Monica McWilliams: I remember the day I took a gun to school

Monica McWilliams, as she appears on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs.
Monica McWilliams, as she appears on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs.
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Woman’s Coalition veteran Monica McWilliams has recalled the day she brought a gun to school.

The former politician turned academic from rural Co Londonderry said she took the gun to school in her hockey bag as a child after her teacher mentioned wanting a gun while reading a war poem.

“They were incredibly happy days,” Professor McWilliams said of her childhood.

“Except I do recall the teacher once saying when she was doing a war poem, ‘it would be great if we had a gun’, and my father - having sheep that were being worried by dogs - had a gun, and I thought nothing of putting it into my hockey bag and bringing it to school - and it was at the height of the Troubles.

“Of course when I put it up, mounted it all together and set it on a table, she walked and she nearly fainted, and she said ‘who has brought this into school?’, I said ‘but you said yesterday that you needed a gun and I thought it was just natural that I should bring you one’.

“So, I’m remembered now as the girl with the gun.”

Ms McWilliams shared the memory during an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs broadcast on Sunday.

One of the tracks she selected was Van Morrison’s Days Like This because it reminded her of the visit of Bill and Hillary Clinton to Northern Ireland in 1995.

She described how seeing everyone come together to greet the then US President inspired her to become involved with politics.

“I’ll never forget it, we had to walk about three miles because you weren’t allowed to bring cars anywhere close to the city centre, when I turned up there was over 100,000 from east and west, Protestant, Catholic, Nationalist, Unionist, Republican, Loyalist, every shade of diversity was there - and suddenly Van Morrison started singing Days Like This’,” she said.

“I’ll never forget it, in fact, it was a turning point for me because I began to think how can I contribute now to making this last, little did I think two years later I’d be at a peace table.”

Ms McWilliams and Pearl Sagar co-founded The Women’s Coalition and was elected in 1996 to serve as a representative at the multi-party talks which led to the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998.

Turning to the current political talks to restore power-sharing government at Stormont after more than two years of collapse, Ms McWilliams said she didn’t think there would still be negotiations two decades later.

“I remain optimistic, it’s always an unfinished business, peace building,” she said.

“I never thought when I left the table in 1998 on Good Friday that it would take us over two decades to continue to work as hard as we did the day that we signed the agreement, and it has been very tough.

“But I still believe that we will get there, I think the atmosphere has changed, unfortunately as is often the case it’s because of a tragedy, the death of the young woman journalist Lyra McKee a few weeks ago. But it was amazing at that funeral to see people rising up and saying enough is enough.

“She said herself once in her own words, it has to get better, and we are better than this. When you taste peace and you have the prize of peace, there is no going back.”