Women have been all but airbrushed from the history of the Good Friday Agreement

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 16 April 2018 in Comment

Mandy Rhodes on Mo Mowlam's role in reaching the Good Friday Agreement

My late uncle, a semi-professional footballer, juggled his football career in the 1970s with his day-job as a dried fruit sales rep for Whitworths. One was, undeniably, more glamorous than the other.

But his sales patch was Northern Ireland and as a child I can remember my granny being as worried about protecting him from the aspiring WAGs that would hang about Muirton Park as much as she was about him making that weekly round-trip to Belfast.

On balance, Northern Ireland was probably the more dangerous territory and for me ‘The Troubles’ were a complex broth of serious uncle hero-worship along with a deep and troubling fear about a threat that I just didn’t understand.

Alistair would come back from Belfast with a suitcase crammed with product samples – who could forget chocolate coated dried apple slices – and terrifying stories about tanks on the street, road blocks and gunfire. A potent mix of memories that all conflated into one thing - a fear that my uncle wasn’t safe.

It seemed so far removed from rural Perthshire but then television pictures of the bloody aftermath of a bomb blast or of men in balaclavas carrying machine guns would invade our front room. And the fear would grow.

My uncle’s tour of duty for Whitworths ended long before The Troubles did but the driving force behind both was women; wives, mothers, my granny - women who didn’t want to have to lie awake at night fearing for the safety of sons.

Which is why having women all but airbrushed from last week’s 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement just seemed so abhorrently casual.

The Labour MP, Harriet Harman, rightly criticised an Irish magazine that illustrated a feature about the legacy of the Good Friday Agreement with portrait shots of six men.

The picture, which included Tony Blair, Gerry Adams, Ian Paisley and Bertie Ahern, left out Mo Mowlam, the former Labour MP and Northern Ireland secretary – the first woman to hold the post and who laid the groundwork for Blair. 

Mowlam was known for her casual, direct style, calling fellow politicians "babe" and "bastard" in equal measure. But she was no fool. Unlike others, her style did not lack substance and commentators who last week suggested otherwise, got my goat.

She brought a direction, insight and an inclusivity that had eluded all before her. And she kickstarted the process when it stalled by doing what others had been unable to do - going into the Maze prison to talk directly to the men that threatened peace.

Mowlam wasn’t the only woman integral to the peace process but she was the most high-profile. And it’s important because having women involved in peace negotiations is proven to secure longevity. The Agreement acknowledged this by imbedding the participation of women in Northern Ireland’s politics into its ambitions.

It’s easy to leave women out of history if you don’t write them in. But consider this, would the Good Friday Agreement ever have happened had it not been for ‘just Mo’?

The poet, Seamus Heaney, said the Agreement, “cleared a space for the miraculous.” And while it was indeed a miracle, it only made peace possible, it did not guarantee it. Its fragility has now been exposed by Brexit and the cavalier attitude of politicians like David Davis and Barry Gardiner with an unforgivable ignorance of their own history and who appear to see the peace in Northern Ireland as a side issue rather than key.

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