Belfast Telegraph

BBC documentary to recount story of Women's Coalition

By Suzanne Breen

The story of how the Women's Coalition was formed and fought an election six weeks later will be told in a new BBC documentary on Monday.

Peacemakers: Wave Goodbye To Dinosaurs charts the birth of the cross-community party whose 7,731 votes in 1996 Northern Ireland Forum elections secured it two seats at the peace talks table.

It was founded after an unsuccessful lobbying campaign by women's organisations to require the parties to submit gender-balanced candidate lists in the election.

"We knew there was a huge network of women out there who found themselves politically homeless and who certainly wanted a different voice if peace talks were declared," said university lecturer Monica McWilliams who, along with community worker Pearl Sagar, was elected.

In the documentary former civil rights leader Bernadette McAliskey pays a warm tribute to the party.

"The Women's Coalition was made up of decent, brave, determined and extremely capable women. I don't think there was a waster in the Women's Coalition. How many political parties could you say that of?'" she asks.

Former members explain the political background. Baroness May Blood cites her commitment to fighting for social and economic justice.

She recounts growing up in a religiously mixed area when her father challenged "Protestant bully boys" who tried to burn out their Catholic neighbours at the start of the Troubles. A fortnight later the Bloods were themselves burnt out.

The party's election poster comprised cartoon dinosaurs on a green white and purple background - the suffragette colours. Ms McWilliams explains how they fought the election starved of money and resources.

The hostility of some male politicians to the party is also recalled. Footage shows former DUP leader Peter Robinson saying: "They aren't representative of the decent Ulster women that I speak to. The Ulster woman in the past has seen herself very much as being in support of her man."

Ms McWilliams says that, when they took their seats, they were subjected to "very derogatory comments... 'go home and breed for Ulster', 'stand by your men...' and individually they would 'moo' and 'boo' when we would stand up to speak". Ms Sagar's husband was a former British soldier and her police officer cousin had been shot by republicans. She recalls her extreme discomfort in private meetings with Sinn Fein.

"We went to meet Sinn Fein and Monica and all was fine. I struggled, I sat down in this room with people that I hated and, I mean hated... I couldn't even tell Monica and others because they are from that religion," she says.

She confided in her husband who advised her to work with people no matter how hard it was. Ms Blood remembers the effort to win the trust of other politicians.

"One of the things I find very strange as a woman when you go into a meeting there is almost a reluctance to say anything confidential because (of the attitude) you're a woman and you're going to go out and tell everybody. You have to build that respect up," she says.

The film's director Eimhear O'Neill said it's a story about "a group of brave women who did speak out".

Peacemakers: Wave Goodbye To Dinosaurs, a Fine Point Films and Fork Films production for BBC Northern Ireland, Monday 10.40pm

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