News & Events
Monica McWilliams of Northern Ireland Meets with M.A. Students
Monica McWilliams, chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), spent over an hour answering questions from master’s students in Peace and Justice Studies and other USD graduate students on subjects including challenges in peace negotiations, truth commissions, human rights and the role of women in peacemaking. McWilliams, one of only two women to sign the Belfast (Good Friday) Peace Agreement that ended the conflict in Northern Ireland, was at the school to speak in the Joan B. Kroc Distinguished Lecture Series and participate in the IPJ’s Women PeaceMakers Conference, “Precarious Progress: U.N. Security Council Resolutions on Women, Peace and Security.”
With humor and humility, McWilliams spoke about the difficulty in getting to the peace table (she and others had to create a political party and be elected in order to be represented), the harassment that the women faced during the peace process, the allies they found in people like U.S. mediator George Mitchell, and the ongoing challenge of getting women included in government, civil society and other leadership positions.
As an example of how difficult the peace negotiations were, McWilliams told a story about both sides being invited to South Africa by President Nelson Mandela to see how South Africans had overcome deep divisions. When Mandela saw that the two sides refused to even share the same bathroom, he quipped that the Northern Ireland delegation had brought apartheid back to South Africa.
M.A. student Brian Estabrook from Ohio asked what formal or informal cross-cutting alliances are important as part of the peace process. McWilliams reflected that the most important part of the struggle was to keep back channels open with all factions. “People question talking to terrorists,” she said, “but with every faction part of the problem needs to be a part of the solution.”
Although much of the work of the NIHRC deals with the past – investigating human rights violations by British soldiers as well as Protestant paramilitaries and IRA militants – McWilliams recently completed a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland which would enshrine human rights in law for generations to come.