'Women's Work: The Story of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition', by Kate Fearon
[Key_Events] Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]
The following chapter has been contributed by the author, Kate Fearon, with the permission of the publishers, The Blackstaff Press. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
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From the back cover:
The extraordinary story of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition is one of do-it-yourself politics. Founded in 1996 as a result of frustration with the sterility of local politics, the NIWC has a broad cross-community base, attracting women (and men) from the nationalist and unionist communities, and from both republican and loyalist traditions.
In a remarkably short time the Women’s Coalition has become a respected, influential and liberalising force in Northern Irish politics, playing a key role in the talks process leading up to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Two of its members, Monica McWilliams and Jane Morrice, were subsequently elected to the new Northern Ireland Assembly, thanks to an energetic and highly effective door-to-door campaign.
This insider account gives a unique overview of the conception, birth and first years of a unique party that coincided with, and was part of, the most far-reaching political discussions in Northern Ireland in a generation.
Kate Fearon works as a political adviser to the Women’s Coalition
WOMEN'S WORK The Story of the KATE FEARON
The Story of the
It was decided that Bronagh Hinds would coordinate NIWC representation on the Business Committee and on the Decommissioning and Confidence Building Subcommittees. Non-elected delegates could sit on all three committees, which offered an opportunity to widen participation in the talks. And in general, whenever any individual or group wished to come into the building, the N1WC arranged for visitors’ passes. It was an attempt to demystify the talks process, to open up access to the place where the decisions that would directly affect the course of so many people’s lives would take place. The NIWC also actively encouraged participation in other arenas of public life. Women generally needed prompting to apply for public positions, so advertisements for public appointments were routinely copied and distributed at NIWC meetings, and members were encouraged to apply for whatever vacancies existed.
On the day the talks reconvened, Rita Restorick, the mother of the last British soldier shot in Northern Ireland - in a sniper attack in Bessbrook, south Armagh, in early 1997 - visited the talks building. She placed her son’s photograph on the NIWC’s table, spoke about his life, and how much she missed him. Meeting her moved NIWC talks delegates to tears, and strengthened their resolve to pursue an accommodation.
Substantive negotiations were launched on 7 October 1997. Finally it was time for Monica McWilliams to present the NIWC’s opening position -sixteen months after it was originally due to have been given. The NIWC emphasised that the conflict was a shared problem and that in order to resolve it the talks process should be viewed as a collective, shared project. This view was not something that all participants were ready for, but it signalled the nature of the future governance of Northern Ireland, and its relations with the rest of the UK and Ireland. It repeated its view that the task of peace building should incorporate actors outside the political process:
It is crucial that we identify mechanisms that will enable and encourage local communities and various interests to participate in this process of peace building, and to feel a share of responsibility for the future of this society, rather than leaving this task exclusively to the owners of this negotiating table ... [This] negotiating table is not the exclusive deliverer and sustainer of peace. We need to examine how we can bring all sectors of our society to a point where they feel that they are respected, and that they can associate themselves with the peace-building process. We believe that people cannot be expected to vote in a referendum without an understanding of how, and why, we arrived at our eventual conclusions.
In its opening position, the NIWC accepted the centrality of the constitutional issue, but felt the approach to its resolution would be as important as the resolution itself. The interdependency model, first described by the NIWC, was to emerge as a key theme in the eventual agreement - the interdependence in that instance being between differing political ideologies, not between formal and informally organised political structures.
Of course, questions of identity, of parity of esteem, of managing difference institutionally or structurally, and of the new constitutional arrangements were on the NIWC agenda. But so were many other questions. How could decision-making structures be made closer to those they would directly affect? How could gender equity be assured through electoral systems and social support? How could the concept of participative democracy be developed to support the political system? How could human rights be guaranteed in any new framework?
In relation to the latter, it was the view of the NIWC that not only were civil and political rights important, so too were social and economic rights. Justice issues also needed to be invested in if there was to be a sustainable peace. The NIWC also wanted to see confidence-building measures, but cautioned against these measures being viewed as gifts, or used as tests or obstacles in the negotiations. Confidence-building measures should be used to create a basis of mutual respect and trust, McWilliams told the assembled talks delegates. She added, ‘It would be political progress if Strand One negotiations could be driven by values and visions for the future, rather than concentrating on protecting historical certainties '
The negotiations got under way that day with Strand One discussions scheduled to take place between 10a.m. and 1 p.m. Strand Two deliberations would take place from 2.30 p.m. to 5.30 p.m. and Strand Three discussions from 7p.m. to 9p.m. This practice soon changed: Strand One was discussed on Mondays, Strand Two on Tuesdays and Strand Three on Wednesdays. (The Forum continued to meet on Fridays.)
The format of discussion was also established. There were to be six agenda items under Strand One, and five under Strands Two and Three. The six Strand One items were: principles and requirements; constitutional issues; nature, form and extent of new arrangements; relationships with other arrangements; justice issues; and rights and safeguards. Strands Two and Three discussed all these except justice issues. An additional Cross-Strands Issues agenda was formatted, which had three snappily labelled items: principles and requirements for new arrangements to address the totality of relationships; rights and safeguards; and arrangements for validation of overall agreement. The NIWC had proposed its own agenda a year previously which was more detailed, but close to the final agreed version. (It would also tally remarkably closely with the format of the final Good Friday Agreement signed six months later.)
In late autumn, the independent chairs and the governments began requesting significant papers from the delegates. For some parties, submitting papers that outlined positions under each of the agreed agenda headings was akin to pulling teeth. Papers were slow to be issued, and they were lacking in quality - amounting to perhaps no more than a few paragraphs on a page purporting to detail the nature, form and extent of new political arrangements for Northern Ireland. Bizarrely, some UUP submissions quoted verbatim from the Framework Documents published by the British government in February 1995 - a document that in the past the UUP had taken every opportunity to denigrate.
When the first set of papers (on principles and requirements) for Strand One eventually reached the British government’s desk, it emerged that the NIWC was the only party to devise principles and requirements not only for the institutions and arrangements that would result from the talks process, but also for that process itself, and the actual agreement. Further, they mooted a transition period for the establishment of new structures, and made comment on what principles and requirements should guide it. The only party to recommend a time of readjustment, the NIWC in a further paper offered the view that this period should be around four to five years (effectively one term of Assembly office), and that the arrangements should be monitored during this time. At the end of the period, a report should be published on the operation of the new structures, and on their ability to manage further development and change.
The talks should be about more than tackling the age-old constitutional question, the NIWC argued. One of the principles should be a willingness to transform and radicalise the democracy, to include and involve people. It should also be the duty of political leadership to manage this change and people’s fear of it - not to exploit that fear for party political ends. The agreement should be underscored by principles of inclusion, equality and human rights, and be capable of winning the allegiance of all citizens. Like the NIWC requirement for the talks process, it should broaden and deepen the democracy, drawing on the best lessons of partnership, cooperation and collaboration - people and politicians working together constructively to govern themselves. The agreement should also go beyond the narrow confines of two traditions, the NIWC stated. Specifically, it should include measures to ensure an equal outcome for women and men. Additionally, and uniquely among the parties, the NIWC suggested that any agreement should also acknowledge the hurt inflicted on all sides and the trauma existing throughout Northern Ireland, particularly among those who experienced hurt most directly and acutely, the victims.
The governments still did not require a huge amount of detail. Their aim was to draw together areas of commonality in order to prioritise these and tease out the boundaries of any agreement. The NIWC, in common with other parties, laid out a baseline position.
On Strand One, the NIWC submitted the notion of what they called the Northern Ireland Political Forum/Assembly, which they envisaged as comprising an elected chamber of directly elected politicians, and a civic chamber composed of business, trade union and voluntary sector interests indirectly elected through electoral colleges. The electoral system chosen for whatever chamber should deliver fifty-fifty gender-balanced representation.
There should be compliance with international obligations and protection for civic, political, social and cultural rights. The two governments should have joint responsibility for citizenship and for protection of individual and collective or group rights. Issues of justice, fairness and rights had played a key role in both the causes of the conflict, and its nature, the NIWC stated. Consequently, a focus on resolving these issues had of itself potential to contribute to the resolution of the wider conflict. Arguably this was a farsighted analysis: the two big trading blocks turned out not to be unionism and nationalism, but rather the constitutional agenda and the rights agenda - each acted as a buffer to the other. Guaranteeing rights and safeguards allowed republicanism to accept what is technically, in the old language, a partitionist settlement. Ensuring the constitutional future of the Union allowed unionism to accept greater provisions on rights and safeguards.
One of the NIWC’S recommendations on confidence-building measures was that, since an (undefined) bill of rights was an issue agreed on by all parties, agreement should be reached and banked on that specific issue in order to build the sense of a shared project. That would mean that some agreement could be pointed to when times got tough. But other parties were of the view that ‘nothing was agreed until everything was agreed’. Further, the MWC proposed that immediate steps should be taken to repeal the emergency legislation currently on the statute books. (Indeed the repeal of the Emergency Provisions Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act remain lobbying concerns for the NIWC.) Noting criticisms of RUC special interrogation centres and the RUC’s powers of seven-day detention, it also called on the British government to sign up to the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and to conduct a wide-ranging review of the criminal justice system.
Rights should not be seen as concessions to one side of the community or the other, but rather as the basis for the development of relationships characterised by equality, inclusion and respect for individual and communal rights. In a divided society like Northern Ireland, the NIWC argued, there was a need for effective recognition of a range of communal rights and the development of the concept of equality of treatment and respect for groups. The NIWC wanted to see a ‘right to active citizenship’ and the identification and development of structures and opportunities that would facilitate extended political activity and responsibility throughout local communities and civil society as a whole.
The NIWC also noted the number of incidents inherited from the past that needed to be addressed by the British government and other relevant organisations - issues of alleged collusion, disputed killings and for the IRA, the families of ‘the disappeared’. A new inquiry was needed into the events of Bloody Sunday in Derry, when thirteen people were shot dead by British soldiers, and the subsequent Widgery Inquiry. The notion of the ‘right to truth’ was raised, though not a Truth Commission as mooted in an earlier MWC paper. (This marks another distinguishing characteristic of the NIWC: the ability to develop its thinking in line with the consultation that they continually conduct. Thus, too, the Civic Forum developed from being envisaged as an integral part of an elected assembly to being a separate consultative body.)
Prisoners and victims were two more items on the agenda. No other party even mentioned victims in any of their initial Strand One submissions. The obvious parties mentioned prisoners - the UDP, Sinn Féin and PUP. No party except the NIWC talked about the role of both. The NTWC proposed that all ‘scheduled offenders’ - who were by legal definition deemed to be politically motivated - whose organisations were on ceasefire should be considered for release. International research had demonstrated that some agreement on prisoner releases must be part of any settlement of a violent political conflict involving negotiations that include former combatants. Once the causes of the conflict had been resolved, the circumstances in which the politically motivated offences were committed would no longer exist.
It was also clear to the NIWC that the feelings of victims should be taken into account in the debate surrounding early release of prisoners. It was also important that the views of all victims, and not just the victims of paramilitary organisations, should be taken into account. Victims did not speak with one voice, and this diversity would have to be factored in, making the debate even more complex. The NIWC believed, however, that it was simplistic and dehumanising to suggest that the pain of victims would be reduced in inverse proportion to the pain visited upon perpetrators. Victims, just like a society as a whole, had interests in justice and in peace building.
The NIWC’s concern with reducing social exclusion was principally a concern with reintegrating those most marginalised from society by the conflict. For this reason the NIWC proposed that victims’ organisations should be resourced and supported, as should organisations supporting the reintegration of politically motivated ex-prisoners. Specific reintegration projects ought, generally, it believed, to be self-help initiatives which could be facilitated by statutory and voluntary agencies where possible and appropriate.
There were wider considerations too. The NIWC proposed that any review of the criminal justice system should take into account the need to introduce strong preventative measures and sanctions against violence against women. It also advocated the adoption of an investigative as opposed to the current adversarial approach to the hearing of sexual abuse and domestic violence cases.
Many of these issues made it into the final agreement reached on Good Friday, 10 April 1998, even though it appeared at times that detailed papers were being produced and going nowhere. But George Mitchell was a former judge who liked to have things on paper. So did the British and Irish civil servants. What the NIWC did not realise at the time was that many of their proposals were being banked, and would be processed, and re-presented in the name of others at future times. As had happened with the role and remit of the International Decommissioning Commission, they discovered that one party could set the agenda merely by putting in some time and producing a paper that would form the basis for discussion. The NIWC placed some of the more detailed papers before the talks. Others took the view that the deal would be done outside the negotiation room, and to an extent this was true. But everyone had to come back into the room to agree, and that was when the sheer weight of detail of the NIWC papers was brought to bear.
In the discussions on North-South relations, the NIWC wanted to move away from a conflict mode that emphasised winners and losers - the so-called ‘zero sum game’. Instead they wanted to stress the importance of the parties jointly designing an outcome, or a range of possible outcomes, for the difficulties that faced them. Arguing from time-worn and predetermined positions had a limiting, if not debilitating, effect on negotiations. Some members of the talks team had been deeply struck, on reading the interim South African constitution, of the sense of a common project amongst the participants in that peace process, black, white and coloured. This was a sense that was almost completely absent from the Northern Ireland process, and the NIWC attempted to instil it at every Opportunity.
The NIWC presented a list of questions it felt would help focus on some of the key issues in Strand Two:
The South African model was called upon again to introduce gender into the equality equation. Women needed to be written into the new script -the NIWC argued for equal access for women to any new structures that were produced on the island.
NIWC papers spoke to the need for a commitment to collective responsibility for the outcome of negotiations and for being honest about the compromise so that there would be a shared project to put to the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic. There should be an acceptance of change in the Republic of Ireland as well as in Northern Ireland, and the agreement must strive to weave a web of relationships - North-South, East-West, and between regions on the island. North-South institutional arrangements should specifically address the need to establish common principles of civil, religious and human rights, rooted in the concepts of equality and pluralism.
In its approach to constitutional issues, the NIWC placed priority on aspects that would bring benefit and progress to the people of the island of Ireland, and that promoted cooperation and interdependence among people in Ireland, and between the people of Ireland, Britain and the European Union.
Both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have small, open economies that share many common challenges, such as dealing with long-term unemployment, low levels of research and development, and heavy reliance on the agriculture sector. Whilst twice as many people are employed in manufacturing in the Republic as in Northern Ireland, both sectors are small in European terms. The NIWC thus proposed mechanisms for cooperation and cross-border decision-making to facilitate strategic economic planning on a cross-border basis. Citing the competition between the Industrial Development Agency (in the South) and the Industrial Development Board (in the North) as an example of almost anti-strategic planning, it said that they should instead work to complement each other, and not allow multinational investors to play one region of the island off against the other. Supporting them should be an all-island economic infrastructure in terms of energy, transport and research and development activity. Industrial clusters should be created straddling the border. The beneficial impact of planning for an all-island economy should include the creation of a single, high-quality labour market.
Citizenship was another key theme for the NIWC, which proposed that people born in Northern Ireland should be able to opt for British, Irish or dual citizenship. If articles 2 and 3 of the Republic’s constitution were to be amended, the NIWC proposed that new legislation should guarantee those from Northern Ireland who elected to carry an Irish passport a more inclusive and active representation in Seanad Éireann - as already applied to the university sector in the Republic. The NIWC also mooted that Northern Irish people should ‘potentially have a direct vote in Irish Presidential elections’ and that district councils in Northern Ireland should possibly have the right to make nominations for the presidency on the same basis as county councils in the Republic. In other words, in place of the territorial claim, the NIWC sought a more active effort by the Republic of Ireland to include those people of Northern Ireland who chose to exercise the right in a more active Irish citizenship.
This reiterated the NIWC view that North-South relations cut both ways - the South had to accept change every bit as much as the North did. It also showed once again that the NIWC was not afraid to test positions out - even when it was not 100 per cent sure of them itself.
The NIWC also argued that the rights attached to British citizenship should be guaranteed by the UK government for so long as the people of Northern Ireland wished to avail of them. On issues of identity, the NIWC recognised the importance of people in Northern Ireland being Irish, British, or Ulster and British, or Ulster and Irish, or whatever their preferred definition was. A purist sense of either ‘Irishness’ or ‘Britishness’ could not be taken as the essential requirement of political credibility or of acceptable political allegiance.
One of the rights that the NLWC accepted was the right of people within Northern Ireland either to aspire to the reunification of the people of the island of Ireland, or to wish for Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK. It is a measure of the NIWC’s cross-community ethos that it could in consecutive paragraphs support both Sinn Féin and the UUP. Thus it supported a Sinn Féin proposal for financial and other support for ‘mutual understanding and contact between individuals ... and communities’, but taking on board the UUP’s views, it felt that this support could apply to the East-West axis as well as the North-South. The NIWC thus proposed a consultative Council of the Regions which would cover the regions of both Britain and Ireland. The NIWC’s view was that development along either axis did not exclude development along the other. The proposal found favour with the UUP, and John Taylor was keen to discuss the notion with the NIWC. The UUP proposed a Council of the Isles, which amounted to much the same thing. The NIWC was content to have its idea subsumed by others - what mattered was the fact that it was on the agenda, and being taken seriously.
In its submissions the NIWC asserted its aspiration for the development of a recognised interdependence and mutuality between the people of the two islands, rather than narrow concentration on territorial claims. And as a preliminary step to establishing common benchmarks and standards for human rights north and south of the border, the NIWC advocated a coordinated North-South examination of the potential impact of the UNESCO Culture of Peace concept for the island. In essence this concept is based on encouraging values, attitudes and behaviour that reinforce nonviolence and respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms of every person. It hinges on a celebration and acceptance of people’s rights to be different and their right to a peaceful secure existence in their communities. The NTWC detailed some of the core concepts of the National Culture of Peace Programmes devised by UNESCO, such as nonviolent management of conflict, development of democratic procedures, development of sustainable, indigenous and equitable political processes. It noted also that UNESCO highlighted the centrality of women to any successful process. Indeed, it felt that any future Commissions on the Status of Women should be implemented on a North-South basis.
In its response to the governments’ proposals on Strand Three, relations between the British and Irish governments, the MWC supported the proposal for a standing Intergovernmental Conference with clear lines of reporting, and put forward again the notion of a Council of the Regions. On the principle of consent, the NIWC believed that the concept must mean the achievement of the widest possible consent of the people of Northern Ireland, and not just simple majoritarianism. It accepted the guiding principle set out in the 1995 Framework Documents that ‘the consent of the governed is an essential ingredient for stability in any political agreement’. The challenge was thus to create political structures and arrangements that could command initial broad consent and which had the potential to reflect a continued broad consensus over time.
The NIWC made additional submissions to the Liaison Subcommittee on Confidence Building (LSCCB). Highlighting the positive role that exprisoners had played in the peace process, it called for ex-prisoners’ organisations such as EPIC and Tar Anall to be supported for their unique contribution in reintegrating former prisoners into their communities. A programme of prisoner release was to be linked to the eventual agreement, but the NIWC felt that there was scope for immediate action to boost confidence by increasing prisoner remission above 50 per cent and by enabling all prisoners who required a transfer closer to their families to have this facilitated as a matter of urgency - a human right that would greatly ease the suffering of the families (mainly women) involved. Barbara McCabe, who sat on the LSCCB with Annie Campbell, was increasingly frustrated with its lack of progress. It was a case of almost all the debates turning into a pile of shopping lists - ‘we want such and such’. The NIWC’s position was, not so much about unionists needing confidence building (though they did), or nationalists needing confidence building (though they did), but building confidence in the process between the public and the political participants. In the last year of the talks, it was obvious that confidence was very low in people outside, but the NIWC was defeated in repeated attempts to progress the issue. There were just shopping lists, and more shopping lists.
For the NIWC representatives on the committee, prisoners were the first item on the agenda. The reason was that as the prisoners were withdrawing support for the process, the NIWC representatives felt there was a need to demonstrate that the talks participants were serious about dealing with the issue. It was additionally important for the NIWC to raise the issue precisely because it was perceived not to have a vested interest in the early release of prisoners. For Campbell it was a big responsibility particularly when the releases actually began. ‘I can remember one night waking up in a cold sweat. There had just been a huge emotional hype about the releases, and I was thinking, I’ve been part of releasing those people, and what if? So it’s a heavy responsibility, I took it very seriously.’ The NIWC representatives on the LSCCB acted as a fault line running through the committee, continually shocking those on the broad unionist side, especially as both NIWC representatives were from Protestant backgrounds.
The NIWC also singled out victims’ organisations such as WAVE and An Crann as doing valuable work and being in need of resources. It called for the impact of the conflict to be highlighted, including the effects on children of having family members imprisoned or killed. Little or no provision was available in Northern Ireland for bereaved children and young adults, and with virtually no junior psychiatric beds, the NIWC noted that minors were likely to find themselves admitted to adult wards. Bereavement and counselling organisations generally were attempting to deal with the upsurge in depression and mental distress often associated with the winding down of a conflict, without additional resources. No one else was highlighting these kinds of issues in their papers. It is nevertheless remarkable how many of these concerns found their way not only into the agreement, but also into Sir Ken Bloomfield’s report on behalf of the Victims Commission - We Will Remember Them - published in 1998. Though no other party specifically mentioned victims in their written documentation, Sinn Féin, the UDP and the PUP all expressed a wish to put the matter on the agenda, but knew that this would not have been accepted by the other parties.
The LSCCB was visited from time to time by Secretary of State Mo Mowlam, who would come to evaluate progress. In effect, that meant considering the various wish lists. But she was a politician used to dealing in the real world, where wish lists are never good enough. McCabe recalls a particular occasion when Mowlam came to hear views on the prisoners issue:
Her reaction was to say, Well, OK, we can’t put any time scale on this but what we could do is to work on a policy which is then ready to put in place. And the others said, But we’ve already done it, here it is, we’ve done our papers. She responded by saying, These are sweeping generalisations in these papers, we have to turn this into policy. It was interesting because I suddenly looked around the room and thought, Nobody in this room has ever written a policy about anything - it has to actually be turned into some sort of practice - and now they all will be in government, it’s scary.
The LSCCB was interesting, in spite of the shopping lists, and lessons learned were fed into other NIWC positions. Policing was one such issue. Ken Maginnis is the policing and security spokesperson for the UUP. There is little detailed debate about policing within the UUP, and the UUP finds it difficult to accept any criticism of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. When the NIWC representatives put the view that a lot of communities felt alienated from policing, and that paramilitary activities in those communities reflected a lack of legitimacy of the RUC in those areas, the loyalist groupings around the table supported them. McCabe suggested that one of the obvious points to make on the debate was that people in Northern Ireland have very different experiences of policing. She spoke about her own experiences of growing up in north Down, where the RUC had a relatively positive relationship with the community. She also had friends who lived in Mullaghbawn in south Armagh, whom she visited regularly. In south Armagh the term ‘policing’ is a misnomer, she said - in ten years of visiting, she had never seen a police officer. The area was, and continues to be, policed by low-flying army helicopters, with army personnel patrolling fields and roads. It was a fact of life that people like Ken Maginnis had never experienced policing like that. Neither had the loyalists, for all their alienation in urban areas. McCabe made the point that on this issue, as on all others, participants would have to realise and acknowledge others’ perspectives: just because it is not your experience doesn’t mean it isn’t the experience of others.
For all his bombastic ways, Maginnis was listening. One of the loyalist representatives passed on Maginnis’s reaction to McCabe’s arguments. He had been standing beside Maginnis in the lunch queue, when Maginnis had turned around and said, ‘If that wee girl’s representative of the women of Northern Ireland, heaven help us all.’
There were moments of fun on the subcommittee. Both Campbell and McCabe got on well with Billy Mitchell of the PUP. Mitchell and Campbell both defined themselves as socialists, and one day the subcommittee was talking about poverty issues in the context of confidence building. Campbell recalls that ‘there was a clear class division emerging with the Alliance and the UUP who just didn’t know what we were going on about’. Papers had been issued and the question had been put, ‘What are we going to do about all this?’ Mitchell immediately flicked his microphone switch, lighting up the little red light at its cap. ‘Bring back Clause 4!’ Campbell lit her light in instant support. ‘Bring back Clause 4.’ (Clause 4 represented the British Labour Party’s early commitment to the public ownership of industry. The clause was dropped after a campaign led by Tony Blair.) The others didn’t know how to respond, and there was confused silence, punctured only by laughter from Campbell and Mitchell.
The position papers drawn up by the NTWC and the other parties in autumn 1997 provided common papers to work from in the run-up to the talks deadline (which was originally set at 30 May 1998). On a trip to South Africa in December 1997, delegates from all parties bet on how long the actual deal would take to be done. Four days was the average wager. It would, in the end, take five days, but those five days did have to be preceded by the lengthy and expensive therapy process that was the talks process. In late 1997 and early 1998, NIWC’s key priorities had to be to insert some political will into the talks process and to boost confidence in it. Because of their absolute belief in the project and determination to make it work, members continually talked up the talks process, even when it appeared to be on its deathbed - at meetings, in pubs and clubs. No matter what size the audience, the message was: the process is going to work. We will get an agreement.
It was particularly difficult to be positive in the climate of early 1998, when fear literally stalked the streets. Catholics were being murdered by loyalists simply for being Catholics - particularly Catholics who had taken personal risks and were working in Protestant areas, or in Protestant businesses. A relative of Gerry Adams was among those killed, and some loyalists also were killed during this period, friends of UDP delegates. Desirable as sharing may have been, segregation was a survival tactic. It was sheer courage of convictions that propelled many NIWC members through those hard few months.
In January 1998, the talks got close to another major turning point. In the end the quasi-composite paper the governments produced on 12 January fitted on the front and back of an A4 page. The ‘Propositions on Heads of Agreement' was a first skeleton draft of what emerged as the Good Friday Agreement. The NIWC had no huge concerns with the content of the document - except that there was no reference to a Civic Forum. It wasn’t perfect, but it had potential. What was of greater concern shortly afterwards was the possible expulsion of the UDP.
Devising ways to inject fresh impetus to the process was difficult for the governments, but one that was planned was a move to London in January and to the former seat of British rule in Ireland, Dublin Castle, in February. But once more, events on the streets were allowed to impede political progress. This had been a distinguishing feature of politics in Northern Ireland ever since the latest phase of the conflict began. From the deaths of Seamus Cusack and Desmond Beattie in Derry in 1971, which prevented SDLP representatives from taking their seats in a devolved assembly, through to the fall of the power-sharing Executive in 1974, Northern Irish politicians have exhibited all too readily the limits of their leadership. Times of street turbulence and anarchy are, however, precisely the times when political leadership and engagement with the other side are necessary. The slaughter in January 1998 threatened, finally, to unseat the whole process. A steady hand was needed to steer it through its most difficult times, not non-engagement.
The move to London introduced some novelty to the talks process. The PUP, UDP, Alliance and NIWC delegations were put up in the same comfortable - but not plush - hotel on Charing Cross Road. The fifteen-minute walk in the cold, golden winter mornings alongside St James’s Park, down the tree-lined avenue of the Mall to the office in Lancaster House - with a view onto Buckingham Palace’s back yard - was a world away from the daily drive to the dreary building of the routine talks. That walk, though, took our delegates past numerous homeless people on the streets, who were stood on or over by commuters. The British government had, like Northern Ireland, its own problems too.
Even though the NIWC had got used to media coverage, the walk into Lancaster House was extremely intimidating. Sinn Féin and the DUP always travelled in groups of at least five when greeting the media, and the other parties began to emulate them - except that the NIWC did not always have five people to walk into a building. To deal with the potential pitfalls of addressing the world’s press, the NIWC press officer used to prime a friendly Northern Ireland journalist to ask at least one feeder question when Monica McWilliams or Pearl Sagar had finished speaking. In many respects it was a good job the negotiations process was so slow -there was so much to learn.
The first day of the Lancaster House talks was dominated completely by the issue of whether the UDP should be expelled from the talks because of the sectarian murders that had recently been carried out by the UDA in violation of its ceasefire. The UDP had worked to have the UDA take responsibility for the murders, but evidently sincerely thought that the party would not be expelled. The UDP delegates had not lobbied any other political party; they had not sought to clarify the positions of other parties on their expulsion. The only party that went out on a limb for them was the NIWC. Yet that had not been a foregone conclusion. The UDP had to explain itself to the NIWC delegation if the latter were to persuade others, principally the British government, of the merits of non-exclusion. The NIWC delegates, for their part, were persuaded by the UDP representatives that losing their place at the talks had been a secondary consideration in getting the murders to stop. In the NIWC’s view, the UDP had been actively implementing the Mitchell Principles - doing all in its power to prevent violence. The NIWC wanted to keep the UDP inside the talks process, but when the government refused to consider an alternative to expulsion, the NIWC advised the UDP to leave voluntarily rather than subject themselves to the humiliation of indictment. The UDP did indeed leave and when it was formally expelled later that same day, the NIWC was the only party saying it should not happen. It was from this point, when McWilliams strode with determination into the press tent (a top-of-the-range marquee complete with mobile studios, phone and computer lines, and, best of all, a free restaurant) that the media began to treat the NIWC seriously. Journalists began to see that the principle of inclusion was not a well-meaning piece of rhetoric, but a hard and meaningful piece of political principle that presented difficulties in its application. What marked out the NIWC from the other parties was a consistent vision of what it wanted, and where it wanted to go. This meant that the UDP should not be expelled - as that would mean that their views were not included in the talks, and make it much less likely that they would sign up to the outcome, let alone support any eventual agreement.
On reflection, McWilliams acknowledges the risk the NIWC delegation took. It was a big internal turning point. They were difficult times, but the NIWC continued to meet with the UDP during its exclusion period, just as they had met Sinn Féin representatives before that party was permitted to enter the talks process.
The NIWC had brought administrators Ann McCann and Liz Byrne-McCullough with them to London. With typical concern for the practical, McCann had left Belfast with high hopes. But when the three days were played out, she returned in anger. She felt that taxpayers’ money had been wasted and almost guilty that she had had nothing to do because the debate was mainly over the expulsion of the UDP.
On their return from London, delegates found that the format of the chamber where meetings were held had been changed. Plenary meetings now used only half the square footage of earlier sessions. A coffee dispenser (which rattled noisily when used) had been installed, and complimentary biscuits and sweet buns for delegates had been placed behind pink padded screens. Here, chairs had been arranged in little huddle groups conducive to personal conversation. It may have seemed too little, too late, but it did contribute to a better working environment. The much smaller room produced a more intimate method of negotiating, and it was here that some of the real exchanges of the talks took place. Participants began to engage. But it didn’t last long. Trimble seemed to lose interest, leaving most of the UUP positions to be defended and promoted by Reg Empey. When the rest of the parties didn’t bite at the Heads of Agreement document, he just left. And that was part of the problem: he was hardly ever there except in the last couple of weeks.
When the talks moved to Dublin in March (for some reason the NIWC had struck it lucky, having been allocated accommodation in the Shelbourne hotel) the Alliance Party attempted to move an indictment against Sinn Féin, proposing its expulsion from the talks because of two recent murders allegedly carried out by the IRA. Again, much wrangling took place. Sinn Féin proved a much more formidable actor than the UDP, which had gone quietly. Sinn Féin took legal advice and requested an adjournment to make an application in court for a judicial review of the procedure. So far, it had been hard to call their baseline attitude to the talks. All their papers to date had been written in a thirty-two-county context - a perspective utterly different from that of any other participant, including the Irish government. But the degree of seriousness with which Sinn Féin treated the indictment indicated precisely how serious they were about the talks process and their desire to be part of it.
The Dublin discussions were incredibly tense. Sinn Féin wanted to stay, and was pulling out all the stops to do so. Again the NIWC defended an inclusive process as a means to the end goal of a balanced agreement. Serving indictment after indictment, Monica McWilliams argued, only led to a situation where the focus of the talks was lost. And as the date for the settlement drew nearer, the other parties had a vital supportive role to play by issuing collective statements that no amount of violence would be allowed to undermine the political process. Those parties who would support the ejection of other, elected parties to the process on the basis of actions carried out by those outside the room were at risk, the NIWC argued, of allowing violence to set the agenda, and of guaranteeing that a broad-based and stable agreement would not be reached. Jane Wilde remembers a private meeting the NIWC held with Sinn Féin to explore ways of supporting their inclusion in the process. The NTWC had needed to ascertain whether Sinn Féin was serious about the talks process - there was a certain element in the media, and some mutterings in Dublin Castle, that Sinn Féin were looking for an exit route. A further meeting just before Sinn Féin were expelled convinced Wilde of Sinn Féin’s seriousness: ‘Anyone who had been at the meeting would be in no doubt that Sinn Féin wanted to stay in ... Any doubt that I ever had ... was ruled out by that meeting. They were desperately keen to stay in, and very, very anxious.’
The actions involving Sinn Féin and the UDP helped to develop the NIWC’s ideas on the need for an inclusive deal. Speaking in defence of Sinn Féin’s inclusion, McWilliams for the first time put forward the argument that the political centre could not deliver a deal that would stick - there could be no lasting settlement involving solely the SDLP, the UUP and the two governments, perhaps propped up by the Alliance. Earlier deals had not worked precisely because they only involved the ‘centre’ or ‘constitutional’ parties (in terms of the use of violence). The N1WC analysis boiled down to this: we’re all part of the problem, and we’re therefore all part of the solution.
In the run-up to the eventual deal, this analysis became part of the NIWC message: There will be a deal, but it cannot be a deal of the centre. The first part of this message crystallised the belief in the talks process that was becoming an intangible, inexplicable, but inextricable part of the process. In a seminal interview on RTE’s Late Late Show hosted by Gay Byrne, McWilliams declared, ‘[We] have this thing in the palm of our hands. We are going to make it.’ Even as she said it, she felt she was sticking her neck out. But simultaneously she felt that the process needed groups like the NIWC to stay positive.
While ostensibly the Lancaster House and the Dublin Castle talks were a waste of time, they did bring benefits to the NIWC, on two fronts. One, the NIWC set up meetings with key political actors at Westminster and Leinster House. Party delegations attending these meetings were struck by how seriously politicians from outside Northern Ireland appeared to take their ideas and analyses. It was almost as if they were being treated as serious politicians for the first time, unlike at home where they were often seen as objects of derision at the Forum, and interfering busybodies at the talks. Second, following the publication of the Heads of Agreement document and their governments’ paper on North-South structures in January, the two governments really started turning up the heat on participants. Government papers were produced in line with both the governments’ own position and also the areas of common ground in the papers of the various participants. All government papers now detailed questions that the participants had to respond to. It seemed that the governments were tired of pussyfooting around the participants, and receiving low-quality papers. The parties had bounced every ball back to the governments since the inception of the talks. Now the governments were returning them straight back again.
In February, the Business Committee agreed to extend the working week of the talks. It had long been a concern of the NIWC that the three days of working - Monday to Wednesday - were blocking progress. The gap of four non-working days from Thursday to Sunday was not conducive to the development of working relationships, and there was the additional danger that, if anything was achieved in the three working days, the four non-working days could be used to denigrate that work. It was a case often of three steps forward, four steps back. The talks were thus extended into a fourth day, Thursday.
To some NIWC activists, it had seemed that all the detail in the previously prepared papers had dissolved into the ether. But the papers proved to be excellent groundwork when the NIWC was called on to respond rapidly to the governments’ new-found speed in negotiating. The governments’ questions provided food for thought, and required serious answers. In Strand Two, for instance, the previous work the NIWC had done enabled it to propose a ‘duty of service’ in ministerial briefs; this later found shape in the Good Friday Agreement’s ‘pledge of office’. The NIWC’s idea of a Civic Forum made its way into the government questions on strands One and Two: ‘Might there be a role for any other institutions such as an all-island consultative forum for bringing together representatives of civil society and the social partners?’ The idea was thus in with a fighting chance of making it into the final agreement.
In February, the independent chairs presented the first ‘synthesis paper’ highlighting outstanding areas of disagreement over North-South relations and areas requiring further probing: these now became the focus of discussion. For instance, the summary on the role of civil society read: ‘While several parties either support the establishment of a consultative forum involving representatives of civil society from North and South, or would wish to study the idea further, one party is opposed and others are silent on the issue.' This was not necessarily good. Neither was it necessarily bad. But as the process of negotiation began to be much more focused, the NIWC had to identify its allies and its opponents, find out what were the positive and negative points in their proposals, and consolidate and persuade as appropriate.
As the talks headed into March and ever closer to the May deadline, the tension became palpable. All the time that remained of the allotted two years were three working weeks in March (the annual St Patrick’s week sojourn to Washington would be attended by virtually all participants), four in April and four in May. On their return from the USA the participants found that George Mitchell had set a new deadline - Thursday 9 April. This panicked some delegates, but was welcomed by others, including the NIWC.
At this time there was a sense that most of the wheeling and dealing now went on outside the talks room, in places to which the NIWC delegates had no access. Frustrated, they nevertheless persevered, and continued to draw on their earlier position papers in order to provide answers to the governments’ questions. At times the NIWC delegates weren’t sure if they were simply going through the motions and would be presented with a fait accompli to sign. It was important, though, to be there, and, in the end, it was this attention to detail, and not to the greater political trading blocks, that ensured that much of the content of their position papers made it into the final agreement.
The penultimate week flew furiously by, and everyone knew the week to come would make or break the process. The prevailing view was that it was time to see all the discussions formatted into a final shape, together in the one document. Agreement on this underlined for everyone just how high-risk the ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’ process was. Going into the last week, there was absolutely nothing banked, there was no common touchstone, and no one was a stakeholder in anything, because nothing had yet been agreed. And yet everything must be agreed -in five days.
It was decided that Jane Wilde and Bronagh Hinds would take the lead in coordinating the NIWC’s negotiating in that week. Early on, they realised that they were not having the impact they wanted. They needed to find out who was where in terms of political positions on various parts of the propositions, and who the NIWC needed to target for lobbying. Finally, they went to an NIO civil servant and challenged the way the process was being run. Hinds recalls being very firm, saying, ‘Look, discussions are going on here, the first draft is being written, and we have things to say. We need to have someone we can talk to.’ So the NIWC was given an NIO liaison person who was directly involved in the drafting of the agreement.
At one of the first meetings with their link person, Hinds outlined the NIWC position in no uncertain terms, going through the issues: the election system, the Civic Forum, human rights and so on. He sat, diligently taking notes. Wilde was also at the meeting, and she could hardly believe what Hinds said next. ‘I don’t know if this is very clear here, but I know other parties are putting stuff in and there’s a lot of tension around the Sinn Féin content, and the SDLP content and the UUP content. But people think we’ve just come into this damn process. I don’t think that people have really understood that we have come here with an agenda as well. And I’m telling you that because we are getting things left out of the draft paper. Let me tell you that the Civic Forum is our bottom line. No Civic Forum, we have to consider our position.’
And so the drafters realised there were certain elements that the NIWC had to get. The NIWC wasn’t going to support the agreement come what may. Hinds recalls, ‘From that moment, they realised that we had some serious content issues.’
Everyone was waiting for the first draft agreement, which was scheduled to be ready on the Friday of the penultimate week. When it failed to arrive, tensions, already high, began to rise. Parties began to blame other parties for the delay. That weekend was an anticlimax, as everyone had prepared to work over Saturday and Sunday on the anticipated first draft.
That finally appeared on Monday night, 6 April. There was a small hiccup before it reached the participants. Mitchell’s photocopier had broken down, and Martha Pope, his chief aide, ran frantically up and down the corridor trying to find a working photocopier. There happened to be a reprographics room beside the NIWC’s offices. Avila Kilmurray gave Pope a hand in copying a couple of pages of this most wanted document. The independent chairpersons then submitted it for the participants’ consideration.
Though treated as if it were dynamite by unionists, and, inexplicably, by the Alliance Party, the first draft contained no real surprises. When it arrived the NIWC knew, and said, that no one was going to go back to war over the document. Others will record the reactions of other parties, but for the NIWC delegation it was the negotiating opportunity they had been waiting for for two years. Most of the delegation was fairly happy with the draft - there had been some fears the previous week that some civil servants were saying ‘can’t’ when Mowlam had instructed them to ‘do’. Kilmurray was surprised at the vehement unionist reaction to the first draft. ‘To be honest, Jane Wilde and I laughed when we saw that grey-hounds and fish were going to be harmonised across the border. OK, the tone of some of it in terms of the double spacing used for the pages on the Irish language made it look as if it had got three pages whereas somebody else got one page with single-line spacing. But if anything, I thought the cross-border elements were fairly weak.’ She was particularly surprised at the reaction of some loyalist party delegates. One kept saying, ‘It’s a disaster, we can’t sell it.’ According to Kilmurray, ‘Though mainstream unionism had taken the high moral ground with the media, stating that Sinn Féin had won all these concessions, when you looked closely at the document, it wasn’t there. They had gained very few concessions.’ Soon, all the members of the NIWC delegation had a copy of the first draft, and were poring over the details, outlining questions, suggesting word changes, highlighting words in ink or fluorescent marker. A draft agreement had been a long thne coming, but it was here at last.
The draft opened up differences in the delegation not only over some of the content, but also in how, and how much, individuals participated. At this point delegates came to realise the primacy of the written word in politics. For all the extra-tabular discussions, if it wasn’t written down, it didn’t exist. For some of the women on the delegation, writing was their metier: where to place or shift that comma; what the impact of saying ‘would’ instead of ‘could’, ‘may’ instead of ‘should’ was; what was missing from lists and annexes; what subclause related to what main clause, and how the cross-references between them worked. As soon as the draft was received, these delegates were in their element: they did what they had been doing for years in other political and campaigning organisations, scanning the document for absolutely everything - political lacunae, pedestrian gaps - preparing amendments. But what was also needed in terms of the negotiations at that stage was to make sure exactly where the other parties were standing on every issue. Dispelling rumours that could get out of hand or up the ante was an important role for the NIWC in the final week. Sagar recalls that, from the beghining, there were those within the NIWC who wrote, those who analysed, and those who made friends. All three elements combined in the final week to ensure the talks team’s effectiveness in negotiation.
It was also important to present possibilities. McWilliams was very aware of balance in the document, but when other people were fearful of not making it, for the NIWC it was always a matter of ‘We can redraft.’ And they did. This was when the relationship built up with the chairs really paid off. Later in the week, the delegation’s good working relationship with the officials who were doing the drafting also paid off. This was another relationship whose eventual importance the NIWC members had not fully realised in advance. They had been polite and hard-working for two years, and had treated everyone as people having something to offer - from the secretaries to the Secretary of State. On a human level, these good relations yielded dividends.
From the Monday night then, the NIWC knew that agreement was going to happen. The delegates went home late, and came in early the following day. Everything was there that they had negotiated hard on in terms of policing, prisoners, human rights, and the three strands, but there was little in terms of the ideas and issues originating from the NIWC. From early Tuesday, they began to argue for their issues. The Civic Forum was fast going out the window, the election system was sinking, and there were only four lines on victims.
For some women in the delegation, the amount of paperwork and reading that had to happen was off-putting. And in the final week, with all hours possible being worked, it was not possible to sit down and explain the impact of certain paragraphs. Much time was taken up at the photocopier - which Sinn Féin invariably got to first - as only four copies of everything came from the independent chairs. Pearl Sagar was one of those who felt unable to participate in this process as fully as she would have liked. But there were missions other than drafting new amendments. And these she carried out with gusto.
One in particular concerned a new amendment in the human rights section. The NIWC decided that it had not been in the process for two years for nothing to be acknowledged about women’s rights, and thus proposed the addition of ‘the right of women to full and equal political participation’ (wording arrived at only after revisiting the Beijing conference document and considering the wording of the Guatemalan peace agreement as found on the Internet). The offensive to have this inserted was mounted on a number of fronts. First, Sagar went to visit Mo Mowlam, who was being jealously guarded by her officials. Not to be put off, Sagar hung around the corridor. When Mowlam appeared, Pearl said she needed to speak to her urgently, so they shared a toilet cubicle while Pearl told her about the provision. Mo went back into her offices, and Sagar, after a quick Menthol Light in the toilet of the non-smoking building, went out into the corridor again. Here she met one of the officials, who told her she was not allowed to see the Secretary of State. She laughed. ‘Been there, done that, worn the T-shirt,’ she informed the stunned official. ‘You’re too late.’
Other officials were open to suggestion from the NIWC. They just needed a little persuading. For example, once Mowlam had deemed the issue of women’s rights to be important enough to be pursued, one male official sat late into the night, looking slightly bewildered amongst ten women, trying to discover if rational arguments really existed for its inclusion. The rights laid down in the agreement, he observed, were specifically relevant to a situation of conflict - where did women fit in? ‘It’s simple,’ Avila Kilmurray told him, quoting Derry civil rights activist Cathy Harkin. ‘We’ve been living in an armed patriarchy for the past thirty years!’
‘Oh, right,’ came the sensible reply. And that was it. The NIWC addition was in. Once in, no one dared take it out.
The week flew by. A sense of camaraderie seemed to blossom amongst the participants, despite the often acrimonious bilateral negotiations that were now going on. There were no plenary sessions: each delegation was on its own, except when it wanted to be with others. Bizarrely, each party would throw its amendments into a pot upstairs, and only the governments, the secretariat and the chairs could see the full picture at any one time. It was in this context that the NIWC excelled. Communication and clarification became key abilities in this environment, and the organisation had them aplenty. It kept several lines of communication open. One function of these was to communicate to the governments, via civil servants and directly to ministers what the NIWC would and would not accept. Another was to clarify who was with and who was against NIWC proposals, and how far those who were for them would actually defend their insertion. Another was to lobby other parties on NIWC proposals so that in their private bilateral meetings with the governments they would not reject government presentations that contained NIWC proposals.
The NIWC had to make sure their bits weren’t thrown out in the move to a new draft. McWilliams, Sagar and others literally sat outside civil servants’ doors until they came out for air, waiting to see whether there were still brackets around certain clauses. (Brackets around clauses meant they were still on the table, but not yet agreed. They could go either way.)
NIWC delegates trooped around all the offices - gleaning whatever in-formation they could, and ascertaining how much information others had. They exited Paul Murphy’s room very fast when they discovered he didn’t have a hard copy of the most recently agreed version of the draft, and flew around the corridors to try to find out where it was. The fact that after the first draft had been completed, the only copy of the draft agreement was on disk, and the only people who had a complete vista were the people on the fifth floor - the chairs, the secretariat and the British government - created additional problems: the first, that of finding out how to make changes to something that wasn’t in front of you, and then actually making the changes; the second, that of scurrying between the Irish government, and the British government, finding civil servants, and making sure they knew what the issues were, running to where the prisoners people were, running back to the policing people, lobbying other parties who were involved with all these moves, and more. The process was frenetic, but it was also the first time the building really came alive. It was also a time for finding out how such documents are put together. From one of the civil servants came the information that the remit of any section is outlined in the first paragraph, and that it is called a ‘châpeau’. If what you wanted to be in the section wasn’t in the châpeau, or couldn’t be interpreted as being derived from the châpeau, then it was virtually impossible to add it to a related subsection later. Kilmurray has suggested that ‘if we had known that some time ago, we could have actually got a lot more in. Because what we then would have been looking for is what the main châpeaux cover, and thinking about how to make our themes fit with them.’
Suggesting new forms of language to other parties and the drafters which would render their proposals acceptable to others without radically altering their impact became the NIWC’s focus as the week wore on and the pieces began to fall into place. To compound all the difficulties, the building began to fill up with people, ‘talks tourists’, as the NIWC called them. No one knew who belonged to what party, secretariat, or government. The only group that was readily identifiable was the intelligence officers, the heavy squad. One man who introduced himself to McWilliams turned out to be from a solicitor’s firm. So that was what was going on. At least one party had brought in drafting lawyers. The NIWC had only themselves.
And there was a hungry media to feed. One minute McWilliams would be drafting, the next she would switch mode and run out into the sub-zero temperatures, do an interview, and then run back inside to start reading and writing again.
The whole week had a surreal feel to it. The NIWC, the last delegation to leave on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, at around 2a.m., witnessed the car park and press corps areas deserted. The helicopters of the Prime Minister and Taoiseach were lifting off at the same time, and the darkness, the noise, the rain, the whirling wind and the lights flashing red and green in the black sky made the scene seem like something out of the film Apocalypse Now.
Delegates would arrive back in each morning at 8a.m. for a new day’s work. A bagful of fruit and several litres of water dominated the NIWC worktable: the late-night catering was fine, but too much confectionery and coffee were consumed to make for healthy delegates. Nevertheless, the NIWC found that staying late at night, though exhausting, really helped the negotiation process. It provided genuine opportunities to get to know other parties’ delegates socially, on a human level, which had never happened before. For the first time David Trimble chatted amiably to non-elected members of the NIWC delegation. In the previous two years he had never acknowledged their existence. The small bar area was the fullest it had ever been, late into the night, the squeeze making it impossible to ignore those around you. Not a great deal of alcohol was consumed, but since it was the only place where smoking was allowed, it was always foggy with the blue smoke of the pipes of David Ervine and Seamus Mallon, and the fumes of innumerable cigarettes. By late evening, everyone would be in the bar or canteen watching the wall-to-wall coverage of the negotiations - when BBC Northern Ireland went off air, it was straight on to BBC News 24. If someone made strong, passionate statements, and particularly when they scored a direct hit on Paisley - whose DUP had stayed outside the negotiations and was denouncing the agreement even before it had been reached - there would be loud cheering and laughter in the bar. Whenever the same hero or heroine of the airwaves reentered the bar, there was sure to be a drink or applause awaiting them.
On the afternoon and evening of Thursday 9 April, the deadline George Ivlitchell had set for agreement, members of the NIWC and their families began to make their way up to Castle Buildings. Felicity Huston decided to bring her two children, Alexander, aged four, and Patrick, aged two. As they set off, Felicity told Alexander, a very astute little boy, that he might see some people he had only seen on television. What would he do if he met someone like Gerry Adams, she asked? (She did this partly lest he should scream if Adams came along.) Alexander was taking with him some balloons with PEACE written on them. He said, ‘I won’t give him a balloon unless he promises not to kill anybody anymore.’ Yes, Huston said, this is all about getting to a situation where no one will be killing anyone anymore. The explanations have to be simplistic when you’re four.
At Castle Buildings, the first person they met was Mitchel McLaughlin, who greeted them with a friendly ‘Hello, boys!’ They made their way into the NIWC cell, where Huston began to talk with Ann McCann while others chatted to Alexander and Patrick. The next minute, Adams and McGuinness walked by the office. They did a double take, and came in to see the kids. Huston recalls what happened next. ‘I wasn’t sure which was worse, my first-time face-to-face with Gerry Adams - I’ve been at functions where he was, but never so close - or worrying what Alexander was going to say. Particularly when Adams asked for one of his balloons. Alexander’s eyes were out on their stalks - the bogey man had walked in - and he gave it to him, and I thought, Please don’t say anything. But Adams made a joke about it - how it was orange and he couldn’t go out and see the press with an orange balloon. So that was a relief ... But Alexander dined out on it for about a month - he told his teachers, told his granny in Ballymoney (she nearly had a canary!) that he had met Gerry Adams.’
It was still difficult for Huston to be in an environment where old hate figures were walking around. But she recognised that Adams and McGuinness had much more to lose than David Trimble: ‘Trimble will be alive, but I wonder does Adams watch that Michael Collins film often … that’s the thing you have to think of, those guys have actually ... put their lives on the line.’
The master copy of the draft agreement was constantly being updated, on disk only. Work continued all through the night of George Mitchell’s imposed deadline. It was a tough night, and there were tears to come. But there was also humour, and warmth and humanity.
Pearl Sagar’s most enjoyable memory of Thursday/Friday night was of heckling Ian Paisley as he attempted to conduct a middle-of-the-night press conference. She stood in the audience shouting, ‘What about peace now, Dr Paisley?’ She enjoyed every second of heckling the man because she felt that he had done so little for Protestant people over the previous twenty-eight years. This realisation was probably the biggest shock for her in the whole process. Like most Protestants she knew, she had always believed that Paisley spoke for Protestants. But that night she knew he did not. Well, not for Protestants like her.
As the night wore on, many more NIWC members and friends and their families made their way to the cell; at times there were bodies everywhere, trying to snatch a few minutes’ sleep in the midst of the quiet bedlam of the corridor conferencing. There were bodies everywhere in the media hut too, seventy or eighty international staffers and freelancers. Some had had the foresight to bring sleeping bags, but most had not. Chairs, floors, tables - no one discriminated in their choice of mattress. At around 2a.m. it began to snow. Inside the cell, I was told to go and do an interview. It was freezing outside, and as I waited for the live link with London to be established, the camera crew offered me whiskey in a polystyrene cup. Glad of anything that would stop my teeth chattering, I gratefully accepted.
It was not the only place whiskey was flowing that night. Around about the same time, in Castle Buildings, Barbara McCabe was sitting outside a door waiting for the official government drafter to emerge when a forty-ounce bottle of whiskey passed by, carried by a young man with a purposeful stride. He disappeared round the corner. Next there was a virtual stampede of five or more other civil servants - it was obviously break time. She recalls her emotion of the week as being ‘total tension’. ‘Every time I think about that time all I can think about is holding my breath, and I’m sure I didn’t do that for a week. But somehow it feels like it.’
In Derry, Diane Greer had been watching the live broadcast. She called the office with her support, and then received a call from a work colleague - thank god someone else was up, someone else to talk to. Here it was, getting ever closer, and the best feeling was that of being connected, feeling connected to the whole thing. In typical Derry fashion, a wee man rang up and reminded her that she had said live on air the previous week (she had practically lived in the Radio Foyle newsroom) that she would give up smoking if the agreement happened. She is now a stone and a half lighter, and has not smoked since the agreement was signed. But this is nothing compared to some male delegates, who had promised to marry long-standing girlfriends if the agreement worked out.
During the negotiations, one major battle for the NIWC had been the place of victims in the agreement and in future reconciliation. For Ann McCann, the lack of provisions for victims in the first draft was difficult, even though she was sympathetic to the prisoners’ issue. On a human level she found it appalling that a page and a half of the draft was concerned with what was to be done by those who had perpetrated crimes, while it did no more than make a vague commitment that ‘resources should be set aside for’ victims - no specifics. McCann had no problem about the concept of rehabilitation, but for her the woolly language on victims was a cop-out.
McCann’s priorities came from her own family’s experience, specifically the death of her youngest brother. Like most victims of Northern Ireland’s conflict, he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. ‘I’m not saying it is any different for people who lose their sons or brothers or husband or whatever either on active service, fighting for a cause, or in the security forces. Most victims would come from families like mine that were not political at all, and would have thought that being apolitical you could keep your family safe. The loss of my brother is just a statistic now, nobody would remember it because it was nothing spectacular, it wasn’t any great bomb, or even the horrific slaying of a young fella. He was in the wrong place, shot two times in the head on the side of the footpath, and he was, thank God, instantly killed. So nobody remembers that. Only our family. And from 27 May 1972 our lives have never been the same. The whole family’s lives have changed in different ways and so the victims’ families all need different things. My family would not have needed and do not need financial remuneration, although we don’t come from riches, but certainly nothing was put in place by the state to look after the needs of a family that lost a loved one in that way, nothing of any kind.’ The lack of any meaningful compensation remains a political issue for victims.
It took a long time for the NIWC to communicate the importance of having a strong section on provision for victims and victims’ rights. Such a section was important on two counts: one, the MWC believed that victims deserved to be recognised and provided for as a de facto right; and two, whatever the NIWC view, that was the way the issue would be perceived by many. There had to be some counterpoise to a liberal section on prisoner releases. But initially no one else seemed to see this as important. The one small paragraph on the topic in the draft was only there because the NIWC had been putting the issue on the agenda at every available opportunity over the previous two years. Once again the NIWC went outside the negotiation process to fine-tune the agreement’s language - to the Committee for the Administration of Justice (CAJ), to the Cost of the Troubles Study, to the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NIACRO) and to others. The language had to be right not only for the participants, but for those who would be voting on it, and for those who would be influencing the vote. Other parties were lobbied to support an increase in the length of the clauses on victims, and to step up their visible support for them. As soon as the NIWC had its amendment ready, it went to the governments and all the other participants. The NIWC then discovered that the most recent draft had written out victims altogether, and it had to push hard to get a new, extended version back in. The NIWC had to get through to the British civil servants that Sir Ken Bloomfield’s report of the Victims Commission had not at the time been completed, and that its preliminary conclusions were not sufficient to put in the agreement. Unknown to McWilliams, one of Mowlam’s close aides had been involved in drafting the terms of reference for Bloomfield’s commission, and didn’t take kindly to McWilliams’s opposition to letting it suffice. The adviser explained his position, but McWilliams wasn’t taking no for an answer. What was specifically required was to acknowledge the role of those who had been caring for victims on a shoestring budget or on a voluntary basis for many years, and to support their methods. Supporting self-help was key. Then McWilliams grabbed Mowlam, who had only heard one part of her rejoinders - that more was needed on victims.
McWilliams then stood in front of Mowlam, held her arms and looked her in the face: ‘That isn’t what is going to work,’ she said. And Mowlam heard, and ordered that the relevant section of the draft should be redrafted. It was, and the new NIWC wording forms the version in the final agreement almost verbatim. Subsequently, prisoner releases, decommissioning and the role of victims became the linked issues on which the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement was fought. What might have happened had there been no significant section in the agreement addressing the suffering of victims of the conflict does not bear thinking about. The result would still have been a majority in favour. But the size of the majority might not have passed the 70 per cent mark required by the UUP.
But hassling people who were already severely hassled was not a tactic used often by the NIWC. Most of its work was around drafting possible viable alternatives, bringing people solutions, not problems. And even at this late hour, the NIWC still had a role to play in having faith in the process, and in trusting the relationships they had built up. For instance, even on that Thursday night, at one stage some participants still did not know whether Sinn Féin was in or out, or whether things were so difficult so as to make it impossible for the party to sign up to the agreement. One of the Sinn Féin negotiators with whom McWilliams had worked closely reassured her at around 3a.m. that ‘things were going to be OK’, that they were going to stay at it. An hour later she met an exhausted and exasperated-looking Mowlam. McWilliams asked what was wrong, and Mowlam replied that she really didn’t know if Sinn Féin was planning to walk, or whether they really were there to the end. McWilliams told her that they would be there for the duration. Mowlam asked, ‘Is that the case?’ McWilliams said yes, and Mowlam said she could do her job better knowing that. Such was the nature of the work the NIWC was doing that last, vital night. The NIWC delegates knew what the major problem areas were and were constantly going to other parties and reassuring them that things weren’t like they thought, or that the draft could be worked at, reworded, whatever was necessary to deliver the deal. It is important not to exaggerate the NIWC’s role - there were much bigger power brokers in action - but the NIWC used what little influence it had to optimal effect.
Some of the bigger power brokers were prepared to go all out for the NIWC, particularly on its demand for an inclusive electoral system. In February 1998, the political think-tank, Democratic Dialogue, had commissioned some research into different types of electoral systems that might be inclusive, providing for all the voices who were involved in crafting the agreement to be involved in its implementation. Several models were produced, the basic rule of thumb being that proportional representation was best, and that the greater the number of seats per constituency the better for smaller parties. Thus the optimum position would have been one, Northern Ireland-wide constituency returning, say, 108 seats. Several seminars were held to discuss these different models, and the NIWC, drawing on the research, attempted to reactivate the Group of Four on this common issue. The NIWC believed the four parties could win if they stuck together. But the other parties in the Group of Four were in slightly different boats. The PUP didn’t absolutely need this system - it should get seats in five- or six-seater constituencies. Jane Wilde sums up the relationship with the PUP that night: ‘We were engaged in slight sibling rivalry with [them] at one stage. When it suited us to trust each other, we trusted each other, and we certainly had a very strong channel of communication with them. But I do remember when it came to the crunch, like on the voting system, they only half told us what their position was. The bottom line is that no party is going to go and take a decision that they perceive as not in their interest. Well, we did, but no other party would do that.’ The UDP, in a tactical error, let prisoner releases be its priority, not the development of its own political future. In essence, this demonstrated it to be a single-issue party more than even the NIWC was perceived to be. The UDP let the UUP take the lead, and relied on it to grin and bear prisoner releases if the UDP bolstered its position in the face of opposition from the DUP and the UKUP. Kilmurray remembers saying to representatives of the UDP that they would be foolish to rely on the UUP to get them into office in the proportional representation system that would emerge. The NIWC went all out for an inclusive system: eighteen constituencies each with six seats, with an additional ten seats allocated in proportion to the parties’ first-preference votes over Northern Ireland as a whole. (This would have been similar to, though not exactly the same as, the system used by the governments to decide delegates to the talks.)
The Monday-night draft had presented the bones of an agreement on the issue. There was little comment from the chairpersons - generally, the amount of comment was related to the level of disagreement on any point - who said only that they believed that there should be an electoral system that would provide greater opportunity to small parties to be represented in the Assembly. Additionally, both the British and Irish governments used their influence with the other parties to have the NIWC proposal inserted. The British even came up with and explained a variant of the NIWC’s system that it felt might find greater favour with the other parties. The NIWC delegates were grateful for the advice, and went off on another round of lobbying. It was hard, as there were so many competing interests, and the bigger parties (who generally favoured a much tighter system which would result in less plurality) were getting tired of this little party and its little issue continually snapping at their heels. It got to the stage where they just didn’t want to know. But the Irish government saw the NIWC election scheme as worthy of support. In particular Liz O’Donnell, exceptionally and quickly competent, lobbied the SDLP representatives. If just one of the big two were behind it, it would almost certainly fall into place. Negotiations did not stop all night. Everything else was done and agreed, except for the cherished electoral system. Five hours of hard bargaining had failed to persuade the bigger parties of the merits of its inclusion. An exhausted Liz O’Donnell came into the NIWC office around 4a.m. saying she had tried, particularly with the SDLP, but to no avail: ‘That’s it over. There’s nothing else I can do now.’ You could tell she had worked very hard. Kilmurray recalls responding, with thanks, that she wasn’t so concerned with the NIWC (which, she admits, was only half true) - it was the likelihood that the UDP would not feature in the new political topography that was of more concern.
The only party in the bigger block that supported the inclusion of smaller voices was Sinn Féin. It was not as though the bigger parties were going to lose any seats to the newer democratic voices. It was a huge disappointment to the NIWC: the only one of the NIWC’s aspirations that was vaguely selfish was the one not attained. Everybody else, the victims, the prisoners, young people, even other women, would gain from the NIWC proposals. But maybe not themselves. However, despair and anger about this had to be put to one side.
By contrast, the NIWC proposal of a Civic Forum, which the NIWC had anticipated would be a tough battle to win, virtually slipped through. The NIWC’s strategy to garner support for the Civic Forum paid off. Various NIWC representatives had been canvassing support for the concept outside the talks process for several months. The business community was a key constituency to persuade, and the NIWC managed to shift a number of business leaders from initial scepticism to support of the Civic Forum idea. It was the same with the other sectors the NIWC hoped to have included in the Civic Forum: the trade unions, the community and voluntary sector, the youth and student sectors. Some proved more open to persuasion than others, but outside the talks, at least, support for the idea was high. Internally, no other political party supported it. Jane Wilde had meetings with every party about it, but even up to the last forty eight-hours the NIWC were still very short of support. Crucially, the and UDP came on board. Then Sinn Féin. The UUP delegates were divided on the issue. Those at the top did not support it, but there were yeses in the ranks. The SDLP hadn’t decided the issue amongst themselves - some were prepared to go with it and proposed amendments, some were not. The debate became a live issue. Hinds, Wilde and others were having to make sure all the time that it wasn’t written out of the draft agreement. ‘I think right up to the Thursday night the possibility of it being stroked out was very high. It still had brackets around it - I genuinely believe we couldn’t leave the draft, and I mean physically and metaphorically. We had to be awake the whole time in case it disappeared off the draft.’ So none of the bigger political parties liked the notion very much, but once the SDLP had proposed a similar body to parallel the North-South Ministerial Council, it could not fault the concept. It may be that the bigger parties saw the Civic Forum as a consolation prize for the NIWC for failing to get its desired electoral system.
Other successful amendments from the NIWC introduced included mixed housing, championed by Anne Carr; policies for advancement of women that would increase their inclusion in public life; special initiatives for young people from areas particularly affected by the conflict; recognition of the links between reconciliation and mixed housing and integrated education, and the promotion of a culture of tolerance.
By the time the electoral system was finalised, everyone was exhausted, and they knew that a busy new day would begin in a few hours. Wilde remembers Mowlam emerging from Sinn Féin’s offices at around 5a.m., and clutching a scribbled-on envelope, obviously frustrated.
Sinn Féin had just asked for an additional fifteen demands, the detail of which had overwhelmed her - their negotiators were requesting, amongst other things, the withdrawal of named regiments. Wilde felt that ‘they were playing a really strong negotiating game, and she had just come to the end of her tether. But it was interesting just seeing at that level that negotiations are basically a bunch of people having an argument in a room. It wasn’t an agreement done at any big round table at Lancaster House or Dublin Castle. It was half a dozen people at 5a.m.’ Whilst Prime Minister Blair, Taoiseach Ahern and George Mitchell were important in stamping their authority and selling the deal, Mowlam was the nuts and bolts behind the whole thing. She had guts and she simply would not and did not give up.
By that stage, negotiations had been going on nonstop for twenty-nine hours. Some of Senator Mitchell’s staff had not slept in seventy-two hours. But even they were out of the loop at this late stage. They had done their job, and done well, as a tearful presentation from the NIWC to Mitchell staffers Martha Pope and Kelly Currie in the early hours of Friday morning attempted to acknowledge. The third member of Mitchell’s team, David Pozorski, was still too busy in the middle of the night to come down to the presentation.
On Good Friday, Cadbury’s Crème Eggs replaced the daily fruit injection. The caterers had run out of food, as it had been expected that the deal would be done by Thursday, and so chocolate and coffee became the prerequisites for getting through the day ahead. Staff were dispatched to Sainsbury’s south Belfast supermarket where they bought up every croissant and pain au chocolat in the store. And so it was, on the final day, that breakfast was positively European. Later in the morning Anne McCann would bring in sandwiches to the NIWC office, and Martin McGuinness would hoke around for ones with no meat in them. Good Friday is a day of fast and abstinence for Catholics. McGuinness was not the only one adhering strictly to his faith. In his office Paul Murphy was sitting quietly in the midst of the chaos. There was no food in the building at that time except ham sandwiches, but he didn’t eat them. His priority at that time was finding out what time masses were. And he was due to go to Singapore. Leaving his office, McWilliams thought, he has a lot to be proud of, and he’s still a very humble man. She also thought, we’ll know by the flight times what time things will get delivered. She reconciled herself to losing the election system. She had to bag that disappointment: negotiations are all about compromise, and they had got everything else. Her head was assessing the part of her that was concerned that the loss might mean the end of the NIWC, but another part of her was already preparing to go out and do battle in the referendum and the elections that would follow.
She was called out of Murphy’s office to do a press interview and went outside. It had been a bitterly cold night but the morning was beautiful -the snow was melting, and the sun had just risen. She had thought the sky was still pitch black outside, and couldn’t believe the blinding sunlight. She knew that the agreement was finalised, and that the journalists didn’t know that. The first question put to her was ‘How do you feel?’ She replied that she had come out of a building thinking she was walking into darkness, but that she had walked into a bright dawn. She knew it sounded over the top. But it summed up exactly what had been done in the building the night before.
Like many other elements of the process, the confused weather - sun, rain, hail and wind in quick succession - added to the surrealism of it all. The final draft was delivered to the anxious NIWC office at around 11 a.m. In typical deadpan fashion, the cover note stated that a plenary session would be convened later in the morning to consider the agreement. It added, ‘This is, in all likelihood, our last Memorandum to you. We take this occasion to thank each of you for your courtesy. It has been a pleasure to work with you.’ Each party had received a coded copy of the final draft so that if there were any leaks, the other participants would know who was responsible.
Like the NIWC’s opening statement of some two years previous, its closing statement to the plenary session had been drafted at 3a.m. - in between lobbying and negotiating. So the NIWC delegates were well prepared to go into the closing plenary around lunchtime. Milling around outside they bade farewell to the journalists, many of whom they had done battle with in the previous two years, but most of whom they respected and had earned respect from.
Mo Mowlam came into the main NIWC offices to say thanks. Around ten shattered people were sitting there, too emotional to say a word. There was a collective sigh of mutual appreciation as the women acknowledged their respective contributions. In the other office the phone didn’t stop ringing all day. Often the caller was at the building’s talks reception desk - ‘I’ve got another bunch of flowers for you here, can you come and pick them up.’ The NIWC was getting telegrams, e-mails, phone calls from family and friends, bouquets, sandwiches - all to urge us to keep going.
But Mitchell’s schedule began, worryingly, to slip. The UUP executive committee had begun what became known as the ‘meeting from hell’. At least one of its delegates reportedly fainted in the course of the proceedings, heightening the drama of an already dramatic and divisive meeting. The hours rolled by - one o’clock, two, three, four. Agreement couldn’t be slipping away now, after all this?
Barbara McCabe, for one, slipped away in the early afternoon. One thing she had wanted of the talks process was a sense that the participants were actually thinking issues through to some form of holistic vision. If the deal was going to be about horse trading, it would not work. And the fact that it was all being stuck with sticky tape in the final week would come home to roost, she was sure. She decided she didn’t want to be there when the t’s were finally crossed and the i’s were eventually dotted.
In Derry, Margaret Logue went to the pub with a few friends. A big football match was on at the time - it could have been Manchester United versus Liverpool - and it was being screened in one lounge. The other lounge was empty. Logue got the landlord to turn on ‘the politics’. She was joined by around four or five men, which made eight of them transfixed by the events unfolding. In the next lounge, most of the male population in the pub were demonstrating other priorities.
Meanwhile at a discussion at Stormont shortly before 5p.m., the MWC delegates decided that at the plenary session they wanted to enter formal reservations on the issue of the electoral system contained in the agreement. They wanted the parties who had opposed their proposal -the SDLP, the UUP and Alliance - to have to admit to it publicly. It would have been the first time a settlement agreement anywhere in the world had been held up by the issue of women’s participation. As the NIWC members made their way upstairs to the chamber, however, a breathless Alliance Party aide ran up and begged them not to enter reservations. The UUP meeting had not gone well, and it seemed David Trimble could still go either way. A Mitchell aide confirmed the situation. Everyone needed to get into the chamber, agree to the thing as a whole, and leave. There could be no debating time in which Trimble could change his mind. There could be no debating on parts. It was a final dilemma for the NIWC. To enter its reservations and publicly shame the bigger parties, including Trimble who was under intense pressure, even though this could jeopardise the agreement. Or to keep counsel and let the moment go in order to preserve the agreement. In everything else the NIWC had done in the previous two years, protection of the talks process had been paramount, even over their own aims and objectives. There was a short, rapid corridor debate amongst the delegation. They had been given too little in-formation, too late. They could not hope to make an informed decision. So the process had to be protected, and therefore Monica McWilliams tabled the NIWC’s amendment for the record and indicated this to the independent chairs at the start of the plenary.
Hinds is still not sure if the right decision was made. ‘I remember standing in the corridor and it was a terrible moment. The choice between the agreement and introducing the issue of an inclusive electoral system. What would it look like in terms of churlishness? And I remember Monica saying to me, "OK, you decide, what are we going to do?" I was extremely concerned, even when I took the decision, and I said, "Well, OK, just accept it." And, ever after that it has concerned me that if someone was to write this history in relation to women, one could say - "Well, they faltered at that final point. And for women, they should have put that on the record."’
Despite the NIO’s best efforts to keep numbers at the plenary restricted to the delegates plus three (the NIWC members had drawn lots for who would occupy the three seats), the room was packed. It was the first time since the very beginning of the talks that television cameras had been allowed in the room. Wives and husbands, children of delegates were there, friends and foes too. The old IRA general, Joe Cahill, supported himself by gripping the back of a Sinn-Féin-occupied chair and the back of a PUP-occupied chair in one ironic little cameo, as George Mitchell completed his last tour de table, and everyone responded, ‘For the agreement’ or ‘Agree’ to mark their endorsement of the document. Everyone except Sinn Féin, which said, ‘Agree subject to consultation.’ And David Trimble, who said, simply and significantly, ‘Yes.’ Only one of those voices responding affirmatively was a woman’s - the voice of the NIWC.
In its closing statement the NIWC pointed to its obstinate optimism, which it predicted would be needed in the days and weeks ahead. But Northern Ireland owed it to those who had died in the past three decades to build a society that would stand as a living testimony to the victims of the Troubles. McWilliams told delegates, ‘If we are to achieve this task we must do it together. Not by monopolising power, but by sharing it. Not by seeking to shatter the aspirations of any sector of our society, but by creating a space for them. Not by being restricted by a politics of anger, resentment and rigidity, but by daring to envisage a politics that can be open and imaginative, and even courageous. It is our belief that there are many around this table who, through their actions, have shown that such a politics is possible.’
‘We believe that the new politics we are now creating will incorporate the principles of equality, inclusiveness and human rights. Human rights and equality are not a victory for one group over another; they are basic requirements that must form the bedrock of society.’
It was a day without precedent in Northern Ireland. The previous thirty-six hours had been a rollercoaster ride, and the hectic pace of events was set to continue in the coming weeks, but no one could ever take this moment from this group of women, some too tired to cry - or to show any kind of emotion. They had travelled a long road since that meal in the café on the Lisburn Road. They had done the job they had come to do, the job they always knew could be done; now it was time to go home.
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