President Michael D Higgins speech: All-Island Women’s Forum
Published: Thursday, February 17, 2022
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Speech by President Michael D. Higgins
“Women’s Voices in Peacebuilding:
The Unfinished Work of the Peace Process”
All-Island Women's Forum Conference
17th February 2022, Enniskillen
I am delighted to be here today in Enniskillen to address you all at this important conference focusing on women’s role in peacebuilding in Northern Ireland, organised by the All-Island Women’s Forum and the National Women’s Council of Ireland. May I thank Emma De Souza for the invitation to speak to you today.
The theme of peacebuilding, and specifically women’s role in such critical work, is one which both Sabina and I feel passionately about. Your conference, focusing, as it does, on an all-island peace approach, is such an important contribution to the ongoing peacebuilding discourse on this island. It is one that is grounded in the concept of democratic and active citizen participation, involving cross-community groups coming together to deal with the unfinished work of the Northern Ireland peace process.
Groups such as the Shankill Women’s Centre – formed as a locally based group to provide education for women, but since going on to flourish and develop into its current role as a key provider for training, health awareness, childcare and young women’s activities in the Greater Shankill and beyond, as well as other groups that evolved into cross-community political entities, such as the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition – such groups play an important, indeed vital, role in the promotion and achievement of a peaceful future in Northern Ireland, demonstrating the critical importance of cross-community engagement and the benefits of active citizenship and democratic participation as a means to forging an agreed, peaceful, perhaps even emancipatory future.
Women’s role in peacebuilding is a crucial one, has been throughout the ages. Throughout history women have struggled against adversity in order to enable future generations of women and men to have a greater freedom of choice, a more inclusive and peaceful society. Though the historiography perhaps favours the warriors, monarchs, and rebels, at least in terms of the number of pages devoted to them, female pacifists and mediators were just as vital in the fight for equality. This is borne out in the peacebuilding movements across the island of Ireland and globally.
I think of Ruth Fry from The Hague whose belief that peace can be created through international dialogue, rather than violence, was the guiding force in her life mission as a pacifist and humanitarian. Fry’s most significant work was accomplished as General Secretary of the Friends of War Victims Relief Committee, a Quaker-led charity that provided relief for European civilians following the impact of the First World War.
Socialist and peace campaigner Ethel Snowden, as well as being one of the leading figures of the suffragist movement prior to the First World War and writing several books advocating for feminism, began actively campaigning for peace during World War I, undertaking speaking engagements across the UK to advocate for an early and fair peace settlement, and continued to be a spokesperson for peace after the War ended.
Kathleen Lonsdale, a committed pacifist, believed in Gandhain non-violent resistance and civil disobedience, holding the principle that, “as violence does not further peace in the home, neither would it in world politics”; this belief led Lonsdale to spend time in prison for refusing to register for civil defence in the Second World War. Following the War, Lonsdale furthered her peace work, campaigning for prison reform and the need for ethics in science – particularly in the context of war.
Environmentalist and peace campaigner Hilda Murrell, known for her resettlement of wartime refugees work with the Jewish Refugee Children’s Society during and after World War II, would later in life become increasingly concerned about the threat of mass extermination from nuclear weapons and by the environmental damage caused by the nuclear power industry. Murrell became a prominent member of several anti-nuclear and peace-promoting organisations, including the European Nuclear Disarmament Movement.
Last year’s Nobel Prize for Peace laureate, Maria Ressa, the Filipino-American journalist and author and the first Filipino Nobel Prize-winner, has demonstrated a profound contribution to the safeguarding of freedom of expression, “a precondition for democracy and lasting peace”, as the Nobel Prize jury pointed out.
Closer to home, writer, trade union leader and human rights activist Inez McCormack played a vital role in building peace through promoting inclusive socio-economic strategies. She also successfully campaigned for the inclusion of equality and human rights provisions in the Good Friday Agreement.
Of course there are countless other examples – women who fought against a sometimes misogynist society or exclusionary political elite to strive to deliver more inclusive, more peaceful futures for their fellow citizens.
UN – 2030 Agenda
At United Nations level, the 2030 Agenda and the related Sustainable Development Goals – our collective blueprint for a more inclusive and sustainable world – make specific mention of women’s role in participation and peacebuilding in Goal 5 on Gender Equality: “Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.” The Goal also recognises women’s critical role in the creation of peaceful societies and in the participation of peacekeeping activities.
The tragic events of violence against women in recent weeks have caused us all to reflect, with even greater urgency, on the many issues which women face on a daily basis, on what needs to be done both to eliminate all violence against women across our society, and the unfinished business of building greater gender equality. It is of crucial importance that we turn this concern into concrete actions to ensure better outcomes for women throughout our society, in all aspects of their lives.
Having been appointed a United Nations HeForShe Champion in 2015, in support of UN Sustainable Development Goal number 5, “to end gender-based violence”, I believe there is an urgent need for all of us to reflect on actions we can take to strengthen gender equality so that together we might achieve positive and consistent change in Irish society more broadly. To this end, Sabina and I have decided to host an event in Áras an Uachtaráin on International Women’s Day next month which will bring together a wide range of organisations to consider together what contribution they can make to strengthen gender equality.
Despite progress on some counts, many challenges remain: discriminatory laws and social norms remain pervasive, women continue to be under-represented at all levels of political leadership, and one-in-five women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 report experiencing physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner within a 12-month period.
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic could reverse the limited progress that has been made on gender equality and women’s rights by exacerbating existing inequalities for women and girls across every sphere – from health and the economy, to security and social protection.
It is abundantly clear that we have not achieved the United Nations goal on gender equality and ending gender-based violence. Any global citizen who believes in basic principles of democracy, participation and inclusion could not consider the ongoing exclusion of women to be in any way fair or reasonable.
Cultural rationalisations for such exclusion, or indeed violence, which are often formed from the view that women are proprietorial objects, to be “possessed” or “owned”, must be called out for what they are: an abuse of rights. However it is sourced, be it from a sense of entitlement, superiority, misogyny or similar attitudes in the perpetrator, or because of a violent nature, it must be confronted. This is a discussion which must be maintained, not just at the United Nations at every level, but within and between Member States. It is an issue that knows no borders.
As to peacekeeping, the statistics by gender reveal a gradual shift towards female participation. In 1993 women comprised approximately 1 percent of uniformed UN peacekeepers. By 2014 this had increased to 3 percent of military personnel and 10 percent of uniformed police personnel. The most recent UN data indicates that women occupy 22 percent of the 16,507 civilian positions associated with peacekeeping missions.
UN1325 and the Women, Peace and Security Agenda
At the multilateral level, the absolute importance of the role of women in the prevention of conflict, the building of peace and the transformation of post-conflict societies has been enshrined by the United Nations in a landmark resolution, UN1325. A watershed moment when the international community recognised the particular impact of conflict on women and girls, this resolution acknowledges that the full participation of women in peace processes is critical to the maintenance and promotion of international peace and security.
Since then, nine further resolutions on the issue have been adopted by the UN Security Council and together form the Women, Peace and Security Agenda. This Agenda recognises both the particularly adverse effect of conflict on women and girls, as well as their critical role in conflict prevention, peace negotiations, peacebuilding, mediation, and governance.
The Women, Peace and Security Agenda has a powerful resonance in Ireland as we have witnessed at first hand the transformative impact women have had on the Northern Ireland peace process, both in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement and continuing the essential work of peacebuilding today.
Ireland has also been a longstanding champion of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda at the UN, and it is a key priority for Ireland’s two-year membership of the Security Council where we co-chair the Informal Expert Group on this topic.
One of the most important elements of the Agenda is its application and implementation by Member States through National Action Plans – Ireland is currently implementing its third National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security. It is so essential that work such as this, which promotes the role of women in civil and political life, continues to receive full and broad support. Women are crucial agents of change – in their families, their communities, their workplaces and in politics.
Political Representation of Women in Northern Ireland
Women remain poorly represented in political life in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and in Great Britain. The number of elected public representatives who are women remains modest, and national-level political discourse remains largely dominated by men. Despite this, women have played crucial roles of the greatest significance in peacebuilding. Far greater recognition of these roles is warranted.
While the Irish Government delegation at the talks leading up to the Good Friday Agreement was led by the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, much of the detailed work of the negotiations was undertaken by Liz O’Donnell, at the time Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs.
On the British Government side, day-to-day oversight of the negotiations was in the hands of Dr Mo Mowlam, the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a woman of great courage and spirit. Both she and Liz O’Donnell made a major contribution to the successful outcome achieved on Good Friday 1998. These two women focused on the importance of listening respectfully to the other side, of making a genuine attempt to understand the fears and concerns of those with opposing views. They asserted that what was needed was the creation of a space large enough to accommodate the needs of all sides, a space that allows for the identification of a common ground and a shared humanity that had become forgotten as the blinding and corrosive consequences of decades of mutually contemptuous tribal stereotyping and blame-gaming, and the privileging of extremes, had quelled so many possibilities for progress.
Building a Peaceful Society
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that great document of the United Nations, has affirmed that “recognition of the inherent dignity, and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.
If we are to create such a world, a world where all our fellow citizens can live in peace, security, safety, respect and dignity, we must not only reject all forms of violence, but envision an inclusive, sustainable, diverse world – one that can be shared equally by all citizens, in all their wonderful diversity. Many of you gathered today who work in non-violent ways to end conflict – through dialogue, negotiation and peaceful protests – are more than sowing seeds, you are demonstrating the great power of positive action in effecting real and lasting change, doing so with compassion and wisdom.
We on the island of Ireland have witnessed what can be achieved by a willingness to engage in discourse and how it facilitates work towards achieving a common goal. However, this invaluable work should never be used as a means of avoiding the deep, structural, institutional changes we are required to make. Humanitarian acts must not be abused by their being cited as alternatives to the call for structural change. The neglect of structural change promises social discord of catastrophic proportions, and it promises that within decades unless we create such change that will allow for fairer, more inclusive societies.
Conflict resolution processes require courage, patience and hope. All peace processes are just that: they are processes requiring long-term, sustained and inclusive political engagement. It is rare that the sources of a conflict can be fully addressed in one generation. Therefore, those committed to peace must recognise that we are embarking on a potentially lifelong, even inter-generational, pursuit, supporting the transformative process which all post-conflict societies must undergo over generations.
Set against this reality, it is vital that the principles and objectives of any agreement be flexible to new challenges, acting as the foundation and the framework by which peace and reconciliation for all the people is achieved. In our own case in Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement was a form of endpoint, but really it was a beginning, the beginning of the process to build a peaceful society. Twenty-four years later, the difficult process of reconciliation continues. Northern Ireland is a much more peaceful society today, but it is not entirely healed.
Conflict resolution, to be successful, must be more than a means for demonstrating political resolve. It must be a meaningful, inclusive tool for the attainment of peace, requiring parties to accommodate, collaborate and compromise.
Effectiveness is also strengthened – the evidence is overwhelming – through the increased participation of women and gender-based civil society groups. Professor Desirée Nilsson of Sweden’s Uppsala University has demonstrated that peace agreements are 64 percent less likely to fail when civil society representatives participate. An International Peace Institute study of 182 peace agreements signed between 1989 and 2011 found that, when women are included in peace processes, there is a 35 percent increase in the probability that a peace agreement will last 15 years or more.
Between 1992 and 2019, women constituted, on average, 13 percent of negotiators, 6 percent of mediators, and 6 percent of signatories in major peace processes around the world. While there has been some progress in women’s participation, about seven out of every ten peace processes still did not include women mediators or women signatories—the latter indicating that few women participated in leadership roles as negotiators, guarantors, or witnesses.
Evidence suggests that female participants in peace processes are more likely to be focused on reconciliation, economic development and transitional justice – all critical elements of a sustained peace. We therefore need to listen more to those women involved in conflict resolution to allow us achieve positive change. In the past, the neglect of women’s contribution to the post-conflict adjustments was a significant, avoidable loss, often resulting in exclusionary outcomes. Organisations such as Vital Voices provides a platform to enable the voices of women’s leaders around the world to be heard in the crucial areas of peacebuilding, development, women’s empowerment and political participation.
We also need to listen to the voices of victims of violence and conflict. We must listen to and believe survivors. Recent research by Women’s Aid identified the need for family, friends and colleagues to come forward, take the initiative, ask others to support victims of abuse, to call out abusive behaviours, and to act as active bystanders against intimate relationship abuse. We must start a public conversation with citizens as to how we can increase awareness of those who may be have been previously, or continue to be, victims of violence.
Peace is more than the absence of fighting, and it is upon that principle, as Emma De Souza has remarked, that the success of the Women’s Coalition can be truly marked:
“Members brought to the table education, mixed housing, the reintegration of political prisoners, specific language on victims’ rights, and the formation of the Civic Forum – all of which play a significant role in promoting social cohesion and embedding a lasting peace”.
How disappointing, then, that some of these vital provisions and aspirations have been allowed to languish: shamefully, education remains overwhelmingly segregated, mixed housing schemes continue to under-deliver, and the Civic Forum (the consultative body in Northern Ireland created in 2000 under the Good Friday Agreement, consisting of members of various civil society bodies) was unofficially disbanded after just two years in operation.
Role of Education in Peacebuilding
To focus on education, a theme of your conference, 93 percent of schools in Northern Ireland remain segregated, meaning that most young people are educated in either a state-funded school that predominantly attracts Protestant families, or a state-funded school maintained by the Catholic Church. Young people in Northern Ireland are segregated not only by the schools they attend, but also by the languages they speak and the sports they play: where some schools offer Gaelic football and hurling, others provide rugby or cricket, usually exclusively.
Yes, communities today are predominantly peaceful, slowly becoming more equal based on some metrics, but they are still apart. Young people are separated in the very place where they learn and build relations. Significantly, segregation disproportionately harms poorer families. The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, for example, has highlighted “persistent underachievement” among Protestant boys entitled to free school meals, and while paramilitary activity is still active in working-class communities, segregation only fosters hostility, and harms vulnerable, disillusioned young people who can be misled by violent actors within their communities who hold significant powers of influence.
Integrated education is not just needed, it is overwhelmingly wanted. A recent survey indicated that 71 percent of people in Northern Ireland think it should be the norm, and integrated schools are consistently oversubscribed. Surely this is a matter on which we can all unite. I believe strongly that integrated education is a key element to a successful, inclusive and harmonious future in Northern Ireland.
As Abby Wallace has pointed out in a recent award-winning article for The Guardian newspaper, the mandate for integrated education is far from new:
“The Education Reform Order of 1989 placed a formal duty on the Department of Education to ‘encourage and facilitate’ integrated education. It was honoured in the Good Friday Agreement through these very same words. The Education Act created more pressure for shared education. And later, in the New Decade New Approach agreement, which brought our government back from a three-year hiatus, all five parties agreed to an independent review of our fragmented system, a process that’s only just begun.”
It is a testament to both the urgent need for integrated schools and the lack of political will that reform – like in so many other areas of policy – has been driven by community action, citizens on the ground who demonstrate time and again that they are ahead of many members of the body politic. The ongoing desire by some political figures to keep schools religiously segregated has understandably and justifiably been interpreted by some commentators as a cynical tactic aimed at satisfying their core support base, an exclusionary and sectarian method often reinforcing notions of ‘The Other’, the attribution of particular tendencies and particular ideologies to those perceived as lesser.
The Integrated Education Fund (IEF) has assisted several schools to achieve integrated status since Northern Ireland’s first integrated school in 1981. Yet, as Wallace notes, not one of these 68 schools became integrated through government action alone; rather, they came into existence mainly through parents’ groups galvanising the necessary support, working with teachers and school staff, to transform their schools’ ethos to integrated status.
The role of education is central to peacebuilding, with evidence to support the view that, when equitably available, of good quality, relevant and conflict-sensitive, education can help promote peace, inclusivity, tolerance, and provide safe environments. On the other hand, when its delivery is characterised with exclusion and inequity, for example through a biased curriculum, it can exacerbate conflict. Integrated education is a key means to enabling and sustaining a peaceful co-existence of communities, of promoting values and attitudes that provide a basis for peacebuilding in a post-conflict setting such as Northern Ireland.
Young people should feel that they belong in any school irrespective of their religion, or lack of religion. Young people should not feel segregated from others based on dangerous sectarian criteria that merely reinforces notions of ‘The Other’. Young people in Northern Ireland deserve to see leadership being demonstrated, to end segregation, and to respond to decades of mandates for integration.
On a practical level, let us achieve together, across all communities in Northern Ireland, a consensus for curriculum reform, agreeing core elements, those that may require trial, as well as optional elements. I suggest that matters concerning sexuality education would be a good place to achieve such consensus.
Equivalence of rights North and South is a theme of your conference. We cannot be complacent about the agenda for inclusive education in the Republic either. There is a desire amongst much of the citizenry for more co-educational, multi-denominational and non-denominational schools at primary and secondary levels, and we need to see these options being delivered without delay.
Your conference is also addressing, inter alia, the question of the legacy of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition. That Coalition, in its rejection of traditional partisan and male-dominated politics, played a vital role in the delivery of a more inclusive Good Friday Agreement. Its founders, drawn from both of the main opposing traditions, sought to work together, transcending the old tribal divides and focussing instead on creating a common, agreed, shared future, united by the cause of bringing women’s concerns to the negotiating table, and ensuring an inclusive peace accord. We owe a great deal to Monica McWilliams and Pearl Sagar, the Council’s co-founders, who had the idea to contest elections to the Northern Ireland Forum, the body for all-party talks, which led to the Good Friday Agreement.
May I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Coalition’s Campaign Manager, Baroness May Blood, whose work participating at a grassroots level in the peace process and in tackling disadvantage across communities in Northern Ireland is well known.
The legacy of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition is a profoundly positive and tangible one. The Coalition successfully introduced amendments to the Good Friday Agreement on mixed housing, the inclusion of women in public life, special initiatives for young people affected by the conflict, recognition of the links between reconciliation and mixed housing and integrated education, and the promotion of a culture of tolerance. The Coalition also advocated the creation of a Civic Forum for Northern Ireland, which was included in the Agreement and established in 2000.
Ireland’s peace could not have been achieved without the steady and courageous activism of civic organisations campaigning for a more just and peaceful society, many of which were led by the women of Ireland, North and South. Such groups of women’s networks demonstrated the profound benefits of bridging, bonding and linking between diverse communities – the core elements of social capital – as a means of reconciliation and finding common ground.
Evidence indicates that women are more likely to forge strategic alliances with the aim of sustaining peace through reconciliation and social cohesion. Such alliances are already evident across civil society in Northern Ireland. Examples of women’s organisations engaging in the process of urging, making or building peace are a global phenomenon, as Michael Potter has noted:
“Specific studies of peace movements have highlighted the centrality of women to the concept, such as the Derry Peace Women in Northern Ireland, the Women’s Unarmed Uprising Against War in Sweden, the Women’s Peace Union in the United States or the Greenham Peace Camp in the United Kingdom, to name but a few”.
Important, too, in this debate is that we fully recognise how responding to, and addressing, conflict and violence demands the utilisation of the widest possible range of instruments – from conflict-prevention, to humanitarian assistance, to development, co-operation and, importantly, mediation.
Statistics on peace mediation show high levels of gender inequality. I already referred to a recent study by the Council on Foreign Relations which indicated that, between 1992 and 2019, women constituted just 13 percent of negotiators, 6 percent of mediators, and 6 percent of signatories in major peace processes globally.
Similarly, there is a persistent lack of recognition of the vital and extensive mediation and peacebuilding work with which women engage at the local level. This is an area where women are more highly populated, yet their experiences are frequently ignored, as Dr Heidi Riley of University College Dublin has noted and whose research highlights “the diversity of experience among women working in mediation and peacebuilding from across the island of Ireland, including migrant and refugee women”.
While the significance of women’s involvement within communities is perhaps reasonably well understood, the need for their incorporation into macro-political processes is perhaps less well acknowledged. Such multi-dimensional peacebuilding approaches are frequently only made possible in the presence of a strong feminist movement, as Marie Hammond-Callaghan has argued so well in her book, ‘Peace Women’, Gender and Peacebuilding in Northern Ireland.
Sustained peace requires more than text and counter-text and dismantling of arsenals. Here, I suggest respectfully, is where women’s voices can be so exemplary.
Need for Paradigm of Resonance to Aid Healing
As to the future, I am minded to recall Colmcille, the patron-saint of Derry and the North-West. Inspired by great manuscripts which travelled from Iona to Ireland, Colmcille’s work is an expression of how we each reflect our own heritage and culture and launch our own message into the world, and may do so in a way that can promote healing and be emancipatory. Colmcille’s work informs, what social philosopher Professor Hartmut Rosa describes as, “resonance” – the feelings we experience as we relate to the world, be it with either curiosity or fear.
The need for healing through “contact” is evident at the collective public level as much as the private therapeutic level. Of particular relevance here is the development of what Professor Richard Kearney calls a “commons of the body”, the work of communal memory which I believe holds particular resonance in post-conflict societies like Northern Ireland where enemies may come face to face and share physical space and gestures with each other, ones that can come to be a way of acknowledging and overcoming violence.
This requires a need “to replace handguns with handshakes”. In the making of contact through fora such as cross-community events, victims and perpetrators of seemingly irreparable communal traumas, in their efforts to find escape from cycles of recrimination and bloodletting, can engage in a collective working through of wounds with a real sense of hope, of achieving some kind of healing which can, given time, grow.
That is why we have an obligation with our work to move peace from paper to experience, to the texture of lives lived that carry the remembered experience of terrible loss, cruelty, humiliation and indifference. This can only be done with the involvement of women at the core of every step of this process, the inclusion of women’s voices, their rich experiences and their expertise; and it is my belief that the women of Ireland, North and South, will continue to rise to this challenge as we carve out a future of sustained, inclusive peace and reconciliation on our shared island of Ireland.
I wish you all well in your endeavours, and I look forward to today’s conference which promises to be a stimulating and enriching one.
 See Council for Foreign Relations (2022). Women’s Participation in Peace Processes. Available here: https://www.cfr.org/womens-participation-in-peace-processes/
 Wallace, Abby. (2021). ‘Integrated education in Northern Ireland is urgent – why can’t our leaders see that?’, 2nd December 2021. Available here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/dec/02/integrated-education-northern-ireland-school
 Potter, Michael (2008). ‘Women, Civil Society and Peace-Building in Northern Ireland: Paths to Peace through Women’s Empowerment’, in C. Farrington (ed.), Global Change, Civil Society and the Northern Ireland Peace Process, Palgrave Macmillan: London.
 Council for Foreign Relations (2022). Women’s Participation in Peace Processes. See: Women in https://www.cfr.org/womens-participation-in-peace-processes/
 Riley, H (2020) “Building Networks: Voices of Women in Peace Mediation on the Island of Ireland”, Report for the Institute for British-Irish Studies.
 Marie Hammond-Callaghan (2011) ‘‘Peace Women’, Gender and Peacebuilding in Northern Ireland
From Reconciliation and Political Inclusion to Human Rights and Human Security’ in Building Peace in Northern Ireland (ed. Michael Potter).
 Rosa, Hartmut. (2021). Resonance: A Sociology of Our Relationship to the World, Polity Books: Cambridge.
 Kearney, Richard (2021). Touch: Recovering our Most Vital Sense, New York: Columbia University Press.