Irish Filmmaker Eimhear O’Neill on ‘Wave Goodbye to Dinosaurs’

Once upon a time in Northern Ireland, there was an all-woman political party, patched together in six weeks, the party one two seats at the peace talks ended The Troubles.  “Wave Goodbye to Dinosaurs” is part of the second installment of the PBS documentary series “Women, War & Peace.”

Wave Goodbye to Dinosaurs” is the first of four episodes (Monday, March 25 at 9:00 p.m.) and the only one which was made specifically as a one-hour television documentary.  Directed by Irish filmmaker Eimhear O’Neill, the documentary was originally released in 2017 and looks at the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, the all-female cross-community political party of Catholic and Protestant women  formed in 1996 and at a time when one woman says what passed for politics at the time was “tribal, aggressive and bigoted.” The group only had one unifying goal: peace. The two seats were taken by a Catholic academic, Monica McWilliams and a Protestant social worker, Pearl Sagar, and they often faced male chauvinism from the male members at the peace talk table. Unlike the US, the UK already had a female leader (Maggie Thatcher from 1979 to 1990) and was under the rule of the current queen.

Bernadette Devlin, the youngest MP ever elected (until 2015 ),  felt that “sectarianism and racism” were  “the same disease” and thought African American women protesting in the Deep South were kindred spirits. Filmmaker O’Neill juxtaposes the situation in Northern Ireland with the Civil Rights protests in Alabama. Devlin served as an MP for Mid Ulster from 1969 to 1974 and the now 71-year-old Bernadette Devlin McAliskey gives this series one of its best quotes: “It’s not that women get written out of history, they never get written in.”

Q: How did you get interested in this topic?

A: As a director, I am most passionate telling stories about women who have stamped their footprint on the world.  In this film, Bernadette Devlin McAliskey states: “It’s not that women get written out of history, they never get written in.”  What’s left out when talking about the Good Friday agreement is how women actively participated in its creation. The story of the Women’s Coalition therefore provided an opportunity to tell an untold story about a group of formidable, campaigning women who were at the negotiating table. I was invested from the outset.  Women, War and Peace was a tremendous first series and it introduced me to the incredibly talented Gini Reticker and Abigail Disney. When Fork Films approached Trevor Birney and I at Fine Point Films in Belfast, we were excited to work with them on this project.

Q: Are people in Ireland generally aware of this part of history?

A: I was 12-years-old at the time of the Good Friday Agreement and was very aware of its historical significance. It has secured peace on the island for almost 21-years now. What I didn’t fully appreciate was the Women’s Coalition story and their influence on the negotiations that led to the agreement. Indeed, the film, which has already screened in the UK, Dublin, Brussels, Nepal and Cyprus, has even led to older generations viewing the party in a new light. Many women, in particular, have said to me: “I always thought they were a world away from my reality” but now recognise how important they were as strong, feminist, brave women who spoke out at a time when women’s voices in politics were largely unheard.

Q: Do you feel that this movie changes the narrative of The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the UK and Northern Ireland?

A: What this film does is write the Women’s Coalition story into history, telling of the role they played in helping to bring about an international peace agreement that changed, indeed saved, many lives in Northern Ireland.

Q: Are there things that you wish you’d had time to include that had to be left out and what were they?

A: The film shows that women’s activism, particularly from the 1960s, sowed the seeds that led to the formation of the Women’s Coalition. The Women’s Coalition galvanized women who were already female activists of long standing. Bronagh Hinds was elected as the first female president of the Student Union at Queen’s University in Belfast during the early 1970s. Years later, Kate Fearon was elected as the fourth female president. Avila Kilmurray helped set up the first Women’s Aid refuge in Derry City. May Blood helped create the women’s committee in the trade union.  Monica McWilliams had campaigned for Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis centres to be established. These individual stories make up the collective DNA of the party but, in telling the story of a political party, it’s difficult within the time available to tell the individual stories of its party members.

Q: What is the main theme or ideas that you’d like an American audience to take away from this film? 

A: Given the current political context in America today, I think that many of the film’s themes will resonate, particularly the importance of diversity and gender equality in political representation. A record number of women now serve in the House of Representatives which, I believe, is testament to the desire for female voices that are outspoken, relentless and committed to addressing the issues that matter to people’s day-to-day lives.

Q: What are the Women’s Coalition members doing today?

A: Many of them are working around the world in places such as Columbia, Cyprus, Syria and Tbilisi, sharing their experiences and encouraging women to step forward in countries that have deeply divided societies.  Others, like May Blood, are still very active locally.

Q: How did being a female director impact your work? Did it help or hinder? 

A: Gender is a hugely important lens for me as a director and that was of course critical in telling this story. Also, having grown up in the North of Ireland and having benefited from the peace brought about by the Good Friday Agreement, I came to the film with a real sense of discovery and personal recognition of the impact of the Women’s Coalition and the impact of women generally during The Troubles. That perspective, I hope, is reflected in the film.

Q: What does your film say about the importance/impact of women in war and peace? 

A: This film demonstrates that women need to be meaningfully involved in peace negotiations from the beginning.Very often, they can be the most experienced negotiators in the room. The Women’s Coalition’s expertise came from their involvement in grassroots politics. For decades before the peace negotiations, they had been running community based groups and carrying out peace building work on a daily basis. As Anne Carr says in the film: “Why would ever you have peace talks without the women, who had been doing it for so many years, at the table?”

 

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