Avila Kilmurray (1952 -)
Born in Dublin in 1952, Avila has been living and working in Northern Ireland since 1975. Prior to that she was raised and educated in Dublin, being awarded a B.A. (Hons.) in History & Politics from UCD in 1973. Awarded a scholarship to the Australian National University (ANC – Institute of Advanced Studies), Avila completed an M.A. in International Politics in 1975. This was followed by a 3-year PhD scholarship from ANC in International Relations, but in the interim Avila became involved in Northern Ireland.
While in Ireland on holidays, Avila volunteered, at the request of her UCD History tutor, Liam De Paor, to support the organisation of the Amherst Conference on the Future of Northern Ireland during the 1975 ceasefires. Supported by Padraic O’Malley this conference brought together many of the parties to the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland in Amherst, Massachusetts. In the aftermath of this involvement, Avila was approached by the Quakers to take leave of absence from her PhD studies to work in support of Will Warren (a Quaker representative in Derry), who worked on an inter-community basis to alleviate sectarian violence. Avila agreed to this arrangement for two years, but over the course of this period, her accommodation fell victim to the renewed bombing campaign in Derry – where she was based – with her PhD notes a causality of war. She decided to remain in Northern Ireland.
From her base in Derry, Avila became involved in advice centre work in a number of neighbourhoods in the Waterside area. She also networked with the more established community activism in the Bogside, Creggan and Shantallow. Two issues became acutely apparent – poverty (including the Payment for Debt Act) and the position of women in society. Joining with her friend Cathy Harkin, Avila became active in setting up the Derry Claimants’ Union and commenced agitation for support services for women. In 1977, Cathy and Avila occupied an empty Social Services’ building to establish Derry Women’s Aid – the first shelter for women and their children as victims of domestic violence. Supported by a growing Women’s Group, the initiative was denounced by the then Unionist M.P. for Londonderry, Willie Ross, (for breach of the Emergency Provisions legislation) and from the altar of a Catholic Church in Shantallow for breaking up marriages. The refuge was later funded with the support of the then Minister for Health & Social Services, Peter Melchitt, M.P. Avila continued her involvement with Women’s Aid, becoming the first Coordinator of the Northern Ireland Women’s Aid Federation on a voluntary basis.
Moving to Belfast
Having been employed with the CARE (Community Action Research Education) project, based in Magee College, Derry from 1977-1980, Avila moved to Belfast in 1980 to work with the Northern Ireland Council for Social Services as Assistant Editor of ‘Scope’ magazine. She later became Development Officer with NICVA (Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action) – successor to NICSS. Along with Monica McWilliams and Cathy Harkin, Avila was a founder member of the Northern Ireland Poverty Lobby, to agitate against government austerity measures. She was also a founder member of the Ulster People’s College – an adult education facility and an active member of the Northern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement.
Over 1985-1989, Avila was seconded from NICVA to act as Coordinator of the Rural Action Project (NI) – an E.U. funded anti-poverty initiative working in South Armagh, West Fermanagh, the Sperrins and the Glens of Antrim. She left this position on her appointment as Women’s Officer with the ATGWU) – Amalgamated Transport & General Workers’ Union, for Region 11 – Ireland. This gave her responsibility for equality and women’s issues throughout the Irish membership. Over her period in this position (1989-1994) Avila represented the union on the ICTU (Irish Congress of Trade Union) Executive Committee and the NI Committee ICTU, as well as on the NI Committee – Women’s Committee. She was also a member of the Labour Relations Agency, the Agricultural Workers’ Wage Committee, and a founder member of Counteract – the ICTU anti-sectarian initiative.
In 1994, Avila was appointed Director of the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust (later renamed the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland) – a community-based grant-making foundation. Drawing on her background in community development and social justice, Avila guided the Foundation to offer both grantmaking and development programmes in these areas. In 1996, NIVT/CFNI became actively involved in peacebuilding and conflict transformation when it agreed to be an Intermediary Funding Agency for the EU Peace & Reconciliation Special Support Programme, following the 1994 paramilitary ceasefires. As such Avila guided the Foundation in supporting work with victims/survivors of the conflict and the re-integration of politically motivated ex-prisoners. The latter work was maintained until 2014, in the absence of mainstream government support. Drawing on the learning developed over the years of the PEACE programmes, Avila, together with her colleague, Monina O’Prey, initiated The Foundations for Peace Network (FFP) – a peer-led network of local community-based foundations working in divided societies.
Conflict Transformation in Practice
In 1996, Avila joined with a number of women in setting up the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, to contest (and win) seats at the forthcoming peace negotiations in Northern Ireland. Subsequently, she was a member of the negotiating team of the NIWC over the period 1996-2006, in a voluntary and personal capacity. This experience helped her to contribute to discussions on UNSCR 1325, on Women, Peace and Security, resulting in a Community Foundation for Northern Ireland/Women’s Resource & Development Agency project on the topic in 2012-2014. Avila is still committed to working on this issue.
Retiring from the Community Foundation in 2014, Avila worked for two years with the Global Fund for Community Foundations, supporting the development of the contribution of community philanthropy on a global basis. Since 2016, she has worked as an independent consultant, supporting the role of The Social Change Initiative (amongst others) on peacebuilding, refugee protection and migrant rights.
Avila has written extensively on women’s issues, community development and peacebuilding, including a book – ‘Community Activism in a Contested Society: The Story of Northern Ireland’ (Peter Lang, 2017).