The negotiation of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement owes a great deal to the presence of women at the negotiating table. The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC) was formed just before the election to the Northern Ireland Forum, which was held on 30th May 1996, and which provided the basis on which parties were invited to participate in the all-party talks that were held between 10th June 1996 and 10th April 1998, culminating in the signing of the Agreement. The NIWC was a small but significant party, and it played an important role in negotiating the Agreement and fought vigorously to defend its principles.
The impact of women on the all-party talks, the final Agreement and on the Northern Ireland Peace Process has been well documented and recognised. Their presence is credited with having made it easier to be able to work across political, religious, cultural and community barriers, providing a trusted voice as honest-broker. They also succeeded in ensuring that the language of the Agreement contained specific reference to victims’ rights and provided for reintegration of political prisoners, education, and mixed housing. These were issues that that ultimately proved to be fundamental to promoting social cohesion after the conflict and to sustaining peace. They also formed part of the core of the content of the PEACE Programmes that were to follow.
It was during this period that the Women, Peace and Security Agenda began to achieve prominence on the global policy landscape in the UN and through the work of international NGOs. This culminated in the publication in October 2000 of the United Nation’s Security Council’s Resolution 1325, which served to highlight the importance of recognising the central role that women should play in peace building and conflict resolution. The Resolution urges Member States to ensure increased representation of women at all decision-making levels in institutional mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict. It also calls on all actors involved, when negotiating and implementing peace agreements, to adopt a gender perspective that recognises the specific needs of women and girls and the particular role that they have to play in post-conflict reconstruction and peace building, and to ensure the protection of and respect for human rights of women and girls.
The lead-up to the publication of UNSCR 1325 coincided with the roll-out of the first Peace Programme (PEACE I). The second Peace Programme (PEACE II) was finally approved by the European Commission on 22nd March 2001 and incorporated much of the spirit of UNSCR 1325 into its design and operations. This was further enhanced in the planning and implementation of subsequent PEACE Programmes (PEACE III and PEACE IV).
PEACE Programme Contribution
From the beginning, the strategic planning documents for each of the PEACE Programmes, or Operational Programmes (OP) as they were called, had at their core a commitment to equality and inclusiveness in their design and implementation.
In PEACE I, one of the two strategic objectives of the Programme was to promote the social inclusion of those at the margin of economic and social life. Similarly, in describing the distinctive nature of the Programme, it is characterised as a unique window of opportunity which must be seized especially for the vulnerable sections of the population, and it recognised that the funding should be targeted mainly at those who have been most affected by the conflict. This was translated into practice by ensuring that the delivery mechanisms, or implementing bodies, should be inclusive in their structures and decision-making mechanisms. The OP recognised that capacities for local decision making which might have been weakened through 25 years of conflict will be boosted, and that in this initiative, the means may be considered as important as the end. This recognition formed the basis on which the significant investment in local partnership structures was prioritised as part of PEACE I and all future PEACE Programmes.
These commitments were underpinned in PEACE I by legislation in Northern Ireland and in Ireland that emphasised the importance of equality of opportunity and provided legal protection against discrimination on grounds of religion, political opinion, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, levels of ability or disability in Northern Ireland and in Ireland. They were further emphasised by the requirement of EU Regulations to ensure and monitor for equality of opportunity and inclusiveness across all EU funded programmes. In practice, this meant that from the beginning of PEACE I, women were included as equal partners in the Monitoring Committee and Steering Committees of the Programme and all Implementing Bodies were required as part of their contract to adhere to this policy of equality of representation and inclusion.
In PEACE II arrangements for the monitoring of inclusiveness and equality of opportunity were further reinforced with particular reference to the need to recognise women as one of the groups most disadvantaged by the conflict and, therefore, identified as needing to be targeted by Implementing Bodies and project promoters in the determination of priorities for funding.
Specific reference to the importance of incorporating the provisions of UNSCR 1325 into the design and implementation of the PEACE Programmes was made in the PEACE III OP: The PEACE III Programme will also have due regard to Resolution 1325 (2000) of the United Nations Security Council which urges participating States to ensure increased representation of women at all decision-making levels in institutions and mechanisms for the prevention of conflict. The OP also stated that: In this light, efforts will be made to ensure a minimum representation of 40% of women on the Programme Monitoring Committee. All operations will be required to demonstrate steps they will take to ensure the increased representation and participation of women throughout the Programme. These efforts will be consistent with equality legislation in Northern Ireland and Ireland.
The PEACE IV OP recognised the importance of UNSCR 1325 in developing and deepening the role of women in peace building and civic and political life and incorporated it as a key criterion in determining projects for funding. The OP also recognised that the UNSCR 1325 National Action Plan for Ireland, referenced the importance of supporting cross-border, and cross-community initiatives to strengthen women’s political participation in Ireland and Northern Ireland, and in particular the exchange of best practice and cross–learning in relation to participation and decision-making. The OP also acknowledged that Ireland had committed itself to engaging with relevant authorities in Northern Ireland to encourage development of policies and measures in relation to UNSCR 1325. The OP also recognised that the UK Government had not included Northern Ireland in its National Action Plan on UNSCR 1325. The OP provided specific guidance to the Managing Authority and those responsible for the implementation of the programme on how this commitment would be operationalised, implemented and monitored throughout the lifetime of the Programme.
Funding for Women in the PEACE Programmes
Hundreds of women’s projects were funded through the various iterations of the PEACE Programmes, acknowledging the role of women in the peace building process. The Programmes supported the establishment of women’s groups, their integration into the social fabric of their areas, participation in constructive cross community engagement and training and development support to improve economic opportunities for women. It fostered a partnership approach to community development through its direct and indirect support of women and was a strong enabler of the development of cross border relationships.
Women were supported and funded under the following PEACE Programme themes and measures:
- PEACE I: Social Inclusion.
- PEACE II: Economic Renewal, Social Integration Inclusion and Reconciliation, Locally-based Regeneration and Development Strategies, Cross Border Cooperation.
- PEACE III: Reconciling Communities, Support for Participation.
- PEACE IV: Building Positive Relations, Local Authority Action Plans, Regional Level Projects.
The initial Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation (PEACE I) included the role of women in Sub-programme 4: Social Inclusion, Measure 1: Developing Grass Roots Capacities and Promoting the Inclusion of Women, recognising the key role of women in community development, both as a source of new leadership in communities and more widely, in shaping social and economic regeneration. The priorities of PEACE I were mainly economic however, with the assumption that empowerment through employment and economic development would deliver peace.
In PEACE II, the emphasis on funding for the empowerment of women was enhanced through Priority 1, Measure 5, intended to support activities which improve women's access to and participation in the labour market. The empowerment of women was seen in this context as an economic contribution to peacebuilding as well as ensuring alignment with the general principles of gender mainstreaming. In addition to the specific measure for women, equality (including that between women and men) was laid down as a 'horizontal principle' to be applied to the determination of funding for all projects. PEACE II also identified women as a target group under the measures Social Integration, Inclusion and Reconciliation, and Locally-based Regeneration and Development Strategies and Cross Border Cooperation.
The PEACE III Programme identified women as a key target group. Priority 1 (Building positive relations at the local level), paid particular attention to supporting the active role of communities and voluntary organisations in decision-making. As part of this approach, the PEACE III Programme encouraged the involvement of women in partnerships, drawing on their positive contribution to peace and reconciliation. The community based organisation Training for Women’s Network (TWN) was an important partner in delivering projects aimed at working with and empowering women within their communities. PEACE III Projects targeted at specific geographic areas that had been deeply impacted by the conflict included: the Falls Women’s Centre Training and Employment Project and the South Armagh Rural Women's Network ‘Behind the Masks’ Project.
Under PEACE IV, Objective 4 Building Positive Relations, projects relating to the Local Authority Action Plans would support projects and activities to facilitate the full participation of women in local initiatives. Women were also a specific target group under Regional Level Projects under this priority. Training for Women Network (TWN), for example, received just under €1m (Measure 4.2) to develop an innovative training programme where individual participants were supported with bespoke training, coupled with cross community/cross border training to promote positive relations. Politics Plus was awarded €1.5m (Measure 4.2) for the 'Next Chapter' Project, aimed at empowering women to address the under-representation of women's participation in peace and reconciliation, and in public and political life.
Example 1: The Cross Border Women's Network
The Cross-Border Women’s Network was a PEACE I funded project that involved a Programme of developmental support to women’s and childcare groups across the border, covering the target areas of West Cavan, West Fermanagh and North Leitrim. The project targeted the most excluded women, helping to break down the isolation experienced by women, especially in rural areas, by offering social outlets as well as education and training opportunities for women and raising the profile of childcare in the region. The overarching aims of the Network were to break down isolation between groups and to facilitate a two-way flow of information between local groups and policy-makers and to further support and enable women to participate in social, political and economic development in their local communities. It assisted the formation of new groups on both sides of the border. During January 1997 – June 2000, the Cross Border Women’s Network received funding to employ a Women’s Development Officer and to provide support, advice and information to existing and newly formed women’s groups and childcare groups in the region.
The project was pro-active in developing links between many statutory and non-statutory organisations which support women’s development, e.g. Health Promotion Officer for the North Western Health Board to develop women’s health training material. The project interacted with the Development Officer from the Opportunities for Women Learning (OWL) Programme to secure OWL courses for the Network target area and worked with the Women’s Resource and Development Agency (WRDA) in Belfast to run a Programme whereby local women were trained to act as facilitators for local women’s groups, empowering a sense of community and respect.
The project had a positive impact on reconciliation in the community. The management committee was both cross border and cross community. The project facilitated isolated rural women to develop social and educational outlets in communities. The Network also worked with local agencies to ensure a co-ordinated response to the needs of women in the area and to avoid duplication of efforts.
Example 2: Training for Womens Network (TWN)
Training for Womens Network (TWN) acted as an Intermediary Funding Body (IFB) under Measure 4.1 for PEACE I and Measure 1.5 for PEACE II. One hundred and fourteen projects were funded under PEACE I, training women in the areas of information technology, management, non-traditional skills, vocational qualifications, personal development, return to learn, research and other areas. 63% of those trained were women returning after family caring responsibilities and 74% of projects had a cross-community element.
The Mid-term Evaluation of TWN's funding activities focussed on measurable outcomes. It identified that 70% of course participants progressed to further education or training and 14% to employment. The TWN strategy was linked to the overall strategy for PEACE II, which stated that 'the initiation and growth of women's education, training and employment programmes has been a catalyst for change and socio-economic regeneration in Northern Ireland and that capacity-building within communities makes a contribution to the revival of the economy and the creation of an equitable and just society . Through the work of this project, women have been linked to socio-economic growth, which in turn is deemed to create the conditions for peace building. The PEACE II Programme was based on the belief that economic renewal and social, economic and political transition led to a more peaceful, prosperous and stable society. Consequently, TWN targeted specific areas, sectors and activities and communities and groups that have been most affected by the conflict, with a total of 34 projects being funded under PEACE II. Subsequent analysis of this strategy concluded that: The greater investment in these activities creates multiple contributions to the task of building peace. Firstly, the extension of women’s participation in employment and entrepreneurship strengthens the economy required for societal stability. Secondly, the economic independence of women contributes to their options for emancipation, which is a pre-requisite for a just and egalitarian society. Thirdly, such training builds women’s confidence and capacity to challenge traditional power structures and exert pressure on decision-making processes, leading to a full role in the reconstruction of society.
Example 3: The Women and Peace Building Project
The Women and Peace Building Project was a PEACE III cross border initiative which involved a partnership approach between the Women’s Resource and Development Agency (WRDA), the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland (CFNI) and the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI). Over a two-year period, the project aimed to distil and disseminate learning from the Northern Ireland peace process. It used the framework of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on ‘Women, Peace and Security’ as a tool to enable women in Northern Ireland and the border counties of Ireland to talk about their own experiences, with a particular emphasis on post-conflict issues.
The key objectives of the Women and Peace Building Project included:
- A process of facilitated reflection to build the self-confidence and knowledge of community-based women across the North/South region.
- Expanding awareness of the range of peace building approaches and strategies by sharing experiences with other conflict zones.
- Production of ‘The Strategic Guide and Toolkit on Women, Peace and Security: Women’s Rights and Gender Equality’ - developing practical approaches. This was circulated through the Foundations for Peace Network.
- Production of a policy report on gender and peace building which was made available to the Conflict Resolution Unit in the Department of Foreign Affairs in Ireland, the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive, and the Department for International Development (DFID) of the United Kingdom.
- Develop networking links between international women in conflict zones who were working for peace and reconciliation and with a focus on future connections.
Example 4: The Next Chapter
The Next Chapter Project was funded through the PEACE IV Programme. The project involved a range of partners including Irish Rural Link, Politics Plus and Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA). With more than 300 participants in ten Chapter Hubs across Northern Ireland and the border counties, the Next Chapter provides a network and training for women to develop ideas, build communities and support the transition out of conflict. The programme supports women’s leadership, confidence and participation skills by offering a wide range of opportunities that participants can benefit from including meeting and sharing at the “Chapter” hub, coaching and mentoring, policy focus groups, young female leaders advisory panel and events. There is also a capacity building programme which includes modules such as Women as Champions of Peacebuilding; Decision Making, Politics and Public Life; Developing a Powerful Voice; and Communicating with Impact.
One of the events organised by the project was ‘REPRESENT’ in May 2019 as part of The Next Chapter’s civic empowerment project which is about building positive relations between women from different communities and backgrounds in Northern Ireland and the border counties of Ireland. At the REPRESENT Women’s Ambassadors Forum, more than 100 participants of The Next Chapter project and invited guests gathered to hear the stories of some of the women who helped build peace, as well as those who are building for the future. Speakers at the event spoke about the challenges they faced during the peace process and their determination to ensure that the voice of women was heard. The forum also heard from four participants of The Next Chapter, who had used the skills they had learned through the training programme to step forward and become more involved in community and public life.