Monica McWilliams

Monica McWilliams (28 April 1954 - )

Monica McWilliams was born in Ballymoney and grew up on a farm in Kilrea, County Derry where she attended St. Anne’s primary school. In 1964, she proceeded to Loreto Convent, Coleraine, where she won several awards for drama and debating. Monica graduated from Queen’s University Belfast in 1975 where she played for the hockey team and was the captain of the women’s athletics team. She won a scholarship to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor where she completed further postgraduate work on urban planning and racism in inner-city Detroit.  She joined the faculty of the University of Ulster in 1978 where she introduced a Certificate in Women’s Studies to provide access to third level education for women from disadvantaged communities alongside the first Irish University Masters degree in Women’s Studies

As a scholar-practitioner, from the mid-1970s onwards, she campaigned with Avila Kilmurray, Lynda Edgerton and other women activists for legislation opposing sex discrimination and violence against women. Monica served on the management committee of the first Women’s Centre in Belfast set up a Peace Tent for nuclear disarmament involving women from all over Europe. Monica established the Northern Ireland Poverty Lobby and lobbied with Gingerbread for the rights of one-parent families and prisoners’ wives during the Northern Ireland conflict. In the mid-1980s, she was elected to the first reserve seat for women on the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

In 1992, Monica completed a major study detailing the experiences of women abused through domestic violence. Her findings were regarded as seminal leading to the first government policy in the UK on domestic violence. On several occasions, she accompanied women to hospital despite being subjected to threats of physical assault by abusive partners. In 2016, with support from Women’s Aid, she completed a longitudinal study on intimate partner violence detailing the changes that had taken place during and post-conflict.

In 1996, she co-founded the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, a political party that crossed the sectarian divide and adopting a party platform based on inclusion, equality and human rights. Monica was one of two NIWC candidates elected to the Peace Talks in 1996 (Pearl Sagar being the other) and became a signatory to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in 1998. She championed proposals on victims of the conflict, on integrated education and shared housing, the establishment of a civic forum and the right of women to fair and equal political participation.  The ideas put forward by the Women’s Coalition became an integral part of the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.  She campaigned on the pro-agreement side during the referendum, continuing to forge friendships with widely diverse political parties including those formerly affiliated to armed groups. Monica was elected to the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly on June 25th, 1998 and chaired the sub-committee on human rights as part of the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

In 2005, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland appointed her as Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. On December 10th, 2010, Monica presented the advice on a Bill of Rights to the Westminster government fulfilling the Commission’s mandate from the Good Friday Agreement.  She served for two terms, resigning a year early in protest against the Conservative government’s lack of support for the Commission. In 2011, Monica moved to the Transitional Justice Institute at Ulster University to undertake further research on human rights. Building on her experience in the peace negotiations, she participated in capacity building workshops for women from other conflict societies, including Colombia, the Middle East and Syria, on UN Security Council Resolutions on Women, Peace and Security.

In 2012, Monica was appointed, by the Minister for Justice, as oversight Commissioner for prison reform in Northern Ireland. In 2014, she co-authored a report for the Northern Ireland Executive on the disbandment of paramilitary groups and in 2016, she was appointed by an intergovernmental treaty to the Independent Reporting Commission on the disbandment of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland.

Monica McWilliams has co-authored two government research studies: Bringing It Out in the Open: Domestic Violence in Northern Ireland (1993, with Joan McKiernan) and Taking Domestic Violence Seriously: Issues for the Civil and Criminal Justice System (1996, with Lynda Spence) alongside a wide range of publications on the impact of political conflict on women’s lives. On St Patrick’s Day, 2001, she delivered the annual Lyceum Lecture to the Massachusetts House of Representatives and was jointly awarded, with the eight signatories to the peace agreement, the John F Kennedy Profile in Courage Award. She received the Frank Cousins Peace Award from a British trade union for her work with women in the Northern Ireland peace process alongside a number of honorary doctorates, including Doctor of Humane Letters from Lesley College in Cambridge in recognition of her work on domestic violence.