Emma DeSouza: Want to keep the peace in the North? Elect more women

Peace agreements involving women are less likely to fail, studies have shown

Women make up more than half of the population of Ireland and yet the impact that generations of conflict have had on women is all too often absent from peace processes and post-conflict monitoring. The Women’s Parliamentary Caucus, marking the 23rd anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, recently hosted the event Women’s Voices in Peacebuilding, serving as an important reminder of the role women played in negotiating the landmark agreement.

Women made up just 10 per cent of the negotiation team in the all-party talks leading up to the Belfast Agreement, yet they wielded far greater influence than such a position would suggest. The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, which was founded in 1996 and disbanded in 2006, saw women’s groups from across the divide unite on a platform of bringing women’s concerns to the negotiating table and ensuring an inclusive peace accord. Coalition members hosted regular consultations with civic society organisations to inform their negotiating positions and quickly gained a reputation as honest brokers and trusted intermediaries by prioritising co-operation over partisan allegiances.

The Women’s Coalition set a precedent with its inclusive process of cross-community dialogue and civil engagement. Prof Desirée Nilsson of Uppsala University in Sweden has demonstrated that peace agreements are 64 per cent less likely to fail when civil society representatives participate. There is empirical data to support the importance of women in making and sustaining peace.

An International Peace Institute study of 182 peace agreements signed between 1989 and 2011 found that when women are included in peace processes, there is a 35 per cent increase in the probability that a peace agreement will last 15 years or more. Evidence suggests that female participants in peace processes are more likely to be focused on reconciliation, economic development and transitional justice – all critical elements of a sustained peace.


Patriarchal stereotypes

Peace is more than just the absence of conflict; and it is upon that principle where the success of the Women’s Coalition can be truly marked. Members brought to the table education, mixed housing, the reintegration of political prisoners, specific language on victims’ rights, and the formation of the Civic Forum – all of which play a significant role in promoting social cohesion and embedding a lasting peace. Yet it is also these vital provisions and aspirations that have been allowed to languish in the North: education remains 93 per cent segregated, mixed housing schemes continue to under-deliver and the Civic Forum was unofficially disbanded after just two years in operation.

Female peace-builders remain an underutilised resource in advancing the peace process and tackling institutionalised sectarianism

The Belfast Agreement includes the right for women to avail of full and equal political participation, and while women have made significant gains in this area – now holding the position of First and Deputy First Minister – this representation within leadership does not trickle down the political ladder. Only 26 per cent of councillors are women, the lowest figure in the whole of the United Kingdom. Equally, women continue to be under-represented within monitoring commissions and peace-building structures, such as the Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition Commission, which comprises 14 men and just one woman. Female peace-builders remain an underutilised resource in advancing the peace process and tackling institutionalised sectarianism.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has spoken of the inclusion of those traditionally under-represented, including young people and women, but we’ve yet to see these words put into practice. Patriarchal socio-cultural stereotypes of women as victims and uncritical advocates for peace remain a barrier to women entering official peace processes.

Constitutional change

Next year marks arguably the most important Assembly election since the Belfast Agreement. Those elected will vote on the Northern Ireland protocol and will be in office during a time of potential constitutional change.

It is hard to imagine the Women’s Coalition returning in its original form, but perhaps there is space for a reimagining of the concept in the form of an independent alliance.

Imagine what might be possible if we implemented the treaty in full and brought women to the table

Evidence indicates that women are more likely to forge strategic alliances with the aim of sustaining peace through reconciliation and social cohesion. Such alliances are already evident across civil society in Northern Ireland. There is only one woman serving as an independent MLA in Northern Ireland; expanding the grouping of independents in the Assembly could provide a space for a more diverse grouping of community activists and campaigners, facilitating that all-important link between civil society and politics.

The recent scenes in Northern Ireland serve as a sharp reminder of the fragility of peace processes, and the need for a shared determination in working the strands of the Belfast Agreement. Despite inaction, persistent political failures and under-representation of women, there have still been significant gains in the peace process over the past two decades.

Imagine what might be possible if we implemented the treaty in full and brought women to the table. Young women’s inclusion in peace-building could bring a unique plurality and creativity that has been lost since 1998. We are on a precipice – the cusp of sweeping transformational change and progress across this island, and to achieve it, all voices must be at the table.