Engaging Young Women in Politics

WIIS Brussels Advisory Committee member Jane Morrice has dedicated most of her professional life to bringing peace and supporting women into politics. Recognition to her engagement has come in many ways. Ten years ago Jane was invited to share her experience with women building peace and reconciliation in Lebanon. Her heartwarming speech still is an example of how we can learn from each other across different experiences and situations.


Beirut - June 3, 2010

Good Morning. I’m delighted to be here. But I admit it took me a while to figure out how I was going to approach this presentation to you today. I wrote the title and sat and stared at a blank screen for quite sometime.

Firstly, I couldn’t believe I was heading to Beirut. It’s a place I had heard so much about and yet would never dare visit. I’m sure you think that’s rich (unusual) coming from someone from Belfast, but I know you understand. Even by Belfast standards, Beirut was seen as a frightening place – until you visit that is – I wonder if Belfast looks as frightening to you from Beirut?

Second, I’m sorry to say that I’m the type of person who has to pinch themselves when we hear glorious things said about our past experience. It’s a ‘women thing’ – too many of us seem incapable of actually believing we are capable of passing on our knowledge, our expertise and our brilliance to anyone but our own children. But I’ve flown all the way from Belfast to do just that so I had better get started.

My story is simple. I was born in Belfast and was just a teenager when the so called ‘troubles’ started. Bomb scares, street riots, shops burned out, soldiers on the streets, murder and mayhem for almost 30 years – I’m sure I don’t need to describe it in detail. The people of this city know only too well what I’m talking about and much, much worse. It is strange to come from so far away, to be so different and yet to have so much in common.

Back then, all I wanted to do was get out – I hated the bigotry, the violence, the sectarianism, the suspicion. But more than anything, I hated the hatred because it was making me hate. So I left, after University, and lived for nearly ten years, working as a journalist in Brussels.

In 1987, I went back to work for the BBC in Northern Ireland, as a reporter chasing fire-brigades. It was strange reporting on the troubles in Belfast - like standing outside your house reporting that it is burning – I knew one day I would put the microphone down and do something to help.

I did, but it was almost ten years later. I was in my early forties, married with a young son and Belfast was still a very troubled city. Somehow I gathered up the courage to think I could make a difference. I had never been a member of a political party, I had rarely voted and would have described myself as ‘politically homeless’. I didn’t feel any association with the traditional parties - Catholic or Protestant, Irish or British, Nationalist or Unionist, Republican or Loyalist – Northern Ireland needed something different.

So, a group of women activists, including myself, decided to have a go at ‘Do it Yourself Politics’. It was 1996. The Northern Ireland Secretary of State - Mo Mowlem – called an election to get representatives from all the political parties into the peace talks. She wanted the smaller Loyalist paramilitary groups represented. So she ruled that the top ten political parties would send negotiators to the peace talks. That was our opportunity.

First we wrote to all the political parties to ask what they were doing to ensure women’s voices were heard at the peace negotiations. I think we got one reply – that wasn’t good enough. We realised, if we did nothing, the future of Northern Ireland would be decided by 12 men at the peace negotiation table. That might have been OK in a previous century but not in the 1990s.

So we formed the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, stood 70 women as ‘vote gatherers’ in the elections and, in six weeks, we became the ninth political party in Northern Ireland and sent two representatives to the Peace talks – which ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement.

It was an amazing experience. Very few took us seriously to start – a women’s political party – unheard off. When I told my husband he asked what I would I do if he decided to set up a man’s political party. I said if, for the past 20 years, our 20 representatives in London and Strasbourg had been 20 women, I would help him set up a man’s political party.

We were a very unique group – Catholic, Protestant, atheist, agnostic, professional, non-professional, community workers, teachers, lawyers, mothers, grandmothers and, believe it or not, men as well! We crossed the divide in every direction. Our mission was to encourage more women into politics and, at the same time, help find a peaceful solution to the terrible problems facing Northern Ireland.

But it wasn’t easy. Decision-making was particularly difficult. We came from very different backgrounds – in fact we were like a microcosm of Northern Ireland politics and society. We had to take positions on highly contentious issues like the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons or the freeing of prisoners.

We had members from protestant and catholic paramilitary areas, others whose husbands, sons or brothers were in prison, others whose loved ones had been maimed or murdered and others who had little or no experience of the troubles. Together we had to move into a space where we could listen to and learn from each other. But we never left our identities, our culture, our belief or our politics behind. We were ‘all-aligned’ rather than ‘non-aligned.’

Our decisions were based on our three core principles – Equality, Inclusion and Human Rights. The decisions we made within the ranks of the Women’s Coalition were then brought to the table of the peace talks and, during those talks our negotiators often acted as go-betweens or mediators with the parties because they would not talk to each-other - we were seen as less threatening, less confrontational and more ready to compromise.

The Good Friday Agreement was a truly momentous time in the history of Northern Ireland. It was the beginning of the end of Direct rule from London and led to the creation of the first regional Assembly in Northern Ireland for more than 25 years.

We decided in the Women’s Coalition to stand for election to the Assembly. Against all the odds, we won two seats and, by pure chance, one was from a Catholic Nationalist background – Monica McWilliams – and I was from a Protestant Unionist background. We started as soon as we could to try to change the face of politics in Northern Ireland. And we managed to make some inroads.

For example, I was on the Committee which set the rules or Standing Orders for the new Northern Ireland Assembly. We looked at the rules of the Dublin, London and European Parliaments and, of course the traditionalists, wanted simply to follow the Westminster system for Assembly sitting times – late night sittings late morning starts. I introduced the idea of family friendly’ working hours and was immediately put down.

“You can’t do the business of government on a nine- to-five basis”, boomed a voice from the other side of the table. Normally, I would accept the wisdom of an older, more experienced member but, this time I decided not to and simply asked “Why not”. I won my case and the Northern Ireland Assembly has been operating on family friendly hours ever since.

We lost our seats in 2003 and, closed down the party in 2006 – 10 years from our formation because we had achieved much of what we set out to do. More woman were being elected, our voices were starting to be heard, bread and butter issues, such as health and education were moving to centre stage and peace and political stability was taking hold – we had played a small part and were proud to have done so.

That, in a nutshell, is my story but here comes the hard part how can I make it relevant to you and your situation here in the Lebanon? I spoke earlier about the Belfast/Beirut axis, about the fact that our lives are so very different and yet our life experience and the suffering of our people has been similar except on a different scale. Belfast, Beirut, Bosnia where next………?

I have no special recipe for the success that has been achieved in Northern Ireland. All I know is that it takes a long time, a lot of talking and an awful lot of building of trust. We, in Northern Ireland, are not there yet. There are still peace walls dividing Catholics and Protestants in Belfast and the people don’t want them taken down. So we still have a long way to go.

This conference is about engaging young women in politics and I firmly believe that the only true government is the one which is a mirror image of the whole society over which it governs. Balanced representation promotes balanced thinking and leads to balanced results. This is the very essence of equality. I firmly believe that once this has been achieved at the level of men and women then it will be achieved at every other level of society.

So, my conclusion is that it is in everyone’s interest to encourage more women – young and old – into politics. I did it and I have to say it was the most challenging and yet most rewarding work I have ever done – except for being a mother of course – yet, in a way, it’s the same job. How can you work to keep your home safe and secure for your child when danger and trouble lurks on the street outside. I told you that I was 16 when the troubles started in Northern Ireland. My son, who is with me here today, was a teenager when the troubles stopped. That’s what politics is all about. I’ll say no more.

Thank you.

The programme of the conference is available HERE.