Stand by your woman

Academic, feminist, political campaigner and now chairperson of Northern Ireland's Human Rights Commission, Monica McWilliams is used to being jeered by unionists and plugging away at the issues she cares most about. She talks to Fionola Meredith


When Monica McWilliams was appointed as Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), in June 2005, the howls of outrage from DUP headquarters could be heard for miles. Ian Paisley accused Professor McWilliams, a co-founder of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition (NIWC), of anti-unionist bias. Describing her appointment as "crass", the DUP leader added that, "The government must now remember that the unionists will have nothing to do with their commission. They will not take any part as long as they have a chairman, or chairlady, who cannot be trusted by both sides." Apparently, Paisley took her appointment as a personal insult, due to a dispute he had with her in the past.

Monica McWilliams met Paisley's bluster with equanimity, merely requesting that she be given the space to prove herself. After all, she's had plenty of experience of being on the receiving end of unionist scorn. When she and her NIWC colleagues entered the Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue, the body set up in 1996 to conduct the negotiations that eventually led to the Belfast Agreement, they were constantly heckled and interrupted by DUP members. Notoriously, Ian Paisley Jnr even made mooing noises when McWilliams stood up to speak. On one occasion, DUP stalwart Rev Willie McCrea declared, "As long as I live I will have a mission, which is to teach these women to stand behind the loyal men of Ulster." In reply, Monica McWilliams and her colleague, Pearl Sagar, launched into an impromptu version of Tammy Wynette's "Stand by your Man".

But that's about as far as McWilliams goes with insurrectionary behaviour. Despite faintly absurd allegations of involvement with the Communist Party of Ireland, McWilliams has never looked like a natural subversive. And the NIWC has long been cruelly lampooned as a bunch of middle-class do-gooders, genteelly sipping coffee in their conservatories. So it's only in the ultra-conservative micro-climate of the North that McWilliams could be represented as a bra-burning radical feminist, out to emasculate the decent sons of Ulster.

Born in 1954, McWilliams had a long career as an academic – she was Professor of Women's Studies and Social Policy at the University of Ulster for many years – before entering politics and public life. She cuts a steady, unflappable figure, plugging doggedly away at the issues that are important to her, such as domestic violence and women's health. Her warmth and humour are evident, but you sense she weighs every word carefully, mentally running it by an internal security check before speaking. Perhaps she is wary of misrepresentation in her position as Chief Commissioner of one of the most controversial public bodies in the North. When McWilliams took up her post, the NIHRC had already suffered widespread political criticism, as well as a series of high-profile resignations and withdrawals.

One of the other loudly critical voices when Monica McWilliams was appointed belonged to Bernie Smyth of Precious Life. She said that McWilliams was "leader of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, a political party which supports the introduction of abortion-on-demand to Northern Ireland. Therefore, someone who does not recognise the right to life of every human being, born and unborn, is unfit for the position of Chief Commissioner on a 'human rights' commission." But Monica McWilliams left the NIWC (members admit that the party is now, like an overwintering tortoise, "in hibernation") when she began work as Chief Commissioner, and she has no time for those who seek to politicise her role. "Judge me by my work as Chief Commissioner. What you do when you're in a political party, or what you do when you're in an Assembly, that's making legislation or policy, clearly that's going to be informed by the constituency you're representing. But when you're a chief commissioner, it's extremely important to let all of the communities know that you're there for them and that no matter what the issue is, we will give it a response based on human rights standards."

Surely one of her most difficult challenges as Chief Commissioner must be to overcome the perception that human rights somehow "belong" to nationalists? How do you go about engaging with a wary and alienated unionist community? "Well, I do have some hope that the situation is changing, but it will take a long time. Simply given the numbers of people coming to us, when we break it down, there are more coming from the Protestant community than the Catholic community, looking for assistance, and making inquiries. Part of my role – and the role of the Commission – is to show that we're independent, completely transparent. Even if the public perception of us is not always the reality, we will still address those perceptions."

"Clearly, one of the biggest controversial points for some in the unionist community is the issue of 50/50 recruitment for policing. They argue that this is discriminatory, disadvantageous to one section of community, and therefore anyone that subscribes to these – whether that's the Equality Commission or the Human Rights Commission or whoever – is violating their rights and, by dint of that, violating the rights of their community. That's a difficult one. But the fact that [50/50] is time-limited and proportionate, that's something that needs to be articulated more. And once it meets the 30 per cent target, it will be abolished. Some people seem to feel it will be there interminably, discriminating against young Protestant men from here on in."

Looking back over her first eight months in the job (she took up the post in September 2005), Monica McWilliams is keen to emphasise that the NIHRC isn't intrinsically backward-looking. "People often think we only address the past, or at least that we only take cases from the present that somehow keep the Troubles under surveillance. But what we do is much wider than that. We look at mental health issues, treatment in prisons, the availability of the breast cancer drug, Herceptin, in terms of who is getting access, and who isn't."

Monica McWilliams and the Commission also pressed for the withdrawal of the British government's controversial Offences Bill, which would have allowed dozens of paramilitary fugitives (or "on the runs") to return home. "The rights of victims got lost in the centre of it all. The proposed legislation was incompatible with international human rights standards. The challenge remains, however, on how we as a community in Northern Ireland can address the legacy of the conflict and establish a comprehensive truth recovery process."

Under the Belfast Agreement, the NIHRC was asked to provide – after public consultation – a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights. But nothing concrete has emerged yet from the NIHRC. Why has the process dragged on for such a long time? Monica McWilliams laughs wearily. "A Bill of Rights doesn't get rushed when you're drafting it, not just because of huge political arguments but also because it's a constitutional document and will stand the test of time. Both the process and the content are important. How we engage people in that debate – how we give them a sense of ownership – is vital. The conversations in Northern Ireland are often ones of estrangement rather than ones of what people would like to see for the future. But human rights shouldn't be seen as a threat."

Although Monica McWilliams is careful to keep her own political sensibilities separate from her work as Chief Commissioner, she is at her most animated when discussing the "women's issues" that propelled her from academia to public life. She is fond of quoting her old friend Cathy Harkin, who died many years ago. Cathy Harkin was a Derry civil rights activist and Women's Aid worker, who once described the North as "an armed patriarchy". Monica McWilliams says, "Cathy was talking about domestic violence. Her argument was that women here were contained and controlled to a greater extent because of the conflict. 'Armed patriarchy' meant that [abused] women couldn't go to the police, or that the police couldn't come into their areas. And those [perpetrators] who were in military or paramilitary organisations had people to support them in a way that wouldn't have happened if we had normalisation. So women were controlled for longer periods of time, and that abuse was more severe. Violations of their human rights went on for a lot longer. For me, domestic violence is a human rights issue – and I took that view into the Human Rights Commission with me."

Chatty, informal and unpretentious, Monica McWilliams doesn't stand on ceremony in her role as Chief Commissioner. But you know she wouldn't go so far as to kick her shoes off under the table. Behind the twinkly eyes, she's always a little baleful, a little watchful of herself as much as her listeners. This "chairlady" is too shrewd to slip up, in front of either her friends or her enemies. p