Monica McWilliams on women being erased from the history of the Northern peace process

The title of Monica McWilliam’s memoir on 50 Years of Activism is a response to a male politician telling her to sit down and shut up. It means “stand up, speak it out”.

He lived by those words. The 68-year-old from Derry helped shape the Good Friday Agreement as co-chair of the Women’s Coalition of Northern Ireland (NIWC), was the North’s chief human rights commissioner and has campaigned for peace promotion and the fight against poverty and domestic violence.

Speak with evaluation Ahead of International Women’s Day, she is proud of her legacy but frustrated that men are still at the center of discussions about the peace process.

“When we get the decades-old publication of historical records, it’s man after man, by men’s names,” she says. “And yes, Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair, John Hume, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, David Ervine, and others have done a good job … but nowhere is it mentioned that women put different things on the table.”

Former Minister Liz O’Donnell was “written out,” she says, and Mo Mowlam, the late Secretary of the North, seems better remembered for her swear words.

“This woman was phenomenal,” says McWilliams of Mowlam. “She was a breath of fresh air. How many men use swear words and nothing is said? There comes a woman who uses a few swear words and that’s all they remember about her.

“Martha Pope, US Senator George Mitchell’s chief of staff, was also attacked but survived. That happens to strong women in these processes.”

During the negotiations that led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the main focus was on governance arrangements, the release of prisoners and police reform. While important, the NIWC also wanted to address human rights and equality issues.

McWilliams, along with NIWC co-chair Pearl Sagar, pushed for the establishment of a citizens’ forum and stressed the need to recognize the impact of the conflict on victims.

They advocated community development, resources for young people, integrated education and community living, and women’s right to full and equal political participation.

“It’s all part of conflict resolution. We’ve been thinking about where people will be in 20 to 30 years and what they will do about the problems they face,” says McWilliams.

“We could have ended up with a conflict like in Bosnia if we didn’t have so many people on the ground trying to stabilize local communities.”

She says she was inspired “by what happened when I was a teenager” to advocate for change. In her words: “Northern Ireland exploded before my eyes.”

McWilliams says she knew the civil rights movement was made up of people like her who wanted “reasonable things” like the right to vote, decent housing and jobs. “I couldn’t understand why anyone would object. And I saw repression.”

As an “invincible” teenager, she wanted to “change the world here”. The focus on women’s rights came after she studied at Queen’s University Belfast and spent some time in the US.

“Northern Ireland was a very male-dominated society. I didn’t realize how much. When I came back from the States, it was exciting to see the women’s movement thriving,” she says. “We had no idea where that was going in a very patriarchal, conservative society like Northern Ireland in the 1970s.”

McWilliams wants her book to tell a different story, “her story.”

“The women here were remarkable. There was no government funding. They were up against everyone: Republicans, a state that believed domestic violence didn’t exist, the church… It was pretty difficult to take on those big institutions.

“Women’s help was not acceptable at the time. Now look at Women’s Aid and the legislation going through it [Stormont] Gathering in recent weeks about coercive measures, psychological abuse, financial abuse, stalking. The bottom-up women’s movement made these changes. I’m very proud of that.”

The victims

McWilliams, now based in Belfast, is most proud of her role in the women’s movement, but she is also part of the Independent Reporting Commission for the Dissolution of Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, the David Ervine Foundation and the Pat and John Hume Foundation and works with the Wave Victim Group and Women’s Aid in politics and legislation.

She also enjoys working on the board of the school project “Politics in Action”, which aims to give young people a voice on current political and social issues.

McWilliams says she has just one message for young activists: There’s no room for complacency. “We pass the baton to you. As always, the ground you stand on was created by those who came before,” she says.

“There is every possibility that we will lose this ground. We’re making great progress and then we have to start again. I wrote the book to convey this message. To hold on, hold on and hold on and make sure you don’t go backwards.

“The F-word, feminism, counts for something now. There was a time when it would have been considered as bad as the other F-word. Things have changed.”

Stand Up, Speak Out” by Monica McWilliams is published by Blackstaff Press Monica McWilliams on women being erased from the history of the Northern peace process

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