Northern Ireland

Monica McWilliams recalls taking a gun to school to please teacher

Monica McWilliams Image copyright Amanda Benson/BBC Radio 4
Image caption Prof Monica McWilliams recalled the childhood memory as she appeared on Desert Island Discs

A former leader of a political party in Northern Ireland has revealed that as a child she once brought a gun to school during the height of the Troubles.

Monica McWilliams, who led the Women's Coalition party from 1996 to 2006, said she took her father's gun in to please a teacher who was teaching war poetry.

Prof McWilliams said the teacher almost fainted when she saw the weapon, which her father used to protect his sheep.

She told the anecdote as she appeared on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs.

'The girl with the gun'

Prof McWilliams grew up on her family farm near the village of Kilrea, County Londonderry and told the programme her childhood was "incredibly happy".

"Except I do recall the teacher once saying when she was doing a war poem: 'It would be great if we had a gun'," she said.

"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."

Image copyright Amanda Benson/BBC Radio 4
Image caption Desert Island Discs host Lauren Laverne interviewed Prof McWilliams

Prof McWilliams described how she took the weapon out of her bag, "mounted it all together" and set it on a table to impress her teacher.

"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," Prof McWilliams said.

The former politician rose to prominence in Northern Ireland during the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement peace deal in 1998.

She had co-founded the Women's Coalition two years earlier, alongside Belfast social worker Pearl Sagar.

The pair set up their cross-community party after trying and failing to encourage existing political parties to run more female election candidates.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Women's Coalition co-founders Pearl Sagar and Monica McWilliams, pictured in 1998

Prof McWilliams was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998 and worked as an MLA for five years, but failed to get re-elected in 2003.

In 2005, she was appointed as chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, and served a six-year term in office.

When she stepped down from her post, she returned to her academic career and now works as emeritus professor at Ulster University's Transitional Justice Institute.

'Turning point'

Her eight-song selection for Desert Island Discs included Van Morrison's Days Like This.

It was the title track from the Belfast singer-songwriter's 1995 album and became something of an anthem for peace in Northern Ireland when it was used in government adverts to promote better community relations.

Later that year, Morrison performed the song live for thousands of people in Belfast, as Bill and Hillary Clinton visited the city to switch on the Christmas lights.

Image caption Van Morrison sang Days Like This for the Clintons in Belfast in 1995

Prof McWilliams, who attended the event, recalls it as a pivotal moment in her life.

"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," she said.

"Little did I think two years later I'd be at a peace table."

Image caption Van Morrison performed for thousands of people in front of Belfast City Hall in 1995

The concept of a female-only political party won widespread media attention at the time and the Women's Coalition won two seats in the first Northern Ireland Assembly elections in 1998.

'Downright misogynist'

However, Prof McWilliams told the programme that initially, rival politicians were "quite dismissive of us as a novelty" and did not view them as a "serious political organisation".

She said that even before they entered the debating chamber, her party had already been subjected to derogatory and "downright misogynist" remarks.

She recalled that some of the insults hurled at them included "go home and have babies" and "the only women who should be at this table should be the ones who are going to polish it".

"I think today, Northern Ireland is a different place," Prof McWilliams said.

"We have women political leaders; 30% of the legislative body is made up of women.

"Do they make a difference? Time will tell, but I do think it is really important for younger women to see that they have role models now, either in the media, or in politics - in institutions that were so male-dominated that a young woman couldn't even have believed, dreamed, that she could do that job. Now they can."

The Women's Coalition disbanded in 2006, after a run of disappointing election results, but the party is credited with putting pressure on established parties to address their gender imbalance.

At present, three of Northern Ireland's five biggest political parties are led by women.

'No going back'

Speaking about the current political problems at Stormont, Prof McWilliams told the programme she still has hope that devolution can be restored, despite two and a half years of deadlock.

"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.

She was referring to the reaction to the words of a priest who got a standing ovation when he asked mourners why it took Ms McKee's death to unite Northern Ireland's political leaders.

Prof McWilliams added: "When you taste peace and you have the prize of peace, there is no going back."

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