Academic / Former Politician / Women’s Rights Advocate / Co-Founder of Northern Ireland’s Women’s Coalition
Monica McWilliams was born on 28 April 1954 in Ballymoney, Co. Antrim but grew up in Kilrea, Co. (London)Derry. She graduated from Queen’s University in Belfast and became Professor of Women’s Studies and Social Policy at the University of Ulster.
Throughout the 1980s McWilliams sat as the Chair of Gingerbread’s Social Policy Committee – an organisation ‘working to secure and protect equality and social inclusion for one parent families’ and often also spoke on behalf of the Northern Ireland Poverty Lobby on poor housing, unemployment and dependence on social welfare.
In early 1996, McWilliams and a friend, Avila Kilmurray, discussed the upcoming peace talks and lamented the fact that due to the lack of women in politics, women’s voices would not be heard or considered by the politicians negotiating plans for Northern Ireland’s future. Working closely with the Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform – a group that campaigned for women’s equal civic and political rights – McWilliams and Kilmurray began lobbying the Northern Ireland Office for a gender-proofed party list system by which men and women were alternated in equal proportions on their lists. They also sought funds for non-party organisations to be included in the peace talks, as it was widely acknowledged that women were particularly active in community-based groups and their voices and experiences would be of value. Their proposals were largely ignored by the British Government.
At a meeting on 17 April 1996 which was attended by representatives of up to 200 women’s groups, it was decided to lobby the government to allow a women’s network to be included in the talks. Much to their surprise, the government agreed to allow it, and the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition was formed. They had just six weeks to mount a campaign and three weeks to choose candidates to put forward. The NIWC quickly set about looking for candidates to come forward and encouraged the inclusion of women from varying communities and identities by refusing to take a stance on the constitutional question. While they managed to field 70 candidates from both nationalist and unionist backgrounds, from working- and upper-class communities, they were met with some hostility by mainly Unionist politicians. David Irvine of PUP questioned their ability as a ‘cross-community group’ to ‘understand why this election was called’ and Peter Robinson of the DUP said that ‘they are not representative of the decent Ulster woman that I speak to.’ Despite everything, after just six weeks of existence, the NIWC secured two seats for the All-Party Talks which began on 10 June 1996 and the only women at the table were the two elected to represent the NIWC – Monica McWilliams and Pearl Sagar.
Both McWilliams and Sagar faced serious sexism and ridicule in the Forum for Dialogue and Understanding which ran alongside the peace talks. They were called ‘silly women’ and told that they should be at home ‘breeding children for Ulster.’ Ian Paisley infamously made mooing noises when McWilliams stood to speak. In spite of this, McWilliams and Sagar secured very important aspects to the peace accord; integrated education, restitution for victims and a civic forum rather than just a concentration on decommissioning and disarmament. These things were key to the success of the Good Friday agreement which was signed on 10 April 1998.
McWilliams was elected as one of two women (the other being Jane Morrice) of the NIWC members to the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland in 1998 and represented South Belfast until 2003. Being a member meant that her role was primarily ‘to scrutinise and make decisions on the issues dealt with by Government Departments and to consider and make legislation.’ She returned to her post as Professor in the University of Ulster in 2003 until she was appointed full-time Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission in 2005 and remained so until 2011. Under her leadership the Commission finalised the advice on a Bill of Human Rights for Northern Ireland which was then presented to the Secretary of State and general UK government in 2008. Legislation is still awaited.
In 2015, McWilliams was appointed to the Fresh Start Panel on the Disbandment of Paramilitary Organisations in Northern Ireland and subsequently to the Independent Reporting Commission to oversee the recommendations of the Panel report. She was also made chairperson of the Governing Board of Interpeace which is an international organization for peacebuilding that supports local initiatives promoting peace around the world.
McWilliams was awarded the John F. Kennedy Library Profile in Courage Award with the other eight signatories of the Northern Ireland peace process in 1998 and the Frank Cousins Peace award in 1999.
Herstory invites students and artists to create brand new portraits of Northern Ireland’s peace heroines. To have your art featured in the Herstory 2020 project please send your name, age and high resolution jpegs to firstname.lastname@example.org
Gingerbread, online at http://www.gingerbreadni.org/ [accessed 5 June 2019].
Democratic Dialogue, ‘Power, Politics, Positionings – Women in Northern Ireland,’ Report 4, (Oct 1996), p. 4.
Fearon, Kate, Women’s Work: the story of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, Belfast (1999), pp. 51, 121.
Fearon, Kate and McWilliams, Monica, ‘Swimming against the mainstream: The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition,’ in Carmel Roulston and Celia Davies (eds), Gender Democracy and Inclusion in northern Ireland, New York (2000).