One of Monica McWilliams’ notable characteristics is that she says clearly what she wants to do and sticks with it until she delivers on it as fully as she possibly can. This book (Stand Up, Speak Out: My Life Working for Women’s Rights, Peace and Equality in Northern Ireland and Beyond (2021) Monica McWilliams, Blackstaff Press, Newtownards, UK) is a fine example. She tells us that she not only wants to leave behind her own record of living through ‘the Troubles’ but also, and just as importantly, she wants to correct some of the inaccuracies she has identified in other accounts of the Irish Peace Process, especially those that underplayed, or even ignored the contributions of women. In addition, she wants to pass on some of the things that she has learned over the years about peacebuilding and why it matters to have women at the table. She delivers on all these aims with energy and eloquence and she will be neither troubled nor surprised that her perspective will not be shared by everyone who was around at the time. Indeed, that is precisely why she has taken the trouble to ‘Stand Up and Speak Out’ over the years, and to do so again in this substantial and well-written volume.
I very much enjoyed the book, and I could clearly hear Monica’s authentic tones as I read it. Perhaps one of the surprises was to be reminded how her entry to front-line party politics came a short time before the elections to the negotiations. She was such a prominent and confident figure that one came to think of her as having been active in party politics for a long time. She had of course played a significant role in trade union activities and many equality and human rights campaigns over the years, and so she was no novice to public engagement when she came to the negotiating table. This book helps the reader to understand how from an early age she developed the skills and confidence that made possible her many contributions to public life, but the fact that she had not been directly involved in the inter-party and inter-governmental negotiations that had gone on for some years beforehand, helps us to appreciate why she was impatient with some of the assumptions on the part of other participants. It also demonstrates the achievement involved in creating the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition as an electable party in the few short weeks before the elections to peace negotiations – reminiscent of Constand Viljoen’s successful creation of the Freedom Front in the few weeks in early 1994 prior to the General Election in South Africa.
Another somewhat unexpected value of the book for me was to have her describe in detail the cultural background that shaped her character. When you get used to working with someone, especially if you share some of their peacebuilding aims, it is tempting to assume a greater commonality of experience and perspective. One of the values of the book for me is the way she takes us beyond politics into the culture of the rural Catholic Nationalist community in which she grew up. This drew out for me some of the profound differences of communal perspective from my own background, despite both of us coming from Northern Irish farming stock – her father a successful Kilrea cattle dealer, and my father coming from a small subsistence hill farm near Bessbrook in south Armagh. I found myself regretting that more colleagues from the different backgrounds have not shared in some depth, and in written form, how their perspectives and understandings emerged and developed. In doing so Monica has made another valuable contribution to political and academic life in Northern Ireland and beyond.
Almost a quarter of a century on from the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement remarkably few of the political leaders have set these things down as Monica has, and quite a few are no longer around to do it. This all adds to the significance of the book. It is a valuable contribution that will help ensure that subsequent generations have a better appreciation of how our violent political conflict was brought to an end.
John, Lord Alderdice, Senior Research Fellow, Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford