The role of women in peacemaking: The case of Northern Ireland

By Sarah Aver

WASHINGTON, D.C. — From their leading role during the civil rights movement to their political activism, women’s contribution to peace-building in Northern Ireland has been fundamental in ensuring long-term reconciliation and the promotion of social cohesion. Since the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland has enjoyed relative peace, political stability, and economic growth. The prospect of a no-deal Brexit and establishment of physical barriers on the border between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom raises serious concerns regarding the potential re-emergence of violence on the island. While the European Union strives to protect the single market, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson has proposed a so-called “hard border.” As the clock ticks towards the newly granted January 31, 2020, Brexit deadline, the potential implementation of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and the Northern province remains one of the most contentious parts of Brexit negotiations.

Deadlock in negotiations between London and Brussels poses a substantial threat to the fragile peace achieved after three decades of bloody civil conflict that resulted in the loss of more than 3,500 lives. From the late 1960s to 1990s, the mainly Protestant Unionists who wished to remain part of the United Kingdom fought the primarily Catholic Nationalists who sought to create a unified Ireland. Even today, despite the signing of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in April 1998, Irish society remains painfully divided. With a collapsed executive government since January 2017, Northern Ireland is living through a critical political inflection point.

In this context, the potential reintroduction of customs controls at the Irish border risks the endurance of the long and difficult reconciliation process that has followed the civil conflict. As Professor Matthias Matthijs, Assistant Professor of International Political Economy at SAIS, mentioned, “From a legal point of view, establishing physical infrastructures would violate the 1998 Belfast Agreement and may rekindle conflict.” In addition, as pointed out by Joon Kim, a second year European studies concentrator at SAIS who attended college in Dublin, Ireland, the re-establishment of a hard border will also result in significant economic issues. Kim said, “Of course, there is always a chance that violence will restart but this time around it’s more ‘money-oriented’. The United Kingdom and Ireland are two of the closest trading partners since 1922, and if the border is closed, trade will suffer dramatically.”

Prior to the peace talks of 1996, participants taking part in  the negotiated peace process were determined by public elections. A group of women with both Catholic and Protestant representatives formed the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC) and won enough votes to gain representation in the negotiations. The NIWC’s ability to work across community lines and bring in new issues to the agenda assisted with the formation of the Good Friday agreement and helped shape the agreement to address enough relevant issues in order to last. Abby Comstock-Gay Güner, a second-year conflict management concentrator at SAIS, explained, “I think the Irish case is great especially because it highlights the actions of women coming together with their own agency to join the talks. Often we think of participation in peace processes as an ‘invitation to participate’ but with the election format, we see a space for the groups who wish to be represented to organize and get there, and thus potentially a better reflection of actual power and dynamics in society.”

NIWC directly influenced the substance of the Good Friday Agreement and sought to ensure that the priorities and concerns of both Unionists and Nationalists were addressed in the final deal.  The success of the NIWC in having two women delegates at the Multi-Party Peace Negotiations was a remarkable achievement — particularly in the context of such a conservative and male-dominated political landscape in Northern Ireland at the time. As Norman Houston, Director of the Northern Ireland Bureau in the United States and Canada said, “Without the NIWC, [the Good Friday Agreement] would not have happened.”

Beyond the Good Friday agreement, more broadly, studies have shown that the participation of women in peace processes leads to agreements that are less likely to fail and more likely to last. Such studies indicate that female participation results in agreements that are 64% less likely to fail and 35% more likely to last more than 15 years. As a new generation of women trained in peacemaking emerges, the number of women taking part in these processes will undoubtedly increase. However, in violent conflicts that require very urgent attention, issues of gender and the inclusion of women in the process are too often thought to be of low-level concern. Whether one considers the recent Afghanistan talks, the Syrian peace process, or the Colombian peace negotiations female participation is continuously cast aside. Such conditions reflect much larger and deeply-rooted societal issues that must be addressed in order to achieve strong and lasting peace and reconciliation in such conflicts.