North's alternative women are ready and willing to talk


A DISTASTE for tribal politics, frustration with mainstream politicians and a sprinkling of "the Mary Robinson factor" are the elements that the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition is hoping to tap on May 30th.

Their critics accuse them of political naivety and a brand of pink politics irrelevant to a forum on constitutional issues. They reject labels, including the feminist one, insisting they represent a group of people from nationalist and unionist backgrounds trying to get to the table together.

On Wednesday night, most of the 70 candidates met in the Downtown Women's Centre in Belfast for a training session. It was led by Jane Morrice, head of the European Commission's Northern Ireland office. She has taken three weeks special leave from her job to stand in North Down.

It was a loud meeting, with laughter and applause. Outside, Monica McWilliams, the coalition's top ranked candidate gestured towards the room: "How often do you hear that at a party meeting?"

In the kitchen one woman was flushed with excitement after the meeting. She used to canvass for the Alliance Party. "That was in the days when the nearest any women got to the negotiating table was when they were polishing it."

Ms McWilliams, a lecturer at the University of Ulster, admits the coalition is taking advantage of this one off election. "It's an insult to women to say that we can't deal with the constitutional issues. That's what we will be talking about and we've already had discussions on this."

However the NIWC manifesto states that it will not be working on the "fixed agenda" lines of mainstream parties. Brid Rogers, one of the SDLP candidates in Upper Bann, is critical of this approach.

The problem with Northern Ireland is how to accommodate two clashing aspirations. To do that you need a clearly worked out idea of how that will be done."

She understands the frustrations of women in a jurisdiction where all its political representatives in Strasbourg and Westminster are men. There are women who have worked their way up through political parties despite the difficulties. Now they're facing another woman for the same vote."

Mary Clarke Glass, Alliance candidate in Lagan Valley, does not believe that the NIWC will do well at this election. "It's going to be a very fractured election. It's not an election to govern.

Although they have not nailed their policies to the manifesto mast, NIWC candidates insist their approach is not woolly minded, but open minded. "We're not waffling. We know what we're about," said Gerry Gibben, a candidate in Strangford.

Around half of the candidates come from a background in community activism, solving problems in the streets where they live. The remainder come from education, trade union and professional backgrounds.

The coalition's election agent, May Blood - a senior trade unionist living in west Belfast - defends the manifesto of the NIWC. "We agree to differ and go to the table and talk. We would not go in with mindsets, but with set minds - for peace."

She believes the NIWC will face hostility from the smaller parties, especially the fringe loyalist parties. "They have a very big hill to climb and there will be hard line areas that will see the Women's Coalition diluting their vote."

The 10 parties receiving the highest total number of votes throughout Northern Ireland will each get two delegates to the forum, in addition to any of their candidates elected in the constituencies. Pundits are wary about predicting the NIWC's chances. Assuming the five largest parties (Alliance, DUP, SDLP, SF, and UUP) finish as the top five vote getters, and that the UK Unionist Party also figures in the top 10, this leaves all other parties fighting for the final four positions in the top 10. As well as the NIWC, the contestants for these four slots include the fringe loyalist parties as well as Labour, Democratic Left and the Workers' Party.