By Jack Holland
A group of women gathered in New York last week to celebrate a breakthrough for Northern Ireland women. A training program launched by the New York-based Northern Ireland Women’s Initiative helped 31 women run for office in last year’s elections, 15 of whom succeeded in winning seats.
For the first time, two women MPs were returned to Westminster.
The celebration was organized by Maureen Murray, the president of NIWI, and featured Bronagh Hinds, a founding member of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, as the guest speaker when about 50 women involved mainly in politics and the media gathered at Murray’s Park Avenue home on Wednesday, June 5.
When introducing the guest speaker, Murray explained how the training program involved a total of 102 women, 70 of whom became actively involved in some aspect of the political campaign. She said that women from “seven of the eight political parties” took part, including those such as the Democratic Unionist Party which are anti-Good Friday agreement.
“Women helped facilitate negotiations during the talks process which led to the Good Friday agreement,” Murray said. “The agreement’s mandate — to advance women in public life — encouraged the setting up of the NIWI.”
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Hinds, who is now deputy chief commissioner of the Equality Commission, said that women are involved in “changing the culture of politics in Northern Ireland”
According to her, not only had Northern Ireland suffered a “war” but it had “a war-mongering type of politics alien to women.” She said that the Women’s Coalition was founded on the basis that women believed “we could actually make a difference” after the cease-fires were called and the peace process began.
The party won two seats in the assembly elections in 1998. Hinds has since left the party to work with the Equality Commission.
She was confident that women would continue to contribute to political life in Northern Ireland. Their value she believed lay in their history of cross-community work.
At present, the NIWI is trying to raise money to set up a women’s policy and media center in Northern Ireland for training women in media skills.