A new education programme has been launched to shine a spotlight on the role of women in the Northern Ireland peace process.

Men took most of the attention and plaudits during and after the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern and former British prime minister Tony Blair were the first names on the agreement.

The SDLP's John Hume, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams were among the other signatories.

Many women also played key roles, like Northern Secretary at the time, Mo Mowlam, and Monica McWilliams, former leader of the Women's Coalition, formed specially for the talks that led to the Agreement.

Many were also involved in cross community and reconciliation work long before politicians sat around the table.

But many, like former MP Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, feel the role they played is largely invisible.

"It's not that women get written out of history, they never get written in," is a quote from her on display as part of an exhibition called Peace Heroines at Stormont last week.

The event was held to launch an education programme by a group called HERstory to highlight the role women play in politics and community life.

It includes large portraits of some women who have played key roles in politics and community work in Northern Ireland.

Women like Eileen Weir from Belfast's Shankill Road, who as a 16-year-old, she joined the loyalist paramilitary group the UDA, but later after joining the trade union movement, she spent decades working closely with women on the nationalist Falls Road.

Eileen Weir
Eileen Weir said 'we worked together to deal with women's issues'

"There are pictures of all the men shaking hands after the Good Friday Agreement was signed but we didn't do that, we just hugged each other because by that stage we were all friends and had been for a long time," she recalled.

"We worked together to deal with women's issues, the problems they were facing in their communities because of the Troubles, it wasn't Protestant issues or Catholic issues.

"We even protested together. They were going to close the Royal Victoria (Hospital) maternity ward at one stage and the women from the Falls and the women from the Shankill got together and protested at the maternity hospital over on the Falls.

"So we were building those relationships up, we were actually friends before the Good Friday Agreement, we had already made that leap because the Good Friday Agreement for us and for women was a chance of hope that our kids weren't going to suffer the things that we suffered throughout the whole conflict," said Ms Weir.

As leader of the Women's Coalition, Monica McWilliams had a seat at the table during the negotiations along with her colleague Pearl Sagar.

While at times they faced serious sexism and ridicule, the Coalition was widely credited with playing an important role in the talks, the content of the Agreement and the successful campaign for a Yes vote in the referendum that followed.

They are also credited with paving the way for more women to enter politics in Northern Ireland.

But Professor McWilliams feels their role has been overlooked by many.

"We ended up being a footnote once the Agreement was signed," she said.

"It's really important that women are not written out of history, that it's not 'His story', and hence the reason why this exhibition is called 'Her story'.

"I hope our grandchildren and their children coming after us can now read all of this and say it was incredible what those women did back then."

Monica Williams and Liz O'Donnell at the exhibition
Monica Williams and Liz O'Donnell at the exhibition

As part of the Irish Government delegation during the negotiations, former minister of state Liz O'Donnell saw their impact first hand.

"They made a huge difference because they brought a different perspective rather than just the tribal perspectives of the traditional parties," she said.

"There was a new party, they came from academia, from teaching, from the professions so they brought a fresh perspective and a very solutions-based approach."

The United Nations uses the role of women in Northern Ireland's peace process as a case study for other conflicts.

Those behind HERstory hope that women's roles will now get greater attention closer to home.

"Our aim is to ensure the peace heroines get the recognition they deserve and inspire the next generation of peace-builders," explained Melanie Lynch, founder of HERstory.

"We want to write Herstory into history."


The exhibition is now on display at the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation in Wicklow and later moves to Queen's University in Belfast and a number of other locations throughout Northern Ireland.