In 2017, women in Northern Ireland had one of the highest rate of murder by a partner in Europe – more than double the figure in England and Wales. Every single one a life avoidably, and senselessly lost.
That this could be facing women in a part of the United Kingdom will surely shock many. Yet women’s rights, despite the determined efforts of courageous campaigners and women in leadership in Northern Ireland, are in a perilous state. Last year, domestic violence in Northern Ireland reached a record high.
The problems facing women in Northern Ireland will be familiar to women across the UK, but in some communities, they are exacerbated by the control of paramilitary groups. This toxic legacy of the past continues to cast a dark shadow for some women in Northern Ireland today. It is a matter we must not shy away from.
It is not uncommon in post-conflict societies where, after the violence halts on the streets, it is brought into the home and turned on women. And it should concern us all that some women tell me their experiences have deteriorated since the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.
You need only look at the treatment of women like Toni Ogle who has been campaigning for justice for the murder of her father by the East Belfast UVF and who has faced a campaign of intimidation by local paramilitary groups. Such groups effectively exercise coercive control over entire communities.
This fear of retribution in some communities by paramilitary groups, either against them or their abuser, for speaking out represents a climate of fear denying women the safety that should be, but all too often isn’t, taken for granted. It is an intolerable situation 23 years after the peace process, and one that many acknowledge but feel powerless to tackle.
As part of the Labour Party’s Good Friday Agreement Education Programme, we have told the story of the women involved in the negotiations, who brought their collective experiences to the table and to a process that without them would have been dominated by men. They fought for and obtained crucial elements of the Agreement such as a commitment to a Bill of Rights, and they championed equality and put inclusion at its heart.
Too much of that precious agreement has still not been delivered on. Some aspects, such as the Bill of Rights, require a government in Westminster determined to push forward the rights of all in Northern Ireland. In recent years, that has been sorely lacking.
Yet there are courageous and brilliant women in Northern Ireland pushing forward progress. The representation of women in Stormont has risen from 19% in 2011 to 30% in the most recent elections, incredible women trade unionists represent their members at a national level and there are more and more brave and frankly fearsome women in business, civil society and journalism.
They need our support, and they need those in leadership across these islands, to address the intimidation too many face. The tragic murder of Lyra McKee shook all of us – the loss of a talented young woman who had so bravely spoken about her experiences and those around her in the ceasefire generation. She was murdered by dissident republicans almost two years ago; no-one has been convicted. I have met too many women journalists who have faced personal threats for exposing control of paramilitaries. This simply must not be tolerated.
In order to build the shared future that was envisaged by the women building peace in communities in the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement, and which they have been fighting for ever since, we have to shine a light on their experiences and acknowledge that they are unacceptable in the UK in 2021.
It’s time for leaders across the UK to tackle the violence and intimidation against women and girls. All of us with responsibility, particularly in Westminster, must be honest about the causes of those experience, face up to the challenges that still face the peace process, and push forward the progress that still needs to be made 23 years on.