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Women Are Holding Northern Ireland Together—But How Long Can This Be Sustained?

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A mural reading 'End Sectarianism: Bring Down The Walls' on the Falls Road mural wall in Belfast. Image by Julia Canney. Northern Ireland, 2018.

A mural reading 'End Sectarianism: Bring Down The Walls' on the Falls Road mural wall in Belfast. Image by Julia Canney. Northern Ireland, 2018.

Twenty years ago, the Good Friday Agreement was signed, officially ending The Troubles in Northern Ireland. This was made possible by the tireless efforts of people across the country—specifically women—who had been working in communities for decades. Many of the women who were involved with early peacebuilding and community organizing are still working tirelessly in the field today, but are constrained by an ever-depleting lack of resources and little support from politicians or the government.

Despite the inclusion of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, a cross-community political party that took part in the all-party talks, at the table of the Good Friday Agreement, there are many provisions that community women and workers say have left working class people behind.

“They tell us we have to forget about the past—Jesus, there’s no past for us!” said Marie Newton, a participant in the Unheard Voices Project based in Derry. “It’s the present! You can’t forget about it if it hasn't been dealt with!”

In an effort to deal with the trauma of the past while working among communities to prepare for the future, projects led by women organizers have taken root across Northern Ireland. Although there are younger generations engaging with community relations and peacebuilding efforts, many of the women who were early peacebuilders are still involved today.

Eileen Weir, an outreach worker based at the Shankill Women’s Centre in Belfast, is one of these women. Having worked in the trade union and community organizing movements for over 40 years, Weir has experienced the fickle nature of support for these programs firsthand. “I feel like I’m working harder now than I did 15 years ago,” she said. “You’re spending a long time looking for resources for programs that will actually move people forward.”

Weir’s role with the Shankill Women’s Centre is currently guaranteed for only a few years, after which the funding for her job—and the programs she runs—will end. Although Weir brings her work with her wherever she goes, it means a loss of a shared and safe space for programs to be held—programs that are already in need of additional funding. “It’s not a job to me, it’s a passion. It’s something that I believe in, it’s something I want to see. But, how many years do you do this?” asked Weir. “I get a year’s funding, and I’m supposed to do peacebuilding in a year.”

The funding mechanisms that support these programs, through no fault of their own, are often unable to sustain the work for more than a year or two—substantially reducing the reach and impact they can have on the community. The government or other agencies will give money to a program with the aim of collecting stories from women about their experiences during The Troubles, but after a year, the money runs out and participants often are left without another avenue to explore—with no thought to the trauma that may have been unearthed during a program.

When asked about impact, Weir said, “It’s up to us to get the stories, with no resources, but they don’t realize when you get someone telling their story, you need to make sure that they have support systems in place. If we want women to tell their stories, we have a duty of care. But there’s no resources for this.”

As Maureen Hetherington of The Junction, a community relations and peacebuilding center, stated, this unworkable system is amplified by the fact that politicians continue to exacerbate community divides. “Two dominant parties, fighting for the dominant narrative, each saying that it’s the victim of the other—there’s no taking responsibility, no thinking of the bigger picture or the impact on the communities. It’s always based on the parties’ interests.”

Hetherington explained that her stress comes not from the actual community work she does, but “from the exhaustion of thinking, how are we going to keep going, how are we going to pay people or for programs? We’ve gotten the funding cut out from us—we’re down to 45 percent core funding now. How is this sustainable?”

Despite working across nationalist and unionist communities in Northern Ireland, there is a consensus among women community organizers that they’re not doing “cross-community” work—a label that Weir and Hetherington say is misrepresentative of what women’s roles were and are today.

The Junction places a specific focus on education as the way to achieve peace. “When we get people together, there’s awful fears,” Hetherington acknowledged. “But then [the participants] couldn’t believe that one group had the exact same issues and problems as them. You can’t undo those conditions after you’ve created them, and women are central to all of that work.”

“We don’t use the phrase cross-community at all, and being women is what brings us together,” said Foyle Women’s Information Network (FWIN) Coordinator Catherine Cooke, “I suppose we could get a lot more funding if we say that we’re cross-community!”

The FWIN, with over 500 women members from throughout Northern Ireland, was set up in 1994 to allow for the sharing of work that women were doing in their local communities. As part of a government-led initiative, they started a program aimed at giving women the capacity and confidence to confront and stop paramilitary activity in their areas—but when the government was dissolved in January 2017, FWIN had to continue on without that financial or legislative support.

Weir said, “our communities are living in community traumas—but we don’t look at trauma in survivors here. It’s always down to what happened during the conflict.”

The Unheard Voices Programme, an initiative supported by the International Fund for Ireland (IFI) through its Peace Impact Programme, in operation since 2013, allows for women to engage with these traumas, many of which have never been spoken of since The Troubles. Since 1986, the IFI has funded programs across Northern Ireland and the southern border counties with a goal of encouraging dialogue and reconciliation between nationalists and unionists throughout the country.

Anne*, a participant from the historically-unionist Waterside neighborhood in Derry, said “the person who died, it’s not about them. It’s about us, it’s about the people who are left. There’s not a woman in this room who doesn’t have mental health problems.”

Nearly all of the women involved in the project spoke for the first time about their traumas. A participant from the historically-nationalist Creggan neighborhood told how her father had been killed by security forces during crackdowns against civil rights marches, and the community struggle that followed.

“My daddy will be dead nearly 50 years next year. My mum was our counselor, she kept us going, but there was no offer for help. No one came to see if you were surviving, or if you were well. There was no counseling offered.”

While there are no longer daily diversions on roads in Derry because of shootings or car bombings, the problems that existed during The Troubles have not gone away. Anne said, “I would say every family in Northern Ireland has someone who has been affected. That’s why the mental health problems will never go away—generation after generation is just going to pass it down. Suicide here is an epidemic.”

Northern Ireland, and particularly Belfast and Derry, faces enormously high suicide rates, levels of unemployment, gang and criminal activity, and domestic violence against women in all communities. The projects funded through IFI and the Peace IV mechanisms work to combat some of this, but funding cannot go everywhere. The IFI funding for the Unheard Voices Programme is set to run out in the next few months, leaving Creggan Enterprises seeking alternative ways to continue the vital program.

The women working in community organizing and peace building in Northern Ireland desperately need the funding and recognition to keep creating change and lasting peace. “There are women here who should be held up as our heroes, women who have done amazing things in their own families and community,” said Cooke.

Barbara Wosser of the Unheard Voices Project and Creggan Enterprises agreed. “It’s very disillusioning for there to be programs that stop after a year or two—you’ve built up that trust with women and you’ve built up that work, and then you have to tell them, sorry, the program is over. The government needs to be in here.”

It has now been over 600 days since the Northern Irish government collapsed in January 2017, making it the longest country in history to exist without a sitting government. Without a government, civil servants have been forced to make decisions that are widely outside of their remit. A lack of funding directly contributes to the uneasy attitude among peacebuilding and community relations organizations, as there is no guarantee that their funding will be there in the coming months.

“To effect change, you have to step in to the fire,” Hetherington said, “and you have to stand in it for a while.”

These women peacebuilders have been doing just that.

*Select names have been changed to protect the identities of some participants.

This reporting project was made possible through the generous support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Enormous thanks are due to Kaz Lynas of the International Fund for Ireland, Eileen Weir of Shankill Women’s Centre, Maureen Hetherington of The Junction, Catherine Cooke of Foyle Women’s Information Network, Barbara Wosser, Carol Cunningham, and the entire Creggan Enterprises Team for welcoming me into their community space. Thank you to all of the women, named and anonymous, who shared your stories with me.