‘We’re not being shot or blown up. That doesn’t mean we have peace’

Women activists from Northern Ireland speak at Irish embassy event in London for St Brigid’s Day

Working class communities have suffered most from Northern Ireland’s descent into entrenched “political conflict” since the Troubles ended, a discussion of women’s activists in the Irish embassy in London was told on Wednesday during the embassy’s St Brigid’s Day programme.

“Our biggest challenge today is just getting a working government,” said Susan McCrory, a longtime community activist and managing director of the Falls Road Women’s Centre in nationalist West Belfast.

“We have no government and yet our institutions are collapsing around us. Healthcare is on its knees, education is suffering. The armed conflict left with the Good Friday Agreement, but the political conflict began. And that has been even more detrimental to communities... It has led to poverty and isolation,” she said.

Ms McCrory took part in the embassy’s St Brigid’s Day “peace panel” discussion alongside two other well-known Northern community and peace activists, Eileen Weir of the Shankill Women’s Centre and Anne Carr, an activist and former councillor who was elected for the Women’s Coalition in 1997 during the run-up to the peace talks that led to the Belfast Agreement.


The panel discussion was moderated by senior Government official Aingeal O’Donoghue, who is currently posted at the Department of the Taoiseach with responsibility for Northern Ireland and British-Irish affairs.

Ms Carr, who comes from a Protestant background in Belfast, told how she had to leave the North for London aged 19 after her Catholic boyfriend, whom she later married, received a death threat “for no reason whatsoever” other than he lived in a mixed area. They were married in Britain and later returned to the North.

“I couldn’t tell my father for two years that I married a Catholic. I do not want that kind of history for my children, my grandchildren or anyone else,” she said.

Ms Weir, a member of the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Defence Association in her youth, later became active as a trade unionist and peace activist. She told of how her perspective changed when she met nationalists through local women’s groups, and that this led her to question the “propaganda” she was exposed to on the Shankill.

She was heavily critical of what she characterised as today’s lack of the promised “peace dividend” for some working class communities from the Belfast Agreement.

“We’re not being shot or blown up any more. That doesn’t mean to say we have peace,” she said.

“The Good Friday Agreement [brought an end to violence] but in those days we didn’t have a lot of drugs. Now we have a lot of drugs that are being [controlled] by paramilitary organisations. I just call them gangsters – they are no different from the drugs gangs from Dublin.”

Ms McCrory said not enough emphasis had been placed since the signing of the Belfast Agreement on facilitating links between community groups across the divide.

“[Political leaders] didn’t invest in the women of the conflict, so we bonded ourselves,” she said, highlighting the links between the nationalist Falls Road Women’s Centre and the women’s centre on the loyalist Shankill.

“It continues today because there are still women to be reached,” she said.

Ms Carr said she felt her generation had “let down” those born in the North after the Belfast Agreement – the so-called “peace babies” – because the “values of the agreement were not fully implemented… we forgot about reconciliation”.

Ms Weir said she would continue to lobby for the Belfast Agreement to be formally taught in all schools in the North: “The more [young people] understand, the more they’ll see it is worth fighting for.”

The peace panel was one of three St Brigid’s Day discussions at the embassy themed around the achievements of women, alongside panels on diversity and inclusion and literature. The programme included the Peace Heroines art exhibition of nine portraits of Northern Ireland women by the artist FRIZ.

Ireland’s ambassador to Britain, Martin Fraser, said the embassy’s St Brigid’s Day programme was an opportunity to “reflect on the work done by women over the years”, while the peace panel discussion was organised to reflect the contribution of women to the ending of violence.

“We’re coming up to the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. We wanted to highlight its importance, and we wanted to do it in London because the agreement is an achievement of the two countries. But there is still a lot of unfinished business. Some community activists in the North have never stopped working for peace. We need to focus on the next 25 years.”

Mark Paul

Mark Paul

Mark Paul is London Correspondent for The Irish Times