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Kate Fearon describes how the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition promoted an inclusive, cooperative process, put women’s participation on the political map and brought a civil society voice to the negotiations.

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Representatives to the talks would be chosen through public elections with the intent of including the parties associated with paramilitary groups in formal political negotiations for the first time.

In an attempt to ensure that the elections would result in delegates from all the main communities, the government developed an electoral system that offered participation based on relatively few votes.

The Northern Ireland Women's Coalition (NIWC) was initiated by women with long histories of engagement in civil, human and workers' rights.

Many were leaders in the community and voluntary sectors; others were teachers, university lecturers, professionals, and home workers.

The number of seats would be assigned through a two-track system.

The 18 territorial constituencies would each elect five representatives.By the mid-1990s, it was increasingly recognised by both the British government and republican paramilitaries that the conflict could not be won through military means.After decades of various peace initiatives and growing cooperation between the British and Irish governments to sponsor joint efforts, a process for all-party talks began in June 1996 based, for the first time, on the assumption that: 'if you are a part of the problem, then you need to be part of the solution'.Although the format enabled delegates outside the mainstream parties to participate in talks, there were no specific arrangements for the participation of other organised sectors of society.What follows is the story of a group of women rooted in civil society who organised to ensure their voice would be heard in the political negotiations and who became a channel for bi-communal civil society involvement in the official peacemaking process.The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, born from a group of unionist and republican NGOs, formed a political grouping to contest elections.

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