The party is widely acknowledged to have had considerable influence in framing the Belfast Agreement and in smoothing relations between hostile parties in the Assembly. Ms McWilliams and Pearl Sagar were involved in the negotiations on the agreement.(Slightly mischievous thought: I wonder who has been making these wide acknowledgements?)
Their electoral history is as follows:
1996: Founded just before the May 30 Forum/talks elections. The founders wrote to all the existing parties asking how many women would be standing in the elections, and declared that they were dissatisfied with the answers they received, so founded a new women-only party. (I wonder, if any party had assured them that it planned to run a majority of women candidates, or indeed only women candidates, would they have decided not to bother founding the party after all?)
I was the central campaign organiser at the time for the Alliance Party, and we did in fact run the most gender-balanced slate of candidates of any group standing in the elections; of course we received the letter from the NIWC's founders before we had selected.
In the elections they got just over 1% of the vote (reaching the dizzy heights of 3% in South Belfast). Because of the peculiar electoral system adopted by the Major governemnt to ensure that the small Loyalist parties got elected, they got two seats in the Forum and a place at the talks table due to coming ninth. For a fringe party, it was not a bad result - they got more than twice the votes of longer established parties like the Greens, the Workers Party or the Conservatives who were actually in government of the UK at the time.
1997: The Women's Coalition ran three candidates in the Westminster election who got a total of 3,000 votes and came nowhere near getting elected. In the local council elections three weeks later they won a seat in Newcastle, Co Down (a seat that the candidate concerned had narrowly failed to win, as an Alliance Party candidate, four years before).
1998: Kate Fearon has written up what I think is still the only published account by a genuine insider of the talks chaired by George Mitchell. A chapter is here. It is certainly true that the Civic Forum part of the agreement was an NIWC proposal, though other participants in the talks were reportedly less impressed by their attempt to grandstand on the electoral system in the final hours of the negotiations.
As a result of the agreement a new Assembly was elected - in this case, the Women's Coalition's finest electoral hour. Although their total votes were not huge, at only 1.6%, they got two representatives in through the front door, as it were, in South Belfast and North Down.
The next elections they contested were the simultaneous local and Westminster contests of 2001. In the Westminster contest, they concentrated their fire on South Belfast and got their highest percentage poll for anywhere in any election, 7.8%, coming third, ahead of Sinn Fein and Alliance. In the local council elections, they lost the Newcastle seat but picked one up in Bangor.
Howver, the 2003 elections for the Assembly (suspended then, and still suspended now) were the beginning of the end. Compared to 1998, their vote share halved (to 0.8%) and both Assembly seats were lost - the seat in South Belfast by only 127 votes, but that was that.
The Women's Coalition were among a number of groups supporting independent candidate John Gilliland for the European Parliament election in 2004. He scored a respectable 6.6%, but was far from being elected.
In the simultaneous 2005 elections for local councils and Westminster, their only candidate was their one remaining elected representative, their councillor in North Down; and she lost her seat. So last night's announcement came as no big surprise.