By Marcia Rock
Last March, Pearl Sagar met Hillary Clinton at the White House to discuss the future role of women in Northern Ireland. This March, she’s receiving the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace for her services to her community and to women’s issues. Not bad for a high school dropout who was a teenage single mother.
Like most women in Northern Ireland, Sagar shunned politics most of her life because of its divisiveness. Today, as a Protestant member of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, she’s working to find a way to make politics more inclusive.
Sagar, who’s 40, emanates determination softened by a vibrant sense of humor. She recently walked through the mud at a construction site, studying the one derelict house that remains on Frome Street in East Belfast. She grew up on the street. She marveled at how many people used to fit into such a small space. She remembers that life was hard, but nobody noticed. In her case, her mother’s determination helped the family survive without a man, eating lentils and ham bones in a tiny kitchen house with one small room downstairs and a kitchen with only one cupboard. Sagar slept in the same bed with her three sisters.
"We were lucky we were all the same sex," said Sagar, whose parents broke up after her father left to work in the coal mines of Scotland. "Some families had 15. Then you really had problems."
As a child, Sagar would stand on Dee Street, "black with men in the morning on their way to work in the shipyards." She looked up at the yellow gantry cranes of Harland and Wolff shipyards that still dominate the sky.
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"It’s unbelievable to think we ever had a work force in Northern Ireland, because we’ll never have the same numbers again," she said.
Although Belfast’s economic decline began independent of the Troubles, she still links the two in her mind. When her grandfather left farming in Portadown after World War II and took a job in the shipyard, he joined 38,000 men. Today, only 1,900 work there. Sighing, she added, "the sense of community ceased with the Troubles too."
As a child, Sagar said, she felt the entire street was her family. With the Troubles, "people stopped talking," she said. "Then came the feeling of isolation."
Like other women in her area, Sagar became a single mother at 17 and had another child at 19. She knows she could have ended up "out boozing, the kids running wild and living off the state with the husband in the paramilitary." She didn’t. Her marriage to a British soldier at 20 took her out of the neighborhood to England.
"I was lucky," she said. "I never had the true mentality of hate." In England, she conquered other fears of isolation, such as "saying hello to strangers," she said.
When she returned to Northern Ireland in 1990 after 10 years away, Sagar was startled by the stagnation of the people in her neighborhood of Ravenhill Road. In all that time, some still hadn’t left the road or met new people. There was one startling change, however: this solid working-class Protestant seemed to be dominated by the paramilitaries.
When Sagar got a job in her area community center, she saw the stagnation reinforced by poor schools, housing, and lack of jobs.
"We always believed jobs would be there, not because we were better, but because we always worked," she said. "Catholics are surprised to find out how hard we had it as well."
Sagar embodies the working-class Protestant ethic of doing a day’s job, earning a fair wage and taking care of the family. Perhaps that’s why May Blood, a Protestant community worker, union leader and political activist, asked her to join the Northern Ireland’s Women’s Coalition in April 1996.
The odd couple
Sagar agreed and a month later she was elected to the Northern Ireland Forum and multiparty peace talks along with Monica McWilliams, a middle-class Catholic and university professor.
Their combination was new to Northern Ireland politics. "We could end up talking about the same thing from two different perspectives," Sagar recalled. When they spoke to groups, she said, "Monica would give the background to why the Women’s Coalition was formed and how it worked; I would describe my personal reasons for joining and the importance of women from different backgrounds coming together."
Ireland’s ambassador to the United States, Sean O’hUiginn, is not surprised that Sagar found herself in politics.
"The persistence of the conflict creates a situation that finds its leaders," he said. "People go into politics in Northern Ireland because of the emotional pressure of the situation."
O’hUiginn said thinks the Women’s Coalition brought an important new perspective to bear on the predominantly male confrontation.
"They brought a potential for compromise on the social, cultural and human level," she said.
That potential was not recognized by the men in the mainstream Protestant Unionist parties. Sagar said she’ll never forget the greeting they received at the Forum. "I thought you were here to polish the table, not sit at it," she recalls the men saying. The women were called "silly bitches" and "stupid women." Then the insults became more personal, "Monica’s father is a farmer and they called her a cow and would start mooing," Sagar said.
The women fought back with a bulletin board listing the daily "Name and Shame." The media picked up on it and taxi drivers would apologize to her for the bad behavior. PUP leader Davey Ervine found it ironic that "former members of the paramilitaries had greater respect for the rights of women than [did] the middle-class Unionist representatives."
When Sagar and McWilliams went to meet Protestant paramilitary leaders Johnny Adare and Michael Stone and others in prison in 1997 to ask for their continued support for the cease-fire, she was amazed that these ruthless murderers greeted them with, "It’s a disgrace the way you’re being treated in the Forum." With this kind of public opinion, the atmosphere in the Forum improved. The atmosphere in her neighborhood, though, grew more tense.
Perils of politics
As she walked to the top of Park Parade, a typical street of gabled, red-brick row houses where she used to live, Sagar is fully aware of the perils of politics in Northern Ireland. When members of her constituency became angry with her, they preferred to pressure her husband, telling him, she said, "to shut up your wife and get her to behave herself." The problem was that Sagar was not toeing the Protestant Unionist line expected by many in her area, where the Rev. Ian Paisley’s DUP party is the majority.
Her independence from the Unionist mainstream became public in a Forum vote over whether to hang the Union Jack in the Forum hall. McWilliams was in the U.S. and Sagar was on her own. She stood up to Paisley and his deputy, Peter Robinson, and voted nay. "We needed a place where people from all religions and cultures could feel comfortable," she said. Her vote was all the more symbolic since only Protestants were voting. The Alliance party refused to vote on the issue and the SDLP had left the Forum. Sinn Fein had never entered it.
"When I said no, you wouldn’t believe what they said, from ‘traitorous bitch’ to ‘burn her out,’ " Sagar said. She shook her head smiling at the irony. She had stood up to the men she’d trusted to represent her for most of her life. Some DUP members later said they admired her nerve. They assumed a working-class woman with little education would fold under pressure.
"I think that’s what gave me the strength," she reflected. "I actually enjoyed it."
There were no smiles from her daughter that night, however. "Mummy, I’m going to be shot because you voted against our flag," Sagar recalled her saying. "How could you?"
Some women registered their disapproval "with a few wee spittles," but Sagar was relieved when she went to her local pub, which was frequented by paramilitaries. "A couple of men asked me why I voted against the Union Jack but said they respected my opinion," she said.
The PUP’s Davey Ervine admires her directness. "Pearl is straight and forthright," he said. "She doesn’t miss and hit the barn door. If she has something to say, you’ll hear it."
Sagar’s victory was brief. She shakes her head thinking how few people it takes to intimidate a person. Life on Park Parade became a nightmare, so a year ago, she decided to move. "Maybe someday we, as people of Northern Ireland, will be able to be honest about all the things that have happened in our communities," she said. "That day is not here yet, but it’s near."
With peace of mind about her family’s safety, Sagar devoted herself to the talks. Ambassador O’hUiginn observed the dynamic brought to the negotiations by the Women’s Coalition. "The Women’s Coalition was an important voice and Pearl was an important individual voice," he said. "She provided a yardstick for the working-class Protestant community. If the outreach didn’t register with her, it’s a fair assumption the point would be missed by the loyalist community."
During the Good Friday talks, Sagar saw the Women’s Coalition function as translators. "The greatest barrier in politics here is language," she said. "Sinn Fein talks about decommissioning police and Protestants mean decommissioning of paramilitary forces." She said she feels comfortable talking with Sinn Fein and the PUP and could easily confront Sinn Fein about an issue and say, "If you’re offending me and I’m a moderate Protestant, what do you think you’re doing to the UUP?"
Davey Ervine remembers Sagar and McWilliams shuttling back and forth from party to party. "They had no inhibitions about who they talked to, which was not true of others," he said. "They made sure there were no misunderstandings."
The Women’s Coalition believes in decommissioning but not as a precondition to Sinn Fein’s sitting in the executive. "I want to see our politicians working and prove to that man holding the gun that he has no reason now to hold it," she said. She said making an issue of decommissioning is simply an excuse "to ensure that certain people in our society don’t get power."
"If it hadn’t been decommissioning, it would have been that Gerry Adams wore the wrong tie or Davey Ervine’s mustache was too fluffy," she said.
The Women’s Coalition also endorses integrated education, the reform of the RUC so that everyone can trust law enforcement, and the release of prisoners.
Mowlam to the rescue
Sagar came into Northern Ireland politics just before Secretary of State Mo Mowlam, whose arrival, she said, took some of the pressure off the Women’s Coalition. "Initially, we were the doormats and Mo came in and she ended up being the carpet because everyone wanted to tread on her," she said.
Sagar found Mowlam’s insight into the Unionists’ resistance to change helpful. "Mo is constantly reminding people that fear of change is an awful thing, but after 30 years, people fear peace because they’re comfortable with conflict," she said.
Sagar’s other political role model is Hillary Clinton. She was impressed by the first lady’s interest in the future of Northern Irish women in public life when McWilliams and Sagar met her at the White House last St. Patrick’s Day.
"We were meant to have 15 minutes and we stayed an hour," Sagar said. When Hillary Clinton visited Northern Ireland in 1995, she made a point of visiting community women working to hold their society together. That interest continues.
Last September, Sagar attended a Vital Voices conference along with women from the U.S., Northern Ireland, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, hosted by the Clinton and Mowlam and sponsored by the U.S., Britain and the Northern Ireland Assembly. It was an opportunity for Irish-American women to show their support for women like McWilliams, Sagar and others.
Sagar, who lost her race for the Assembly last year, is now the Belfast liaison for Vital Voices. She is looking forward to helping women continue to get involved in business and politics. She knows she has changed since she left the back streets of East Belfast. She says she speaks more quietly now and doesn’t swear so much. She’s sad that it took so long "to get up and say something," but she is optimistic that "everyone can do a lot if given the opportunity."
Although she was intimidated out of her neighborhood, she is still devoted to the people there. "They’ve pushed me out when I was helping them and that’s hard," she said. "But they’re me and I don’t want to ever forget where I come from." Now outside the halls of Stormont, Sagar promises to work tirelessly to "remind our politicians to be accountable to us."
Her political education has taught her, she said, that "individuals don’t have power, but collectively they do," and "if you work hard for other people’s children, you’re providing for your own."
For more information on Vital Voices, contact http://www.usia.gov/vitalvoices/.