After 10 years, the party's over for Women's Coalition in North

 

The Women's Coalition is to disband as a political party in Northern Ireland. The coalition, then led by Monica McWilliams, had two MLAs in the North's first Assembly, but lost both seats in the election of 2003, when the DUP and Sinn Féin swept the boards.

The disbandment was marked at a party in Belfast last night, with Baroness May Blood as guest of honour.

Party members said they were sad the end had come but that it was inevitable. "I regret that we don't have a political situation that is conducive to women's participation," said historian and author Margaret Ward, who joined the party in 2000. "The fact that the coalition existed was mindblowing and exciting."

A founder member, Jane Morrice, blames the polarisation of politics for the collapse of the coalition's vote. "By 2003, Stormont had collapsed and people had become disillusioned with politics and the high hopes generated by the Good Friday agreement hadn't been realised.

"We are bowing out gracefully. We did what we could. Our former members are active in other spheres like the policing board, the parades commission and the human rights commission. The political baton is there to be taken up by others."

Ms Morrice recalled the early days when some unionists in the Forum which preceded the Belfast Agreement used to moo when the coalition women rose to speak. "It backfired for them," she said. "People voted for us in protest."

The party is widely acknowledged to have had considerable influence in framing the Belfast Agreement and in smoothing relations between hostile parties in the Assembly. Ms McWilliams and Pearl Sagar were involved in the negotiations on the agreement.

"The coalition made sure that commitments were made in the agreement to integrated education and mixed housing," said Ms Morrice. "We also made sure that the rights of victims and the equality agenda were addressed."

The coalition, which emerged from the women's movement, is also credited with giving support and advice to other smaller parties, including the loyalist parties.

Ms McWilliams was one of the highest profile MLAs and Ms Morrice was deputy speaker of the Assembly. Ms McWilliams is now the North's Commissioner for Human Rights and is precluded from party political membership.

"The Women's Coalition came to the table well prepared," she said. "There is much to celebrate from its 10 years' work."