Civil society engagement with the current talks process has been minimal to say the least. When word got round last week that there was to be an official civil society session at Stormont with party leaders and British and Irish government representatives I like many was keen to be in attendance. I represent the women’s sector with its broad and diverse range of priorities, from childcare and welfare reform to equal political representation, and gaps in legal protection on issues like domestic violence and abortion.
Those issues which primarily affect women are endlessly de-prioritised here in favour of the more meaty business of security, legacy, policing, or power-sharing structures. We have to get those things right first, we are continuously told, before we get to your issues. And of course our issues are ‘complicated’ or ‘divisive’ so we couldn’t possibly sort them out until the politicians are working better together.
It’s frustrating being told this today in 2019 because the message hasn’t changed in 20 years from the days when the courageous women of the Women’s Coalition fought for a seat at the negotiating table and played a pivotal role in ensuring the inclusion of rights, equality and legacy commitments in the Good Friday Agreement. They too were told those things were too difficult to address but they persevered because they knew, as we know, that a peace process which doesn’t deal with the tangible impacts of conflict in people’s physical, emotional and psychological realities is doomed to fail.
That’s why we continue to demand that UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security should be implemented here. This international agreement places duties on governments to ensure women’s particular experiences of conflict are written into political agreements and conflict transformation processes. It would create targeted measures to ensure women are equally represented at all levels, from the negotiating table to grassroots community decision making spaces. We might have powerful women leaders in the main parties but we still encounter a gender blindness that can allow for a public body like the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition to appoint 14 men and just 1 woman. We hear from women on the frontline in community leadership roles that they have to fight harder for influence than they did a decade ago with many working in increasingly unsafe environments due to paramilitary attempts to control the community narrative. We also know that the side-lining of gendered law and policy issues that, let’s be honest were not progressing at any rate even before the assembly collapsed, is in large part due to this wider failure to commit to building a Northern Ireland in which women’s lives, roles and experiences are of central importance.
While the Irish government has always recognised the importance of UNSCR 1325 in Northern Ireland and includes us in their National Action Plan, the UK government does not take this approach due to its official position on the nature of the conflict here.
The UK National Action Plan contains commitments to support women in peacebuilding efforts across the globe but is completely silent on Northern Ireland. We are too close to home. It is too complicated and divisive. Of course the lack of willingness to use this effective international mechanism to help women here recover from conflict and fully play our part in post-conflict transformation does not make the issues go away.
Women here still hold many stories that have not fully been told of the gendered nature of conflict; the sexual violence that was ignored or covered up because there were bigger issues at stake, the women left at home to raise children when husbands and fathers were interned or murdered, many with no financial support from the state, the women whose lives have been entirely consumed by caring for those injured and disabled by violence, the epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder that has been hidden and managed through prescription medication but is now being passed on through families in the form of anxiety, depression and a devastatingly high suicide rate.
There needs to be a new way of talking about peace and security that encompasses these experiences. The most frustrating part about our exclusion from the process and the narrative is that the quality of the peace process is diminished as a result. International longitudinal research on UNSCR 1325 now shows clearly that in post-conflict societies where this resolution is fully embraced and implemented, the result is longer lasting, more stable peace – not the endless cycle of failure and short term fixes that Northern Ireland is becoming famous for. I recently had the privilege of participating in an international dialogue on women and peacebuilding hosted in Belfast by the Commonwealth Foundation. My colleagues from countries like Kenya, Uganda and Sierra Leone could not believe that we don’t have the mechanisms of 1325 in Northern Ireland. While they have had the opportunity to participate in initiatives like gender commissions and quotas for representation, we don’t even have a basic gender equality strategy. It ran out in 2016 and no one bothered to renew it.
So now we are left in a gaping political black hole to complain into the abyss at how badly we are falling behind the rest of the UK and Ireland. We have brought a range of urgent issues to the United Nations, such as abortion law, childcare and domestic violence protection. They have made it clear to the UK government that where human rights are at stake then devolution is no excuse for failing to protect these and they have been particularly clear that immediate action needs to be taken to remove the criminal sanctions on abortion in Northern Ireland. We are pleased that abortion is on the agenda for the current talks process and is being dealt with by the rights, language and identity working group but we agree with the UN that it should be remedied by Westminster. Whilst we aren’t privy to what is being said in the working group meetings, we don’t feel that abortion is being given the same attention or urgency in the wider dialogue as other rights-based demands.
A delegation of us attended the civil society engagement hopeful that this would be a chance to seek assurances that the product of these negotiations will have more to say on women’s inclusion and more concrete commitments to a gender equal approach than any of the agreements that have come before. We were unhappy with the opening remarks from Secretary of State Karen Bradley who told us we should not come to ‘complain’ or to ‘make demands’ but rather to support the politicians in the difficult job they have to do. Tánaiste Simon Coveney continued by accepting that this meeting did not constitute an in-depth consultation but was merely an opportunity for conversations to begin. More meaningful civil society engagement should take place after the Executive is back up and running. What followed for the next hour was somewhat of a scrum, as civil society representatives from sectors as diverse as farming, hospitality, health, education, Irish language, children’s services and women’s rights gathered round party leaders hoping to pitch their issues. We all said our piece, the politicians nodded and smiled and took on board as much as they could in the circumstances. I handed out briefing papers, and we all left wondering what exactly had been achieved. We had been invited to come and show our support for the talks process but explicitly asked to leave our issues at the door. I think this approach betrayed a lack of understanding of the deep passion for justice, equality and rights in civil society in Northern Ireland. As this phase of talks is due to close in the next fortnight it seems unlikely that there will be further opportunity for those of us who represent communities affected by the legacy of the conflict and the current stalemate to really influence the process. We must rely on the parties having enough courage to put the issues we have brought to them many times in the past at the heart of their priorities. For the women’s movement we live in hope that in this will be the time for genuine commitment to end the inequalities that in 20 years of peace we have not been able to dismantle.