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Women begin bridging the divisions in Ireland

The violence that has seared Northern Ireland for the past 27 years is not the result of a religious battle, a member of the current peace talks said during a visit to St. Petersburg this week.

Monica McWilliams, one of the few women involved in the complex negotiations, said the longstanding dispute is about identity.

"It has little to do with religion," she said during an interview at Eckerd College on Wednesday.

"It has to do with British and Irish allegiances. People think that it's Catholic and Protestant. I suppose that is the easiest way to describe it. Most Catholics consider themselves to have an Irish identity and most Protestants consider themselves to have a British identity. In the end, it is about reaching an accommodation that respects both traditions equally," McWilliams said.

McWilliams is a co-founder of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, a political party of Protestant and Catholic women striving for equity, human rights and inclusion for all residents.

She was in St. Petersburg to speak at a 20th anniversary function of the Center Against Spouse Abuse and as part of Eckerd College's International Relations and Global Affairs lecture series.

At Eckerd she spoke of the future and her hope for a permanent peace.

For centuries, civil strife has been a constant companion of the Irish people. In 1922 a treaty with Britain divided the island. The treaty was ratified by what is now the Irish Republic in the south.

Most of the people living in the north were Protestants, many descendants of Scottish Presbyterians. Catholics, who were in the minority, said leaders of this majority group, called Unionists because of their preference for continued affiliation with Britain, subjugated them.

Toward the end of the 1960's, Catholics held large demonstrations protesting discrimination in voting rights, housing and employment and violence between the two factions escalated.

The majority of people in Northern Ireland live in segregated Catholic or Protestant communities. Mostly, said McWilliams, who is Catholic, each side's religion, culture and traditions continue to be foreign to the other.

"When I went to university, that was the first time I met people from a different religion," she said.

But divisions between the minority Catholics, who want to end British rule, and the majority Protestants, who want to maintain it, may at least be narrowed a bit, if McWilliams, who hopes for a compromise, and her party get their way.

"Instead of confronting our fears all the time, we've got to look and see what space is created for change," she said. "It's not about territory, it is about people."

That was the reason she and other concerned women hurriedly formed the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, six weeks before last year's election called to determine who would participate in the peace process. They thought it was important for women to be part of the talks to determine Northern Ireland's future, McWilliams said.

"We ran a kitchen-table campaign," she said of the party that started with no office and certainly without the equipment typical of one.

Though many of the women who joined the grass roots campaign had been active in feminist causes for many years, the women's party marked the first time scores of others became politically involved.

"Only recently have women made this plunge," said McWilliams, 42.

Meetings were almost "evangelical," she said, as women from all walks of life eagerly joined the cause and 70 agreed to be candidates for election.

"These are very strong, courageous women," McWilliams said of members of her party, who succeeded in winning two seats at the peace table.

Previously, she said, women had stood helplessly by as loved ones were killed or imprisoned as a result of the ongoing conflict and waited fearfully for more trouble to invade their lives.

"We've always lived in a situation of frozen watchfulness," said McWilliams, a wife and mother of two young sons.

"For many years it's silenced us," she said of the strife. "The coping strategy was to lock it away. We chose initially not to talk about politics. The way to kind of avoid conflict was to avoid discussion."

And for many years, the very factions separated by hate and religion were joined in agreement about the role of women, said McWilliams, a senior lecturer in social and community sciences at Ulster University.

"They had similar views on working women," she said of the Catholic and Protestant hierarchies.

"They didn't believe in state-subsidized day care and they would not have been at all in favor of separation, even in the case of domestic violence."

Though churches for the most part have moderated these attitudes, she said, it still has been difficult for women who support the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition. It has been particularly troublesome for McWilliams and colleague Pearl Sager, a Protestant, because they have been maligned even as they sat at the peace talks.

"We have been personally insulted and intimidated," McWilliams said.

Earlier this year, she was struck by a stone while showing support for Catholics attending Mass in a predominantly Protestant town.

But many of the insults have come from a minister, the Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and founder of the Free Presbyterian Church, McWilliams said.

"One of the ways the men have tried to silence us is to abuse us," she said. "They use words such as scum, whining women, feckless women."

At times like those, McWilliams said, she turns to her faith.

"I still attend church," she said, adding that her religious upbringing has been a comfort during the stresses of the past 1{ years.

"I believe a lot in my spirituality, and I draw on it a lot at the negotiation table," she added.

McWilliams, who also was in the United States to meet with the National Security Council and raise money for her fledgling political party, remains optimistic that those seeking peace in Northern Ireland can reach a consensus by the May 1998 deadline.

At that time, a referendum of proposed solutions will go before the people.

"This is the first time in our history we have had a cease-fire and peace negotiations at the same time," McWilliams said of the violence that has resulted in more than 3,000 deaths. "We have an opportunity to write a new script."

And the people of Northern Ireland are ready to do so, she told her Eckerd College audience.

"When people taste peace, when they know peace, and when the price is a permanent peace," she said, "then the people also will not be prepared to go back to those awful, awful days that we have come out of."