Alex Kane review: The dinosaurs waved the women goodbye

Monica McWilliams of the Women's Coalition speaking at Stormont with colleagues, following talks in 1998. Photo by Derek Speirs
Monica McWilliams of the Women's Coalition speaking at Stormont with colleagues, following talks in 1998. Photo by Derek Speirs

Alex Kane reviews Monday’s BBC1 documentary about the Women’s Coalition:

The NI Women’s Coalition belongs to a political subset containing the likes of the Peace People, NI21, the United Kingdom Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party; one of those little parties or groups that gather attention for a while and then disappears off the scene.

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

In most cases they leave behind little evidence of their existence and become mere curiosities for political nerds and academics.

That may sound a like a brutal dismissal of the people and ideas involved, but on a couple of occasions in the past year — when I was addressing groups of A Level Politics students — I discovered that most of them had never heard of the Women’s Coalition, while those who had couldn’t name either of their two MLAs.

So it’s good to report that Wave Goodbye To Dinosaurs (the title comes from one of the party’s election straplines) is a genuinely interesting, albeit potted, history of the Women’s Coalition.

There’s a tendency in the media to be gentle on the so-called middle-ground here, but this was an honest, hardnosed assessment of the rise and demise of an organization which never quite made it to the status of a political party.

Bernadette Devlin — occasionally taking on the role of the ghost at the feast — summed up their fate pretty shrewdly: “You get elected because you believe in something. To stay elected you have to offend just a few people; but to offend few people you stop telling people what you believe in and finally you don’t believe in it yourself.

“And then you wonder why people stop voting for you. The coalition was a peace party, not a party for the advancement of women’s rights.”

Jane Morrice, elected in North Down in the 1998 Assembly election, confirmed Devlin’s point: “It wasn’t politics. It was peace I wanted.”

The coalition was a product of the post-ceasefire environment and the push — encouraged by the government — to bring new voices to the negotiating table.

So instead of the usual electoral process, in which parties were allocated seats purely on their votes (which squeezed out smaller, newer vehicles), another 20 seats were to be allocated equally to the ten parties with the most votes overall.

As Jane Wilde, one of the first members, noted: “It was put to us that there would be no women at the talks unless we did something about it.”

So they did something about it. Within a matter of weeks of people like Monica McWilliams, Pearl Sagar, Avila Kilmurray, Bronagh Hinds and Annie Campbell beginning the discussion about the possibility of a new party, they had the structures and candidates in place for the election to the NI Forum (from which most talks delegates would be drawn) in May 1996.

Their eight candidates only managed 7,731 votes (1%), yet it was enough to squeeze them into the top 10 and entitle them to two seats in the forum.

While it meant a huge profile — the world was watching Northern — it soon became clear that their influence and impact was going to be limited. The three small unionist parties (UKUP, PUP and UDP) had input to the UUP and DUP, but the coalition, like Labour (who came in just behind them) were mostly on their own.

They met behind-the-scenes with Sinn Fein—before the second ceasefire was declared and while they were barred from the talks — and earned a rebuke from one unionist about being ‘republicans in skirts.’

Monica McWiliams defended the decision: “Everyone who is party to the problem should be party to the solution.”

Senator George Mitchell praised them for being, “focused on peace, not what I can get for my community”; yet that praise summed up their subsequent electoral difficulties.

Because they had no community — and I don’t buy into the notion that women can be regarded as a specific political/electoral community — they weren’t able to get the traction they needed to take them from novelty interest to serious political contenders.

They managed just 1.3% in the 1998 Assembly election, but won two seats (McWilliams in South Belfast and Morrice in North Down).

Maybe it was something to do with the fact that the Assembly spent most of the period from 1998 to 2003 in a form of suspended animation and there wasn’t much for them to get their teeth into.

Or maybe it had more to do with the fact that the coalition didn’t seem to have anything interesting, let alone radical to say. Anyway, whatever the reason, their vote crashed to below 6,000 in the 2003 election and both seats were lost.

The programme leaves one major question unanswered: what difference, precisely, did the women think they would make by the mere fact of being women?

Bearing in mind that there’s no love lost between Arlene Foster, Michelle O’Neill and Naomi Long, there’s little evidence to suggest that women make better politicians.

Also, it would have been nice to hear some reflections from other talks participants about the role the coalition played (although there are some snarly pre-talks contributions from Peter Robinson and David Ervine).

I would like to have heard more from Kate Fearon, the sharpest mind in the coalition.

All in all, though, a very interesting spotlight on one of the fringe players at a key period in our history.

But, as it turned out, it was the dinosaurs who waved goodbye to the coalition and who continue to dominate the political landscape.

• Wave Goodbye To The Dinosaurs, BBC1 NI 10.40pm, Monday September 11