Women Spur N. Ireland Talks

The Women's Coalition helped get both sides to compromise. It also gained a seat at the negotiating table.

The peace talks on the future of Northern Ireland have been under way for more than a month, with representatives of the two opposing communities reporting slow progress, after a rocky start.

The two sides only sat down together after a more than year-long standoff. Part of the credit for ending the stalemate is claimed by one of the smaller groups involved in the talks: The Women's Coalition.

Formed in early 1996, the Women's Coalition seeks to build bridges between the region's divided communities - one of which wants Northern Ireland to remain under British control, while the other, nationalist, side aspires to integration with Ireland.

When the talks began near Belfast in September, Coalition delegates met separately with the various parties, helping to persuade unionist representatives and Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, to enter round-table talks.

One member of the Ulster Unionist Party, the largest pro-British party in Northern Ireland, described how the "moral weight of these women, many [of them] mothers of the victims of the conflict, at key moments brought a badly needed dose of reality and got us moving again."

One of the leading figures in the coalition is university lecturer Monica McWilliams. She says, "women have long experience of being excluded from the political system. But we are not content to sit back and let ourselves be left out any more."

All 15 politicians from Northern Ireland attending the British Parliament in London are men, as are the region's three representatives at the European Parliament. The Women's Coalition says it wants to find a solution to the region's problems away from the established political parties, looking instead to local community groups.

One of the delegates at the peace talks, Bronagh Hines, says those in the Coalition "do not believe in raising people's passions for political advantage."

Yet the Coalition has raised passions within some of the more hard-line political parties. The Democratic Unionist Party, led by the Rev. Ian Paisley, has described the Coalition as being composed of "feckless women" with "limited intellect."

In reply, Ms. McWilliams says, "many male politicians of Northern Ireland have been for too long macho in their style."

In last May's election in Northern Ireland, the Coalition campaigned with the slogan "vote women for a change." But with few resources at their disposal, the group failed to make a significant electoral impact. Its performance was not a total failure, however, as the Coalition did gain sufficient votes to be represented at the peace negotiations.

One of the strongest features of the Coalition is that it draws from across Northern Ireland's sectarian divide. Members represent all political and class groupings. With the exception of the small Alliance Party, all of the mainstream parties in Northern Ireland represent one or the other of the two communities. The members of the Coalition admit they have opposing views, but say they have agreed to differ.

The negotiations on the future of Northern Ireland will continue until next May, which the British and Irish governments have set as a deadline for the participants to reach a "lasting settlement."

Thus far, the main parties have been concentrating on the constitutional issues of the region's future. However, the Women's Coalition has set out broader priorities, including: strengthening the peace process, tackling poverty, and seeking an improvement in the quality of public services.

Earlier this month, McWilliams told a meeting on the talks process that the coalition wanted the negotiations to be "driven by visions for the future rather than the protection of historical certainties."

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