“Women build bridges for other women”: Commending female leadership in the Good Friday Agreement

March 26, 2023

Photo courtesy of Phil Humnicky

Diplomats and leaders gathered in Gaston Hall on March 16 to reflect on 25 years of peace in Northern Ireland after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and the role that women played in bringing and sustaining that peace. The event, titled “Women at the Helm: The Unfinished Business of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement” was hosted by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security (GIWPS) and featured notable speakers including Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, among others.

Ambassador Melanne Verveer, the Executive Director of GIWPS, opened the event, followed by remarks from Varadkar, who praised the progress made by Northern Ireland over the last 25 years. The event also featured two panels, during which female leaders and politicians reflected on the country’s past and planned for its future.

“Because of the Good Friday Agreement, Ireland was able to overcome history and create a new future together,” Varadkar said in his opening remarks. Reflecting upon the changes since achieving peace, he noted, “we are a very different Ireland, and a much better Ireland.”

The Prime Minister emphasized that Ireland’s peace and progress would not be possible without the contributions of women. “Women played a leading role at the political top tables in Belfast, London, Dublin, and Washington, D.C.” Varadkar said. “We can have no meaningful commemoration of the Good Friday Agreement unless women’s role is recognized.” 

The Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, put an end to the period of political strife that occurred in Northern Ireland from the 1960s through the 1990s known as The Troubles. It maintained that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom while the Republic of Ireland would stay an independent nation. The agreement also established the Northern Ireland Assembly as the official parliament of the nation. These negotiations ushered in a new era of cooperation between unionists and nationalists within Northern Ireland.

During her speech, Dame Karen Pierce, Ambassador of the UK to the US, discussed the key role that women played in organizing political groups around peace negotiations. Without the efforts of women, Pierce stressed, “peace cannot be made, peace cannot flourish, and peace certainly cannot be sustained.”

Today, women make up 36 percent of the Northern Ireland Assembly, a significant increase in female political representation, according to Varadkar. The country also boasts the smallest gender pay gap in the United Kingdom.

“The change has been immense in our society,” former Minister of State of Ireland Liz O’Donnell stated. Despite this progress, she noted that the work towards gender equality is ongoing, and far from finished.  

According to Jayne Brady, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, “The gender playing field is far from level.” Brady highlighted that women are still underrepresented in the science and technology sectors, and that Northern Ireland currently holds one of the highest rates of femicide in Western Europe. 

Former President Mary Robinson served as the Irish head of state from 1990 to 1997 and oversaw much of the talks leading up to the Good Friday Agreement. In February of 1992, she became the first President of Ireland to visit Northern Ireland. Though she recalled that tensions were high during her visit to Belfast, a trip that the Irish, American, and British governments warned her against, she shared that there was a “sense of excitement of a community that was being recognized at last.”

Robinson recounted her efforts to foster cooperation within the politically divided country. “I wanted to extend the hand of friendship and love to both communities in Northern Ireland,” she said. The former president noted that at the initial stages of the peace building process, it was women that facilitated conversations between opposing parties.

“It was the women who came out of the housing estates to meet with each other, the men wouldn’t do that,” she said.

Both O’Donnell and First Minister Elect of Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill credited their involvement in politics to inspiration from female public figures during the 1990s, such as Robinson.

“Women build bridges for other women and bring women into political and public life,” O’Donnell said. “Our democracy is unfinished if women aren’t at the table.” 

A second panel featured Legislative Assembly Members Emma Little-Pengelly and Patricia O’Lynn; founding member of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition Avila Kilmurray; and writer and campaigner Emma DeSouza. Their conversation centered around the future of Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement. 

Panelists highlighted civic engagement as an essential factor in ensuring a peaceful future for Northern Ireland, and urged citizens to embrace diversity and work together. “Be the change you want to see,” O’Lynn stated, “And when you can’t be that change, find another avenue through which you can enact change.”

DeSouza spoke for the younger generations of Northern Ireland, stating “we want to see delivery” on the promises on the Good Friday Agreement, referring to a mechanism within the agreement that allowed for a Civic Forum. Meant to serve as a consultative body, the Civic Forum was disbanded in 2002. DeSouza said that this “void of civic engagement” must be filled. 

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who played a central role facilitating negotiations in Northern Ireland during the 1990s, made closing remarks. Clinton currently serves as Chancellor of Queen’s University in Belfast.

Speaking to today’s political climate, Clinton said that individuals must “get back to the hard work of finding common ground.” She urged the importance of cooperation between groups who may not agree with one another.

“You do not make peace with your friends. You do not negotiate with people you already agree with,” she said.

Clinton concluded with a statement about the importance of collaboration.

“I can only emphasize how important it is to seek out and build relationships. Value and nourish relationships and look for ways that organizations can be in the business of doing that.” 

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