NI party leader returns to Ulster professorship

December 5, 2003

The leader of a Northern Ireland political party returned to her old job at Ulster University this week as the precarious peace process again hit the the buffers.

Monica McWilliams, head of the Women's Coalition, which lost both its seats in the latest Northern Ireland Assembly elections, returned to UU as professor of women's studies at the School of Policy Studies. The post had been held for her for five years, since the Good Friday Agreement.

Professor McWilliams will also receive a £15,000 pay-off from the assembly.

Founded two years before the 1998 agreement, the coalition symbolised a potential fracturing of the province's political monoliths. But now it is meeting to decide on its future.

If she had gained re-election in South Belfast, where Sinn Fein gained a foothold for the first time, Professor McWilliams would have had to decide between politics and academia.

The university said it decided that members of staff who were elected to the assemby in 1998 were deemed to hold public service appointments and, as such, were regarded as on sabbatical for the first term of devolved government in Northern Ireland.

A UU spokesman said: "If they were subsequently re-elected to the assembly, the university's policy was that their employment with the university was at an end. If they did not succeed in getting re-elected, then their original post was still open to them to resume if they so wished."

The election saw hardline parties move centre-stage, with Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists moving ahead of David Trimble's Ulster Unionists and Gerry Adams' Sinn Fein eclipsing the more moderate nationalist SDLP, formerly led by John Hume.

Former minister of further and higher education Carmel Hanna, of the SDLP, was re-elected on the final count in South Belfast.

Professor McWilliams said: "I have absolutely no regrets. It was the best five years, and for us to be involved in the negotiations that led to the agreement and then get elected and make a contribution was just fantastic.

We were the only coalition of women in the world to hold office and get elected, so in some ways we made history, not just in Northern Ireland but on a global scale."

  • The initial optimism felt by ordinary people in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement has given way to cynicism about the political process, according to Ulster University sociologist Chris Gilligan, writes Olga Wojtas.

During the time of conflict in the province, parties and their voters knew where they stood, Dr Gilligan says in an article in the Global Review of Ethnopolitics . But politics has become a private matter among politicians.

"The latest deal in October was a prime example. Only the leadership of the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein knew what was going on. Not even their respective members were in the loop."

  • The Association of University Teachers has urged politicians to put higher education further up the agenda to boost Northern Ireland's cultural and economic future.

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