|A Gender Perspective on Conflict Resolution: The Development of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition (NIWC) and its Role in the Multi-Party Peace Talks (1996-1998) (Swiss Peace Foundation, 64 p.)|
The Northern Ireland Womens Coalition has now effectively moved beyond the comfort zone of lamenting and lobbying about the lack of womens involvement in decision-making. It is now at the scene of the crime in Northern Ireland and this brings with it an extensive range of responsibilities as well as opportunities.
(McWilliams and Kilmurray, 1997:18)
By applying Molyneuxs (1985) concepts of practical and strategic gender interests to the NIWC I have concluded in chapter one that the women from the NIWC belong to the strategic gender front because they all share a feminist agenda consisting of achieving political equality with men. Most interestingly however, the interviews revealed that there exists a discrepancy between the way some of the women in the Coalition act and how they perceive themselves. Although they all act like feminists in their struggle for the achievement of political equality with men, not all of them perceive themselves as feminists. Some even overtly declare that they are not feminists. It would be interesting for the women of the NIWC to investigate the reasons for this apparent paradox a bit further.
I would therefore suggest that the NIWC should organise a workshop addressing what one could call a behaviour-perception paradox. The aim of the workshop should be to find out why some people feel uncomfortable with the term feminist and how feminist the NIWC agenda is.
The workshop should start by asking the participants to write on a sheet of paper whether they think they are feminists or not. The leader of the workshop would then collect the sheets. In a next step the leader of the workshop would define the concept of strategic gender interests. Based on this definition the participants would be asked to make a list of what they consider to be the strategic objectives of the NIWC. In a next step the leader of the workshop would draw attention to the fact that in the literature most of the things they have put on their lists are termed feminist.
The leader of the workshop would then refer to the results of the investigation with which the workshop began. [If my conclusions from the interviews are correct, there should be both women who see themselves as feminists and others who do not]. The participants should be asked if they see any advantages or disadvantages in labelling themselves as feminists. Furthermore, the question could be investigated why some of the participants distance themselves from feminism. Is this due to the fact that it is disadvantageous to overtly declare oneself as a feminist, or is it rather due to the way people use the term feminist, or is it because of the behaviour of some feminists with which some women cannot identify? Is there a potential for conflict inherent in the fact that some women within the Coalition are feminists and others are not? If the answer is yes, Molyneuxs concept of strategic gender interests should help to show that, at the end of the day, they all share a kind of feminist agenda, but that the overtly feminist women are maybe more radical while the non-feminists are less radical in what they would include in a feminist agenda.
If all women from the NIWC recognise that they share an agenda which is termed feminist in the literature it should be easier for them to negotiate what needs to be put on such an agenda. In other words, it should be easier for them to decide how feminist their agenda should be.
Based on the findings of chapter one, namely that most of the women of the NIWC belong to the strategic middle-range leadership I have maintained in chapter two that the strategic middle-range leadership has made an important contribution to the transformation of the Northern Irish conflict. I argued that, as long as there is an asymmetric relationship between men and women, women develop different skills than men while organising as a gender. This has allowed me to say that the NIWC led the parties to the conflict through what Italian feminists have referred to as a process of rooting and shifting allowing for a middle-ground position to emerge. Using Lederachs theory of conflict resolution I have also argued that the NIWC introduced a reconciliation paradigm at the top-level leadership.
However, although I used Lederachs framework in order to highlight the contribution of the female middle-range leadership to the transformation of the Northern Irish conflict, I felt that it reflects an analysis of reality as Lederach sees it and not as other cultures or in my case the other gender interprets or maps it. I noticed, for example, that while all Lederachs definitions of the middle range apply to men, it is more difficult to apply them to female middle-range leaders. Three out of four definitions of the middle range clearly lead to a selection of male rather than female middle-range leaders. Women are not only clearly underrepresented within formal positions of leadership in sectors such as education, business, agriculture, or health (Lederach, 1997:41) but also they usually are not prominent within a particular institution (ibid.) and they do not normally enjoy the respect of people within the conflict setting.
Lederach also states that middle-range leaders have a special potential for transformation building because they are connected to both the top level and the grass-roots level. This definition is rather discriminatory when applied to women. The fact that the establishment of the NIWC is a consequence of womens unfruitful lobbying to become included at the top level of political activity suggests that it is not only harder for women to be taken seriously by the top-level leaders, but it is also more difficult for women to establish links with the top-level leadership. Within the NIWC, for example, there are only a few middle-range leaders who are directly linked to the top-level leadership.
Since I have found that the strength of female activists lies in their strong connections to the grass-roots as well as in their expertise with community development work I suggest that women should be included in civil conflict resolution on the basis of their relative involvement in community development work.
Clearly, if conflict resolution practitioners want to avoid that the same happens in conflict resolution as has happened in politics, namely that women have to secure their inclusion in conflict resolution before even thinking of how to resolve a conflict, mechanisms need to be put in place to secure womens inclusion in civil conflict resolution at all levels of political activity. This might imply, for example, the organisation of workshops to train women in conflict resolution.
In chapter three I have argued that the NIWC was both a party to the conflict as well as a third party. As a party to the conflict it made sure that women were included in the peace process. Cited in McWilliams and Kilmurray (1997:16) Bronagh Hinds stated that the choice to form a women-only party was proved to be right in the end [since] it has provided the only women at the Negotiation Table (of the Peace Talks). I have also shown that the NIWC has a feminist political agenda. However, it is yet early days to evaluate to what extent the two delegates to the new assembly will be able to translate the NIWCs feminist agenda into practice. As Ward suggested, this will be a rather slow process. For the moment it can be said that the NIWC secured - by successfully lobbying for a Civic Forum - that the citizens voice is going to be better represented in the future. By including a clause committing the parties to the conflict to community development it made yet another important contribution to the peace agreement.
As a third party the NIWC endorsed the role of a facilitator. After having explained the possible reasons of the NIWC to become a facilitator in chapter two, I took the opportunity in chapter three to provide empirical evidence to support my theoretical assumptions. After having found out in chapter two that because womens oppression is multi-causal, female collective action must be based on the recognition of difference/heterogeneity I have maintained that the NIWCs value-based agenda provided a catalyst for change within the top-level leadership. I have supported this argument by showing that the peace agreement provides evidence for the fact that the parties have agreed on common values on which they can build a sustainable future. By giving voice to one of the members of the talks team I have been able to broaden my analysis. The interview is meant to complete my perspective as an outsider with an insiders perspective on the peace talks.
Although the peace talks were presented as a success by the media Brendan ONeill (1996:19) made an interesting statement with which I wish to conclude my dissertation. According to him the peace process was blatantly undemocratic (Ward, 1997:159) because small parties had almost as much clout at the talks as the bigger parties. ONeill argues (1996:19) that the electoral process [was] gerrymandered to ensure that nobody [was] represented, not even the political parties themselves. As a result, an organisation like the Womens Coalition, which represents virtually nobody, [could] waltz into the talks, claim the moral high ground as the representatives of a beleaguered minority, and set a new agenda. The Womens Coalition was not elected by the people to discuss the future of Northern Ireland. It was effectively appointed by the British government to dilute the talks and to keep a check on any silly ideas about majority rule and democracy (ibid.).
Annie Campell (http://www.pitt.edu), a member of the NIWC, counters: I understand and respect the depth of feelings of anger over (...) [the peace talks] which can appear to be a facade, but we had to take advantage of this opportunity. We were the only ones pushing for inclusion of everyone - even Sinn Fein (...) without a cease-fire. Although I argue that the Coalition has to live with the ambiguity that it got into the peace talks because of an undemocratic electoral system, it seems to be the only party who [raised] new ideas about democracy (McWilliams and Kilmurray, 1997:20).
In my eyes, the 30 May elections and the ensuing all-party negotiations serve as a timely reminder that the British government (ONeill, 1997:19) has not yet finished to deliver democracy in Ireland. Therefore, for a sustainable peace process to become reality Britain will have to continue to assist Northern Ireland in its difficult journey towards democracy.
Source: Taillon, R. (1992) Grant-Aided or Taken for Granted? A Study of Womens Voluntary Organisations in Northern Ireland. Belfast: Womens Support Network, p.42.