Let’s be honest, books about the Northern Ireland Troubles can be bleak. Books about the peace process that brought the Troubles to an end can be sanctimonious. And books by academics on these topics can be dense – often they are meant to be. To its credit, Monica McWilliams’s memoir is none of these things. Though she is an academic-turned-politician writing about the endless political processes of the 1990s and early 2000s, her book – Stand Up, Speak Out – is demotic and engaging.
Not many people remember the Northern Ireland Forum. Its short and largely unproductive existence as a debating chamber operated in parallel to the much better remembered all-party talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement. But the 1996 election that sent delegates to both was notable for facilitating the breakthrough of several small Northern Ireland parties, whose presence can now be seen as critical to leavening the sense of binary communal (and male) confrontation and helping to expedite the deal-making, and peace-building.
One of them was the Women’s Coalition, of which McWilliams was founder and joint leader. The coalition had no party position on the constitutional question, but rather than enforcing a policy of neutrality, it encompassed women from all perspectives. As distinct from the Alliance Party, they attempted to designate (an obligation under the terms of the powersharing deal) as “Unionist, Nationalist and Other” – until this was ruled impossible under the standing orders and they settled for being “Inclusive Other”.
Indeed, much of the focus was on the urgency of inclusive participation itself as much as the final detail of post-conflict Northern Ireland’s governance structures. Borne out of a mix of academic interest – McWilliams had written about the absence of women in northern political discourse – and a broad-based alliance of women’s activist groups, the party only came together weeks before the aforementioned Northern Ireland Forum elections.
The attitudes to the party on evidence at that first forum reinforced the view of McWilliams and her fellow coalition members that the ossified politics of the North was at least partly connected to its lack of gender diversity. McWilliams recounts how Rev, now Lord, William McCrea, also a DUP MP, said that most women would “stand by the loyal men of Ulster” rather than “follow hook, line and sinker” the Women’s Coalition. Ian Paisley jnr, who is still a DUP MP, heckled a McWilliams speech by mooing loudly. She and her joint leader, Pearl Sagar, were on occasion ostracised, but more commonly simply patronised.
But the symbolism of having McWilliams, a Catholic from Co Derry (and first cousin of Charles Haughey, no less), lead alongside Sagar, a working-class Protestant from east Belfast, was striking. The coalition was not exclusively a vehicle for middle-class activism: its faces were genuinely diverse, and not simply in communal terms. As well as McWilliams and Sagar, there was May Blood, a longstanding trade unionist from the Shankill, and Jane Morrice, a jolly former BBC journalist and European Commission official from north Down.
Once the 1998 agreement was signed, there followed the establishment of the powersharing institutions and the long battle – a battle still ongoing – to keep them afloat. McWilliams’s account of the run-up to the Good Friday deal is one of the party acting as a facilitator, at times even a mediator. But the energy and inspiration of the era began to wear off, and this book gives an account of just how much intergovernmental energy went into sustaining the institutions in the years that followed.
Notwithstanding her background in academia, and a post-Stormont career in international human rights advocacy, McWilliams has an enjoyably gossipy style of writing which leavens serious subject matter. A bomb at a supermarket near her student flat in the early 1970s is traumatic, but also an opportunity to pick up tins of free food blown down the street. The sectarian rancour in the aforementioned forum discussions evolve from tragedy to farce as unionist politicians formally object to being served bottled water from Co Tipperary. An interminable talks summit at Hillsborough drags on through the night so Sinn Féin representatives fall asleep on royal thrones.
The singular achievement of McWilliams and her party was in helping to reframe what was deemed possible in Northern Ireland politics. Of course there were limits to that. Much of what seemed possible – and exciting – in 1998 has been deliberately left unfulfilled. One of the coalition’s much championed causes, a civic forum for Northern Ireland, has not met since 2002.
The first election slogan of the Women’s Coalition a quarter of a century ago was “Wave Goodbye to the Dinosaurs”. To use another slogan from that era: they still haven’t gone away, you know.
Matthew O’Toole is SDLP MLA for South Belfast