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Struggling for Peace and Justice: Reflections on Women's Activism in Northern Ireland Monica McWilliams As I sit down to write this article, the headline of the evening edition of the Belfast Telegraph declares "Peace At Last." On October 13,1994, six weeks and one day after the Irish Republican Army (LRA.) called on all their volunteers to cease their military operations, the Combined Loyalist Military Command has done the same. This "declaration" by the paramilitaries on both sides of the sectarian divide means that the peace process has effectively begun in Northern Ireland. These reflections on the women's movement in Northern Ireland are being written at a time of momentous change—a time in which the women of Northern Ireland, who have been so activley engaged in their various political and domestic struggles can finally breathe a collective sigh of relief. As each day passes without the fear and tension created by the sectarian assasinations and bombings, there has been a visible relaxation in the everyday life of Northern Ireland. The public signs of the 'Troubles" are now dissipating with the queues to be searched and the security checks noticeably reduced. On the streets, the protective boardings are coming down; the road barriers are being lifted; security restrictions on border roads are being removed; the peace-lines are opening up and British soldiers walk around wearing berets instead of helmets. There are still many policing and security issues to be resolved but these tangible signs of peace constitute a major step forward from what was the daily reality of Northern Ireland's troubled conflict. Since the conflict began 3,170 people have been killed and 36,807 seriously injured.1 It has been argued that the scale of the conflict in Northern Ireland has been relatively low when compared to the 700 Palestinians killed during the two-year Intifada or the 65,000 killed in one decade in El Salvador.2 However, there are two significant features which have made it distinctive. First is the length of time over which the conflict has been sustained and second is the relatively small size of the country. Until the recent ceasefire, the "troubles" have continued unabated since 1969 when armed troops were called in to deal with the escalating violence . When this is added to the population count, which totals 1.5 million, it means that there are few areas in Northern Ireland which have been left unscathed. In the insidious atmosphere of sectarianism and violence, women have been left to cope with the death and injuries of loved ones or to face © 1995 Journal of Women's History, Vol 6 No. 4/Vol 7 No. \ (Winter/Spring) 14 Journal of Women's History Winter/Spring the destruction of normal family life when family members have been arrested under emergency legislation, tried by Diplock (nonjury courts) and held for long periods without trial on remand. When unemployment is high, when childcare provision is amongst the worst in Europe and when community norms demand that prisoner's wives maintain their loyalty to "the men inside," the pressures of social isolation and financial strain can result in high levels of depression and anxiety.3 For the past twenty-five years, women who have resided in particularly troubled areas have had to live with the fear that their children could be caught up in cross-fire, killed or maimed by plastic bullets or blown up in explosions. Some of the "frozen watchfulness" of these women may also be operating even in the rural and middle-class areas where the residents have been more sheltered from the worst of the troubles.4 Even in these quieter areas, families have had to face the repercussions of having their peace shattered by some local atrocity. Interestingly, the cessation of political violence in Northern Ireland may now result in more open discussions about how families have been effected by this. In her monograph on Mental Health and Conflict in Northern Ireland, Pauline Prior asks "How many thousands of people in the towns and cities of Northern Ireland have been exposed to gunfire, bombs and riots without any help in coping with the stress except for that provided...


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