Irish Taoiseach, Hillary Clinton spotlight women’s role in Northern Ireland’s peace process on 25th Anniversary

Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton joined leaders from Ireland, the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland and the United States at Georgetown on March 16 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement.

The agreement brought an end to the conflict in Northern Ireland known as “the Troubles,” alleviating decades of violence between Protestant unionists and Roman Catholic nationalists from the late 1960s to 1998. 

The conference on “Women at the Helm: The Unfinished Business of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement” was hosted by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and included Former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, Signatory to the Good Friday Agreement Monica McWilliams, and Ambassador of the United Kingdom to the United States Karen Pierce, who reinforced the importance of women’s involvement in the peace process. It was moderated by GIWPS executive director Ambassador Melanne Verveer. 

The Taoiseach, also known as the Irish prime minister, was 19 at the time of the agreement and remembers voting in a referendum that approved the agreement “for a different future” that “ended a cycle of violence and retaliation and gave people the freedom to live their lives and to dream once again.”

Reflecting on the Good Friday Agreement, he said “25 years on, it shines as a beacon of hope and an example to all of us in politics and outside of politics that the impossible can be achieved when people work together.”

Varadkar recognized women’s often overlooked role in the peace process.

“The central role of women in the peace process was visible to everyone involved at the time…. [they] provided voices in civil society, which shaped the context in which peace became possible.”

Varadkar credited the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC) for including topics such as housing, education, victims rights and reconciliation in the Good Friday Agreement.

Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Georgetown.

He highlighted women who were present at the event, including Former Minister of State of Ireland Liz O’Donnell and Signatory to the Good Friday Agreement Monica McWilliams, and those who have since passed, such as former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Marjorie “Mo” Mowlam and Northern Irish community worker Joyce McCartan, for their work which “changed the course of Irish history forever.” 

“Women from across the political spectrum were able to contribute to everything that happened, except, it seems, the photographs at the end,” said the Taoiseach. “Therefore, I believe that we can have no meaningful commemoration of the Good Friday Agreement unless the role of women is properly recognized and applauded.”

He acknowledged that women’s seat at the table was not given but hard-fought for and earned.

The Taoiseach commented on the unfinished business of the Good Friday Agreement stating that “women’s leadership, vision and inspiration is needed today more so than ever to ensure that Northern Ireland, and all of Ireland, achieves its full potential.” 

After his attendance at the GIWPS event, Varadkar met with President Biden and Vice President Harris in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day on March 17.

“History is often told from the perspective of mostly male political and diplomatic leaders…we rarely hear the stories of women who play the key role in organizing and maintaining communities because without that, peace cannot be made; peace cannot flourish; and peace certainly cannot be sustained.” – Ambassador of the United Kingdom to the United States H.E. Dame Karen Pierce

Women’s Leadership in the Good Friday Agreement

Monica McWilliams told the story of creating the NIWC –– a cross-community political party –– in just six weeks in order to have women represented at the multi-party peace negotiations. 

“Twenty-five years ago we took a risk,” she said. 

After asking other political parties whether they planned to have women at the negotiating table –– “they didn’t even bother answering our letters” –– McWilliams and Avila Kilmurray decided over a glass of wine to “get organized and do it ourselves.” 

The NIWC won two seats in the subsequent election and participated in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations.

“We were told to go home and breed…and to be proper housewives,” reflected McWilliams. “So we sang the Dolly Parton song ‘Stand By Your Man’ and that was the start.”

The NIWC was able to insert integrated education, mixed housing, a civic forum and the right of women to full and equal participation into the Good Friday Agreement.

“That’s the value-add that women bring to the table,” said McWilliams. However, she noted that all of these provisions have not been fully implemented.

She credited the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security for hosting a conference honoring women’s leadership in the peace process.

“Today is quite emotional for me in many ways, because [in the past] we would have been somewhere in the back, looking on,” said McWilliams.

“We have 90% segregation in social housing; 93% segregation in our education system; over 100 peace walls remain; and a failure to deliver on socioeconomic commitments… …It’s been 25 years and I think now my generation needs to stand up and say we want to see delivery.” -Next generation peacemaker Emma DeSouza (far left) joins a panel moderated by Monica McWilliams (far right).

25 Years Later

Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton summarized lessons learned from the Good Friday Agreement. She emphasized the importance of seeking out and building relationships, particularly with people who may not agree with you.

“It took a lot of courage to begin to sit and talk to people who you thought had, if not contributed [to], certainly condoned violence and disruption, said Clinton. “But you do not make peace with your friends; you do not negotiate with people you already agree with. We all have to do some serious soul searching about how we relate to one another in this much more complicated information environment where demonization and scapegoating are accepted strategies.” 

Clinton also reinforced the important role that women played in Northern Ireland’s peace talks.

Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton at Georgetown.

“Much of what we heard reflects the work of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security: how important it is to include the voices of all, but in particular to make an extra effort to include the voices of women.” 

She concluded by reflecting on the role that the U.S. and Clinton Administration played in the Good Friday Agreement. 

“It’s a great honor to have been a small part of this extraordinary journey that the people of Northern Ireland have been on. And we want you to know that we stay with you, we support you, and we will try to learn the lessons that you have taught the rest of us.”


Reflections from Global Leaders

Discover more reflections from global leaders such U.S. Special Envoy to Northern Ireland for Economic Affairs Joseph Kennedy III and First Minister (Elect) of Northern Ireland and Deputy Leader of Sinn Féin Michelle O’Neill on the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in the photo gallery below.