to reach across political divides and maintain contact with parties who were suspended from the Talks due to ceasefire breaches. Irish Minister of State Liz O’Donnell recalled the NIWC “were trusted intermediaries in many ways… they were very much part of the consultative process,” particularly when officials needed a back channel to gauge positions of opposing parties.
Northern Irish politics today badly needs these brokers. Without larger structural changes that allow for a greater diversity of voices in Stormont, particularly voices of women in civil society, “A Fresh Start” will only delay inevitable political stalemate down the road. A truly sustainable and transformative peace requires meaningful civil society participation in the drafting and implementation of all agreements.