GLOBAL NEWS | winter 2004
The party took place back in the summer of 1998, when leaders of the North’s main political parties were touring the U.S., garnering Irish American support for the Good Friday Agreement, the historic deal brokered between the political parties the previous Easter.
Sinn Féin had contacted Murray because of her Irish American credentials and, more crucially, her access to corporate and political leaders, the cream of whom she assembled for dinner in her New York home.
That night, seeds were sown for the New York-based Northern Ireland Women’s Initiative (NIWI) and the DemocraShe program, a pioneering venture that six years later continues to open political doors for increasing numbers of women in Northern Ireland.
“We sat down for dinner, my then-husband and I, and all these famous, important businessmen and politicians. I was the only woman, a situation I had been in for much of my life in business and politics,” recalls Murray , her blue eyes twinkling as she sips tea in a hotel suite on Manhattan ’s Upper East Side .
“As we sat down to the table, I said, ‘I would like to welcome you all to this gender-balanced meal,’ and everybody burst out laughing. That’s when I saw my opening.”
Murray began to speak, telling Gerry Adams and her other guests about the success story of EMILY’s List, the organization that has raised millions of dollars to support the election of pro-choice Democratic women to office in the U.S.
With her background (an Irish mother, Bridget, and father) and her career as a political consultant, Murray had kept an eye on the Good Friday Agreement talks — and was “appalled at how badly women taking part were treated by some of the men.
“During dinner, I told Gerry Adams that what was needed now was an organization that would raise money to get women elected and involved in political life. I told him I was certain that women’s participation would change the face of politics in Northern Ireland forever. As I talked, there was silence. I had just laid out for the first time this vision of DemocraShe.”
A few weeks later, Adams wrote to Murray suggesting she move on her idea by visiting Northern Ireland. Murray took up the invitation, and met with members of the new political party, the Women’s Coalition.
These women had endured jeers from some male participants of the talks, who had suggested they should be home minding minding their husbands and making tea. After this meeting, Murray was positive that an EMILY’s List-style organization would be of benefit.
“The women I met in Belfast were so committed to making politics work,” she says. “I knew from the outset that any initiative to involve more women in politics would have to be nonpartisan, with women from all parties, even those who were anti-Agreement, such as the Democratic Unionist Party.”
Murray wasted no time in hiring the former deputy director of research from EMILY’s List, Alex Lange, who suggested Bronagh Hinds, a founder of the Women’s Coalition and staunch advocate of women in public life, to head the Northern Ireland Women’s Initiative.
As a negotiator at the talks, Hinds had been involved in “the right of women to full and equal political participation” clause being written into the Good Friday Agreement.
“I remember Maureen being skeptical — rightly so — about whether that part of the Agreement would actually be implemented,” says Hinds, over lunch in her office at the Institute of Governance at Queen’s University of Belfast, where she now works.
“The name DemocraShe just dawned on me one day. It seemed to sum up everything we were working for. And luckily Maureen felt the same.”
Support for DemocraShe came from such political heavyweights as then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator George Mitchell, as well as from actors Liam Neeson and Roma Downey.
Senator Clinton sent a letter of support when NIWI was launched in Stormont, the home of the Belfast Assembly: “Democracy in which only half the adult population fully participates is a contradiction,” she wrote. “This program recognizes the need for women to become full participants in the political life of their communities.”
During six-week training programs tailored to the different parties, the women learned everything from how to write a press release and conduct television interviews to how to move forward within their party and strategize effectively.
In the first election cycle, which began in 2000, NIWI trained 102 women from parties across the political spectrum. All of these women went on to be active in the local and Westminster election campaign: 31 ran for office and 15 of these were elected, including three MPs to the Westminster Parliament in London.
In the second cycle, 18 women were elected to the assembly elections (compared to 14 in 1998) although the Women’s Coalition failed, by a small margin in each case, to retain either of its seats. No woman trained by NIWI lost her seat, and while the assembly has since been suspended, DemocraShe will ensure participation of more and more women in the years ahead.
“We are working with all parties and want to develop a trusting relationship with them,” says Hinds, who praises Murray for structuring DemocraShe according to what the women actually need rather than what she thought they might need.
“We want women to get into strategic positions in their party so they can get nominated for election and are successfully elected. It’s a continuous, holistic process, and it seems to be working.”
While Hinds works on the ground in Belfast, Murray is based in New York, where she fundraises and mines her vast contacts in business and politics. Originally from a blue-collar background, her feminist and political sensibilities developed, Murray says, as early as age 15.
She put herself through college in Baltimore before obtaining an M.A. in public policy from the Johns Hopkins University. Her stint as media advisor on the 1984 Mondale-Ferraro presidential campaign and her time on the 1988 Al Gore For President campaign further inspired her.
Murray has two children, Aiden (9) and Paige (14), with whom who she lives in New York. At that pivotal dinner party, Paige, then 9, refused to go to bed until she’d met Gerry Adams.
“She is tough as nails,” says her mother smiling. “I don’t know where she gets it from.”
Murray had set up Medley Global Advisors with her ex-husband — the couple divorced last June — to advise big business on how world political affairs affect their investments.
“We did well enough in business so that I could underwrite the costs for NIWI, to help the courageous women of Northern Ireland,” she says.
How does she think DemocraShe has changed the position of women in Northern Ireland?
“People take women more seriously there now,” she replies immediately.
Murray and Hinds are currently working on a proposal for the creation of an institute for women in politics, policy and media based in Belfast. They hope this institute will translate the DemocraShe model for other communities in conflict around the world.
“As a woman you can have those moments of self-doubt — but when I flip through NIWI files I am amazed by what has been achieved,” says Murray. “That self-doubt is the reason we train women in groups, so they can support each other in the same way Bronagh will regularly bolster me and remind me that we are doing the right thing.”
Murray has a lot to say about self-doubt, something she experienced going through her recent divorce: “It was tough to manage NIWI during that period.”
But when this dynamic woman announces that her next goal is to raise “2 or 3 million dollars” to set up an institute designed to improve the lot of women from Belfast to Borneo, doubt does not seem to enter into the equation.
“If we do anything in this life, we should strive to leave the world a little different, a little better,” says Murray. “If we just do that, it was worth being here.”
To contribute to DemocraShe, contact NIWI at MurrayatNIWI@aol.com.
photo credit: AP Photo: Peter Morrison
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