Peace in Northern Ireland, The Brexit Backstop

Christina Knight | March 15, 2019


Women, War & Peace II: Wave Goodbye To Dinosaurs premieres Monday, March 25 at 9:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

For all of Brexit’s trade implications, the most urgent quandary facing the U.K. Parliament is the question of Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland – part of the U.K. since 1921 – shares an open, 310-mile border with the Republic of Ireland, an E.U. member. Trade is vital between the neighbors and that’s why a near-certainty of Brexit is the “backstop” plan. This means that even if the U.K. and E.U. are still sorting out their relationship after December 21, 2020, the Irish border would remain open: free of checks on people or goods. (Learn more about the evolution of border questions from the BBC).

Some are concerned with how Brexit will affect Northern Ireland’s politics and society. Until the Good Friday Agreement peace resolution of 1998, Northern Ireland had been wracked by 30 violent years of “The Troubles,” which involved paramilitary groups, British troops, and tensions and deaths within housing developments and at the Irish border. Sectarian violence between Protestant Unionists loyal to the United Kingdom and minority Catholic Republicans, who sought either civil rights – or unification with the Republic of Ireland – killed more than 3,500 and injured more than 50,000.

An enforced border – which to some, seems simply bureaucratic – stirs memories of bombings, landmines and shootings for those who experienced the Troubles, as journalist Dearbhail McDonald describes in this opinion article for The Guardian.

The occasion of the agonizing Brexit negotiations led by British Prime Minister Theresa May is an important time to revisit the fraught two years preceding the Good Friday Agreement (April 10, 1998). That peace negotiation had to provide for three power dynamics: the system of government of Northern Ireland within the U.K.; the relationship between the Republic of Ireland and the U.K.; and the relationship of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The Northern Ireland election that chose political parties for the negotiating table prompted the the creation of a new political party: The Northern Island Women’s Coalition, which united Catholic and Protestant women activists and community organizers to advocate for peace above any other agenda. The newly formed NIWC was one of 10 elected political parties that negotiated the peace.

Belfast resident opening paper upon announcement of the Good Friday Agreement, April 1998.

Belfast resident opening paper upon announcement of the Good Friday Agreement, April 1998.
©Photo by Derek Speirs

The Women, War & Peace II documentary Wave Goodbye to Dinosaurs – named for the anti-establishment slogan of the Women’s Coalition – revisits the women in Northern Ireland who formed the party to ensure peace for their communities. For two years, they fought at the negotiating table to be taken seriously by their male, professional politician counterparts. These women, led by Monica McWilliams and Pearl Sagar, believed that politics should not be just for the elite, but open to those whose lives depend on a successful peace. They also advocated for integrated housing and education, among other improvements to life in Northern Ireland.

Subsequent to the signing of the peace agreement, the Northern Ireland Assembly was established in Belfast to legislate in areas not reserved for the U.K. Parliament in London. Two members of the Women’s Coalition were elected: Monica McWilliams and Jane Morrice. The party ceased to exist by 2006.

As Brexit approaches, women in Northern Ireland fear an economic downturn and the loss of E.U. funding for women’s volunteer organizations, according to an opinion piece in RTÉ.ie, the site Ireland’s National Public Service Broadcaster.

We can’t predict the future of Brexit, but we can look to the lessons learned and shared by women leaders and negotiators in Northern Island. They share how they fought for peace, just over two decades ago this April, in Women, War & Peace II: Wave Goodbye To Dinosaurs, premiering Monday, March 25 at 9:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Watch previews of three other new Women, War & Peace II films premiering this month, here.