The All-Island Women’s Forum, National Women’s Council
Communities and organisations collaborating on a cross-border or all-island basis.
What was the main focus of the collaboration?
Continuing to build on and deepen the space and relationships established in the All-Island Women’s Forum 2021-2022, the 2023 All Island Women’s Forum creates opportunity for deeper cooperation and dialogue on an all-island basis.
The Forum brings together women’s groups and activists to examine issues and areas of commonality North and South. Women’s voices continue to be marginalised in peace building and decision-making forums. This project seeks to bring women together to continue creating better understanding, providing a platform for dialogue and developing collaborative understandings of our shared island challenges and opportunities for progressive and peaceful social change.
Women have been historically underrepresented in peacebuilding and decision-making spaces and the work of the All-Island Women’s Forum has been important in developing the role of women in peacebuilding and leadership in line UNSCR 1325.
In its first iteration, the Forum ignited renewed energy and determination to include and amplify women’s voices in leadership on issues of shared challenges. The Forum is developing an increased understanding that long term peace, justice and equality requires an all-island effort.
The project seeks to further develop women’s role in this area but also to build sustainable North- South links, provide a space for marginalised communities and build better understanding and inter-community links.
At present there is no comparable space for women’s voices on the island of Ireland. Engagement and interaction have been significant, indicating that this space is needed, providing a meaningful contribution across the island of Ireland.
How did it come about? Tell the story of what happened and with whom?
The background to the AIWF came from the development of The National Womens Council’s Strategic Plan. NWC members identified the need for deeper all island work. They agreed there is a clear urgency to address the continued marginalisation of women in decision-making spaces and peacebuilding and that there is a desire within women’s groups across the island for the facilitation of greater cooperation and a space for dialogue.
Having received funding from the reconciliation fund in 2021, NWC created the All-Island Women’s Forum and began the work of building strong cross-border relationships. This work culminated in a report in September 2022 which was launched by An Taoiseach in Dublin.
The report made a series of recommendations for policy makers on the learnings from the Forum and made recommendations on the future work of Forum members. It identified several areas that the Forum could concentrate efforts, which would lead to deepened established relationships, build strong North -South links, and expand the work of the Forum into the women’s and community sector.
We were successful in being granted funding from the Dept of Foreign Affair’s Reconciliation Fund to continue with this work into 2023. The Forum grew in size in 2023 from 28 participants to 40 participants, 20 from the north 20 from the south with efforts made to ensure marginalised communities are represented in the space.
We recently received funding from the Shared Island Unit Civic Society Fund to establish a dedicated working group on Violence Against Women and to host an event on the Good Friday Agreement.
What did you do together?
Building on the work and recommendations of year 1, we established 2 working groups to focus on the development of an all-island approach to increasing women’s representation in peace building and reconciliation, political and civic life and to develop the practicalities of all-island work, deepening north south relations.
We had 3 in person plenary style meetings in Belfast, Monaghan, Newry with a 4th in person meeting planned as a residential to take place in Dundalk.
We held online working group meetings in the periods between the in-person meetings to maximise participation in the development of Forum workplans and agendas for meetings and events.
- Expanding the Forum from 28 to 40 participants
- Presentation from Professor John Doyle on Gendered aspects of public policy on the Island of Ireland
- Public event ‘Celebrating the Spirit of the Good Friday Agreement: Making space for diversity’ with speakers Eileen Chan Hu, CRAICNI; Dr Caroline Munyi, AkiDwa; Eileen Weir, Community Activist; Eilish Rooney, Transitional Justice Institute; Nicole Parkinson Kelly, NI Youth Forum
- Public webinar with over 100 attendees ‘Power, Politics, Participation: Working for women and democracy’ (featuring EWL, Women for Election and 5050:NI)
- Open letters to NI Secretary of State and Irish Minister for Rural Development protesting financial cuts to women’s sector and requesting restoration of funding
- Forum visibility project: showcasing the work of individual forum members on social media
- Connections Chats: one on one conversations between cross border members to build relationships, share experiences and solidarity
- Presentations on the state of play in the community sector in both jurisdictions given by Community Works Ireland and Disability Action NI
- Presentation on research from the Women’s Regional Consortium on the impact of the Cost of Living Crisis on women in NI
- Commitment from Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the GFA to bring in representatives from AIWF to present
- Media coverage across Leinster and Ulster
- Dedicated space on NWC website for Forum activity
- Continued building the infrastructure of the Forum, provided a validating space, built relationships and solidarity. Shared stories and experience of 40 individual activists.
What were the successful parts and what impact did you see/measure?
- Presentation from Professor John Doyle showcased and identified areas of solidarity and areas lacking in understanding between the two jurisdictions. This helped frame the thinking and focus the work of the forum
- Both public events were successful, amplifying women’s diverse voices advocating for measures to increase women’s representations while showing the work of the forum members
- Increased media pick up on Forum meeting. NWC issues press releases for each plenary meeting and public event, all of which led to radio interviews, newspaper coverage
- Social media content on NWC platforms has been really successful with good engagement from Forum members sharing on their own platforms
- Connections Chats were very constructive and enjoyed by all participants. These gave the members to get to know each other and build cross border relationships
- The Forum was an important opportunity for NWC to expand our all island work and to build our membership in Northern Ireland. This has been really successful with a number of new members to NWC in 2023.
What ran smoothly?
NWC staff across policy, comms and campaigns have all increased their engagement with the AIWF integrating learnings into future workplans.
Media engagement was noticeably increased this year with particular interest in joint statements regarding funding cuts and the call for gender quotas for local elections following the local elections in NI earlier this year.
Social media content particularly for the visibility project over the summer where individual members of the Forum were profiled.
ISL for our deaf Forum members and members of the public.
What didn’t go well and what learnings did you harvest from those aspects of the project?
The project was delayed accommodating the recruitment of the Leadership Officer who would facilitate the Forum. Communication with Forum members was therefore lower than usual. However, since the project began with staff in situ, we have worked to ensure that Forum members have regular contact with project team, with all information in a timely manner.
Due to staff turnover and the increased membership of the Forum more time could have been dedicated in the first quarter to building relationships rather than agreeing a workplan. AIWF 2021-2022 took place mostly online due to the pandemic. It became apparent that while the group worked well together, online spaces are great for sharing ideas but not as good at building deep trusting working relationships which is essential for community organising. This was a challenge as the aim of this years Forum work was to push into a more ‘action focused’ space with members, encouraging joint projects, solidarity actions, site visits etc. While more work needs to continue to get us to this point, it is also clear that the lack of a functioning Executive has been a distraction to this effort.
Throughout the year, it was identified that while members found the Forum an important discursive space, many weren’t sure how to integrate the work from the Forum into their individual organisations. We identified that while members displayed a willingness to listen and learn from one another there was still work to be done to really connect members. Therefore, we changed track and decided to shift from being objective driven to ‘people driven’ developing the aforementioned connection chats. We also identified a need a secured funding for a residential. We feel that forum members to get to know each other on a personal level and that projects may organically grow from there.
What barriers, challenges or other points of learning did you identify?
The lack of a functioning Executive in NI has had a devastating impact on the community sector. Due to cuts in funding, a number of members from the north were concerned that they would no longer have the capacity to participate.
Having 40 people from across the island of Ireland come to in person meetings 4 times a year can be challenging. We developed a hybrid model of participation to allow members to join online. Participants come from some of the most over stretched sectors so many opt for online participation. This has presented its own challenges as tech isn’t always reliable and online spaces are not conducive to community development style organising or relationship building.
What opportunities for future collaboration did you identify? Are you working on these and if yes please outline, if no please explain why?
There is a great appetite among members for moving the forum into a consultative space for gender proofing policy across the island. Forum members and NWC are working on ways to make this happen including meeting with the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the GFA,
There are a range of ideas from Forum members on how to expand on the good work in women’s leadership including the development of a mentoring programme. While funding isn’t available at this time this is an idea we hope to come back to in future.
The Forum wants to develop a strategic plan- NWC are pursuing avenues of funding to sustain the Forum into next year to facilitate this work.
We are currently arranging our last working group meetings to review our work and to discuss with members how the work will evolve.