I am delighted to join with you all this morning to launch the report of the All-Island Women’s Forum.
I want firstly to acknowledge the leadership of the National Women’s Council in convening the Forum as a contribution to the Government’s Shared Island initiative, and to enhance links and engagement by women across communities on this island.
Tá ag éirí leis an bhFóram caidrimh chathartha a dhoimhniú agus béim níos mó a chur ar chomhoibriú trasteorann le borradh a chur faoin oileán seo.
[The Forum is deepening civic relationships and giving more impetus to working on a cross-border basis in practical ways to enhance the island].
This is vital work in building a reconciled future on this island, which the Government is leading through our Shared Island initiative, underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement.
We are working through all-island partnerships with the Executive, UK Government and Local Authorities; and crucially also with civil society representatives.
I am pleased that the Government has been able to support the Women’s Forum through the Reconciliation Fund of the Department of Foreign Affairs, and, even more pleased that funding has recently been awarded for the second term of your work.
There is much to engage with and reflect on from the Forum’s report.
I would like to focus today on three areas:
- The role of women in peace-building;
- The work and recommendations of the Forum; and,
- The context for this work as a part of the Shared Island initiative.
Women in peace-building
I don’t need to tell this gathering that, on this island and around the world:
- women’s voices, experiences and interests remain under-represented; and,
- women’s contributions are under-acknowledged and insufficiently harnessed.
That’s the uncomfortable truth, for peace processes and in our societies more broadly.
These are failings and missed opportunities that we must continue to work strenuously to resolve.
That imperative will drive the Government’s development of a successor National Strategy for Women and Girls, consultations for which will commence this year.
We will develop and implement a whole-of-Government framework to continue to advance women’s empowerment, working closely with civil society.
And the Women’s Forum is now putting a necessary focus on addressing underrepresentation and developing women’s role in civic society, on an all-island basis.
The Good Friday Agreement affirms the right to equal opportunity regardless of class, creed, disability, gender or ethnicity; and, the right of women to full and equal political participation.
These are fundamental rights that must be upheld. That requires ongoing political commitment and concrete action and cooperation by governments.
And, as United States Ambassador, Melanee Verveer, said at a meeting of the Forum this year, “the wellbeing of women and the wellbeing of nations goes hand in hand”.
This is recognised in UN Security Council Resolution 1325, the implementation of which is fundamental to the Government’s approach to peace-building, at home and abroad.
We see clearly the vital role that women play in peace-building and the continuing task of reconciliation on this island:
- Where women like Máiread Maguire and Betty Williams were brave, powerful voices in the cause of peace through some of the darkest days of the Troubles;
- And the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition - including Jane Morrice and Avila Kilmurray (members of this Forum) - had a critical influence in the negotiations that led to the Agreement.
Notwithstanding attempts by some in society to intimidate, or to marginalise their work.
The Women’s Coalition were a strong and clear voice on reconciliation and victims of violence, and with others, worked to ensure that relevant provisions were included in the Good Friday Agreement text.
These were far-sighted provisions - engaging with questions of justice, education, housing and the role of civil society - which remain fundamental considerations for the Peace Process.
The fact is that internationally, participation of women in peace negotiations results in more inclusive, comprehensive agreements; which tend to focus more on societal needs and human rights and not just the distribution of political power.
- And women on this island have played important roles in consolidating and taking up the possibilities of peace: in communities, civil society and politics.
And on progressing social reforms, for instance on marriage equality and access to abortion services, North and South, in recent years.
Many here today have made major contributions to these achievements.
You are now bringing that experience and understanding to the Forum, combined with the perspective and talent of younger members.
Looking to the future on this island, in an inclusive way, respecting all identities.
The Forum is rightly highlighting that there are still too many unheard voices - of women, of young people, of ethnic minorities, and of marginalised groups - in the continuing work of peace building.
The Forum’s analysis helps us all to see where more action and interaction is needed, to improve equality and build more inclusive communities.
This is fundamental to the deepening of reconciliation on this island.
Women’s Forum work recommendations
Over the last year and more the Forum has created not just necessary space for civic dialogue led by women; you are also spurring wider recognition of the value of such interaction:
- The inclusive approach of the Forum is an good example of how to approach civic engagement more broadly on this island;
- And, the perspectives raised at the Forum are contributing to wider public debate. Already, for instance, on education; gender-based violence; and women’s political participation.
- The recommendations that the Forum has set out will help shape the agenda and discussion.
The Government will consider and positively engage with the Forum’s recommendations, in consultation with the Executive and the UK Government as needed.
The five areas addressed by the Forum’s recommendations each have intrinsic all-island dimensions, which have been under-developed.
The Forum is giving a lead, putting forward practical recommendations to remedy this.
- For instance, the Forum is highlighting the serious, urgent need to confront and end the awful scourge of violence against women; and the value of shared approaches and interaction on this, North and South.
The Government fully agrees and we will shortly convene a Shared Island Dialogue on this critical issue, with the welcome participation of Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee and Northern Ireland Minister for Justice and Alliance Party leader, Naomi Long.
Bringing together stakeholders from across the island to look at how can we work together more - in government and civil society.
- The Forum also puts a focus on the role of education in building understanding and reconciliation. Here also, Government is keen to do more, working with the Executive and UK Government.
We want to increase student mobility across the island and Britain; support deeper cooperation between higher and further education institutions; and introduce a cross-border apprenticeship programme.
I have also long highlighted the fundamental role of education in in underpinning peace, prosperity and progress.
The unique community context and legacy in Northern Ireland means that education reform and meeting the needs of marginalised communities is considerably more complex.
But, I and the Government I lead want to work with a new Executive and the UK Government to step up on cooperation and support, particularly on educational attainment issues
- I also want to acknowledge the Forum’s focus on increasing women’s political participation, North and South, and recommendation on gender quotas for candidate selection. I have been strongly supportive of this in the past and remain so.
Just 22.5% of TDs in the Dáil are women, while for the Northern Ireland the position is somewhat better following the May Assembly election with women making up 35% of MLAs.
There is no doubt we need to do better to find ways to improve participation and representation by women, at all levels of politics.
We will consider carefully the recommendations of the Women’s Forum along with those of the Citizen’s Assembly on Gender Equality.
I was very struck by Dr Jane Morrice’s observation, quoted in today’s report, that - notwithstanding decades as a civic and political leader in Northern Ireland - the Forum represents her “first ever regular encounter with women from the South”.
And that, for Jane, as for many in the unionist community, there has in fact been little experience of “Irish culture, history, and way of life South of the border”.
For many in the South, the same is undoubtedly true of unionist culture, identity, tradition and community in Northern Ireland.
The Forum is taking forward essential work in bridging the still significant gaps in how we interact across the border and across our different traditions on this island.
To move beyond outdated, one-dimensional, or simply false conceptions of others.
To recognise complexity and evolution in all communities.
And to acknowledge and respect difference, without obscuring our shared interests.
Mary McAleese, on her inauguration as 8th President of Ireland in November 1997, spoke of the potential for communities on this island to build a “firm and steady bridge across which we will walk together both ways.”
Today, the All-Island Women’s Forum and Encounters programme are providing important parts of that bridge, and making a significant contribution to the Shared Island initiative.
Shared Island initiative
My and the Government’s commitment is to work with all communities and political traditions, to build consensus around a shared future and deliver tangible benefits for the island, underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement.
We are doing this by:
- Deepening our civic and political relationships, North/South and East/West;
- Developing new opportunities to cooperate and invest across our borders and communities, including through the Government’s €1billion Shared Island Fund;
- Deepening our understanding of service provision and differences in performance in key areas of our society and economy across the entire island through a major and unprecedented programme of commissioned research;
- And, by fostering the space to look at the future on the island of Ireland in a positive way, that doesn’t compromise anyone’s identity or aspirations - unionist, nationalist or neither.
Central to our approach is the Shared Island Dialogue series, which has so far directly involved almost 2,000 citizens and civic representatives; with participation by many here today.
The Dialogues are bringing people together - from across all regions, communities and political traditions - to discuss how, in real terms, we could better share the island in the years ahead.
A priority is to ensure that underrepresented voices - including of women, young people and ethnic minorities - are better heard.
Is saibhre go mór ár gcur chuige nuair atá raon leathan tuairimí san áireamh.
[Our approach is greatly enriched with the inclusion of a wide range of views.]
The Dialogues are looking at real, common concerns for North and South: like growing sustainable tourism; broadening participation in sport; and rural development.
And engaging with deeper societal questions around identity and culture; issues that we need far more inclusive, open, exchange on this island.
Helping us to better appreciate our diverse stories and standpoints on this island and how these are framed by community, place and time.
The Shared Island Dialogues are providing starting points for deeper conversations and developing new projects and policy initiatives like this.
The Women’s Forum itself was a follow-on from one of our early engagements as part of the Dialogue series with women’s representatives; so it is inspiring to see it now making such a substantive contribution.
Sustained engagement by civil society is essential on this island.
Síona Cahill hit the nail on the head in the Forum’s report in saying that “you cannot underestimatethe power of constructive and safe spaces for dialogue and learning.”
And she rightly points out that progress “doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t happen over a year. It takes commitment over generations”.
This Government will continue to put a focus, priority and resource on open and inclusive dialogue as an integral part of our Shared Island approach.
Continuing positive engagement by civil society on the island is all the more important this time when the Executive in Northern Ireland and the North South Ministerial Council are once again not able to fully function, which is unacceptable.
It is to the detriment of the people of Northern Ireland that their Executive is not in place to take the decisions and provide the leadership needed, particularly as we face into a difficult and economically challenging winter. It is a denial of the mandate given in the elections of the fifth of May.
As I have made clear, the Government and I will seek to work in partnership with new British Prime Minister Liz Truss and her Government, and with the leaders of all of the political parties in Northern Ireland, to secure the effective operation of the Executive and the North South Ministerial Council.
The Good Friday Agreement remains our indispensable framework; our bedrock.
The Irish Government will always work sincerely to support the operation of its Institutions;
To protect all that has been achieved since 1998;
And, to foster trust, understanding and reconciliation across the different communities and political traditions of this island.
In concluding, I want to again acknowledge the leadership of the National Women’s Council, and the vision and commitment of the Council’s Chair Margaret Martin; Director Orla O’Connor; of Emma-De Souza as Chair and Facilitator of the All-Island Women’s Forum, and also Ailbhe Smyth who led the Encounters Programme.
All of the members of the Forum are contributing to the inclusive, meaningful civic interaction that is fundamental to the vitality of our shared island, today and for the years ahead.
In 1928, the Anglo-Irish suffragist Charlotte Despard said on winning of the vote for women and the continuing road to full equality and social justice:
“When an impossible dream comes through, we must move on to another”.
Through the Good Friday Agreement an enduring peace was won and the people, North and South, affirmed a new vision for our relationships on this island.
Founded on partnership, mutual respect and working in practical ways for reconciliation.
Our job now is to deliver on the promise of that agreement; to drive forward its central vision - in our politics and in wider society.
Harnessing the power of a more equal and inclusive society in peace-building.
I look forward to a continued significant contribution of the Women’s Forum in this crucial work to build a shared, reconciled future for all communities on this island in the years to come.
Thank you; go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.