www.tallgirlshorts.net/thewayofwomen

 Martina

I had the pleasure of hearing Martina Anderson speak during the Bogside Feile in the summer of '99 about the role of women within the Republican movement.  Soon after that I came across  "Beyond the Wire," a wonderful collection of interviews with women in Derry about their experiences of political imprisonment, from both sides of the fence.  Martina's interview in this book gave me the chills -- it raised issues of specific concern for women prisoners, such as the overuse of hysterectomies and strip-searching.  Martina was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to do an interview with me.  Her strength and determination during her thirteen years in prison and the way she has worked for prison reforms benefitting all prisoners, had me and the crew in tears and feeling great admiration for her work.  We were so mesmerized listening to this incredible woman that none of us realized the time -- midnight!  Thanks again, to Martina, for everything.



Interview with Martina Anderson - October, 1999

MA: My name is Martina Anderson.  I’m from the Bogside in Derry.  I’m 37 years of age.

MT: How did you first become involved in Republican politics?

Bogside Murals

MA: I don’t know if I could actually pinpoint it to any particular time; at a very young age I was aware of state oppression -- although I couldn’t have defined it in that way at that time.  I was acutely aware that there were British soldiers on our street, and that as Catholics we were denied civil rights. I was aware that as Catholics in a catholic community that we were discriminated against because of our religion.  I was very conscious of civil rights marches going on in Derry and throughout the statelet.  So it was an amalgamation of those things going on during those times that would’ve formulated my involvement in Republican politics

MT: I guess if you’ve grown up with it around you...

MA: Well once it was there in your face all the time it became your norm, but somewhere inside your head you’re aware of this other type of life going on outside of the war-zone.  Whether it’s just the TV watching films, you’re aware that’s there’s this abnormality that’s happening around you that in some ways is becoming normal.  And I think that within you those reminders make you feel that what’s happening in the state, what’s happening to your people, is wrong.

At that time our home was one of those houses that was repeatedly searched, at all hours of the morning, very frequently -- house raids took place in the early hours of the morning, and so on occasions it was at least a weekly occurrence.  Moreover, whenever there would’ve been an incident in the area you expected the door to be booted in and be surrounded by British soldiers with guns.  It got to the stage that in the mornings when the milk lorry would come across the street, habitually my mother would jump out of bed in the believe that it was a Saracen.  When however it was the Brits, before all the soldiers had been out of the Saracen and at our front door, my mother would have reached our bedrooms warning us that they were coming in.

That allowed us to get out of bed and throw on our dressing gowns and a pair of shoes or something to make ourselves a wee bit more modest so that the shock wasn’t them kicking our bedroom door in and appearing in the room or kicking in the downstairs door and waking us all with all-mighty bangs.  For the most part my mother managed to get down the stairs and had the door opened before it was kicked in.  But it was never a big deal in that on the way to school you might pass a neighbour or someone you knew and they might ask if it was our house that was ‘hit’ or you might say to them, ‘Oh we were raided this morning.”  This abnormal event had become normalised in the context of all that was going on around us. When you think back you realise that you should’ve been outraged.  And yet, while you were angry and annoyed, it had become one of those life factors that we lived with.  Unless someone had been arrested out of the home, once the Brits left you got your breakfast and went to work or to school, or wherever.   Life continued on as ‘normal’.

However, if someone had been arrested out of the house one of us would’ve phoned around the rest of the family to let them know, and would have informed some representative from the area, asking them to find out where they were being held, which barracks, the Strand Road or Castlereigh, what they were arrested for, those kind of details.  And your life at that stage -- and everybody’s lives in the house -- would’ve changed.  My sisters, who would’ve had young children, would’ve been juggling with baby-sitters.  Everybody would’ve been up at the house and sitting around, as happens in those types of situations -- you can’t do anything about it but everybody came together.

MT: I would like to focus the interview on prison conditions. So if you would first give any background details you feel comfortable about how you ended up in prison, how long you were there, etc.

MA: I was arrested first when I was.... Well I was arrested at 16, just, out of the house, which was standard practice here for most young Republicans at that age.  We were all arrested at 16 and “screened” by the army.  You were taken to a barracks to get your fingerprints taken which allowed them to gather certain details about you.  In 1981 at the age of 18 I had been arrested with another girl.  I was charged with possession of a firearm and intent to cause an explosion.  There was another 3 fellows subsequently charged with us.  I was held in Armagh for a very short time -- it didn’t extend to 2 months before I was given bail.   I was at home for a matter of months, maybe 9 months, before the trial date was set.  I thought about it and after concluding that I would not get a fair trial and that I was not prepared to willingly go through the trial in the Diplock courts I opted to go into exile, to go “on the run” as we called it, to Buncrana, in Donegal.  The other girl that I was arrested with, Kathleen, who had also got bail, also came to Buncrana where we got a flat.  I resided there for a few years.

Then in 1985 I was arrested in Glasgow along with Ella O’Dwyer and three other male comrades.  We were held in Glasgow and questioned for seven days before being flown from Glasgow to Paddington Green in London.  We were held there for a further three days before all of us were charged with conspiracy to cause explosions in the UK.  Pat Magee, one of the men arrested with me, was simultaneously charged with allegedly causing the Brighton Bombing.

After our court appearance all five of us were held together in the one jail, which was a surprise.  Before leaving the court I had a short discussion with my solicitors and they thought I was going to go to Holloway prison.  That is the women’s prison in South England and the general opinion was that we would go to a secure unit there.  But the five of us were held in Brixton which is an all-male prison -- there was no other women there.  D wing and A wing were the two secure blocks for what they regarded as category A prisoners.  They cleared out the top of D wing, which constituted about seven cells in length.  There had been men in it up to the night before we arrived.  They moved Ella and I into the top of the landing, and they placed two of the men who were arrested with us, Pat Magee and Gerry McDonald, in the landings below us.

Brixton was quite an ordeal.  During the thirteen months that we spent there we were repeatedly strip-searched.  On one occasion I was strip searched six times during the hours of unlock -- two within minutes of each other.  I had come up from my visit and I was stripped, and just as I was about to walk out of the search room with the screw another screw came to the door and ordered me back into the room for another strip. This one was to accompany a cell search and hence was “justified” for that reason.  Despite the fact that I had not left their presence the second search was defined as somehow different from the previous strip search because on the second occasion the cell was going to be “wrecked” (searched) too.

Throughout that period we were very conscious of the previous strip searching campaign.  Our comrades in the jails here, first in Armagh and then Maghaberry, were subjected to such searches and our community was very angry at what had been endured.  Different people had counselled us against taking any kind of action -- physically -- against the screws in the wing.  I don’t know, I don’t know if that was actually sound advice.  It may have been good advice but I think that there was an anger building up within us.  And while there’s a part of me that still feels that we would’ve been battered to a pulp and who knows what way we would’ve ended up had we lashed out, being the only two women prisoners there without the backing of anybody else around us, I still think that there would have been a mental release that would have better served our mindsets.  I think that the anger that was in us was destructive and if unmanaged could have caused much damage, so we had to become attuned to deep internal emotions.  One morning at half six in the morning, they’re kicking in the door and while we were endeavouring to get a handle on what was happening, they had us out of bed and were carrying out another strip search. I think it may have been better if some of that internalised frustration had been let loose in some form of release, as opposed to how we decided to deal with it, which was to campaign, to write to pressure groups, to MPs.

There was a motion debated in the House of Commons about the treatment that we were getting in Brixton.  Kevin McNamara and Claire Shorts along with other British MPs had come to see us due to mounting public disquiet.  Every Saturday there was a campaign outside the jail.  Supporters blocked the road, handed out leaflets and held a picket.  However, I think that by focusing on our daily living conditions, and highlighting the extent of the maltreatment, that it militated against us, in that we negated our preparation for our trial.  We couldn’t focus clearly on our trial, which was probably the intention.  Yet, even though we consciously reviewed the rationale behind what was happening to us and thus knew the thinking that was driving it, we concluded that that we were not going to receive a fair trail -- being Irish Republicans arrested in England and with the charges that we were facing -- so we therefore decided that our day to day survival, the conditions in the jail was an important matter to raise.  It was important for us and for anyone that may have been arrested after us and put in Brixton prison -- hence we needed to highlight what was happening within that jail.

The first day out in the exercise yard was an experience.  The exercise cage/yard was surrounded by male wings and the day that we walked in it, many of the male social prisoners came to the windows and shouted obscenities at us -- some of which was hard to understand -- but we knew that we had to see it through.  We knew we had to keep going out to the yard because if we allowed that to stop us we would not get any other form of outside air or physical exercise.

After thirteen months in Brixton, we were sentenced at the Old Bailey to life imprisonment. We were transferred from Brixton to a jail in the North of England, Durham.  I had this misconception at the time that we were going to a female establishment and therefore would have the support of the other women.  I hadn’t really taken too much notice of what had been written about Durham, which maybe I should have, but I had this notion that the women would stand up and fight against the system.  I knew that as an Irish prisoner going in there that we could be subjected to some kind of abuse, anti-Irish discriminatory remarks etc. But I thought that there might be this core group of women in there that would be above all that and who would confront the system.

I was however shocked by what we seen when we arrived in Durham.  About a quarter of the population if not more were mentally disturbed.  They should’ve been in mental institutions.  They needed care.  They needed hospitalisation.  They should’ve never been in prison.  There were all sorts of deep psychological problems in that jail.  Despite whatever experiences I would’ve had here that would’ve been abnormal to most of the female prisoners around me -- living like we did in this war zone -- listening to those women and what they had gone through, I felt that I had led a very sheltered isolated life.

By the time we arrived there the screws had done a job of divide and conquer and had generated a lot of anti-Irish feeling among the women.  A lot of the women were very wary about us coming in.  The day we arrived, the screws had locked everybody up and created a big stink about us being there.  Our reputation had proceeded us because some of the screws that worked in Durham had been seconded to Brixton for four weeks when we were there and so had already four weeks experience of us -- and us of them -- and therefore they had told the women that we were terrible people and that we were going come in and disrupt their lives and make life hell for everyone.   So the women were very frightened to come near us as they didn’t want us disturbing anything they felt was OK.  They felt that the life that they were offered was OK, hence, “Please don’t rock our boat.”

What was so disturbing about it all was that the women prisoners had nothing, in comparison to the male establishments around them -- and God knows even the facilities for the men were lacking -- but in comparison to Durham... the poverty of the environment that was within that jail needed to be exposed.  I think I went round Durham for about a week and I didn’t speak very much, I just absorbed everything. I looked around me.  I was shocked at what I was seeing.  And wondering, “Where do you start in a place like this?”  And after about a week realising, “Well I’m going to be in jail for a very long time and in order for me to survive in here I’m going to have to do something about this place.”  I didn’t know if it was within our capacity to change one iota of the place, but I believed we had to try.  And I believed I couldn’t just succumb to feeling, “Well, this is our lot,” and, “Let’s just bury our head and get on with it.”  That is not the approach of Republican prisoners.

So for the first six months I spent my time going from one type of punishment to another.  They wanted us to work in a workshop but one of the sections was making lapels for British army uniforms. We said there was no mission of us going in there and making anything that was worn by the British army.  The jail governor and the screws decided they would come down hard on us and we would be punished for not going into the workshop.  But we weren’t doing it and that was it.  So we spent six months in punishments cells in what they called “behind the door,” which was locked up for 23 hours daily.  Intermittently you would get three days CC, Cellular Confinement, for maybe talking out the window to one another which was ruled as “causing a disturbance” or whatever.  The difference in this punishment was that they would remove all what they euphemistically called “furniture” from the cell and would leave  you with nothing, nothing to sit on, no chair, and then at night they would throw you in a mattress.  You were given a mattress from 8 o’clock p.m. till 8 o’clock a.m. -- and a toilet pot to use during the night.  During the day the only thing you had in your cell was that toilet pot.  Periodically you would get out of the cell during the day to use a toilet but never often enough, so frequently you had to use the pot.

For one hour a day you had to choose between a shower and an hour to walk around the yard -- you couldn’t do both.  So there were times you felt you needed a shower and there were times when it was the other way around.  But you had to try and negotiate that in your head as to which was going to be better for your particular mindset on that particular day.  And obviously when you had visits a shower was the priority.  At other times they’d give you a small jug of drinking water but you’d try to use that jug of water for everything.  You ended up using it for a wash.

After about six months the governor of the jail, he called the two of us into his office.  He started to go on about how he was in the jail where Frank Stagg had went on hunger strike and he said, “You know I don’t care what you both do, I’ll send you both home in boxes if I have to.  You aren’t going to come in here and undermine my authority.”  We were challenging him about the conditions in the jail, and we said there is no mission of us going into that workshop.  So he says to me, “I thought that after six months we’d break you and I can see that’s not gonna happen here.  However, I cannot be seen to back down in front of all these prisoners here.”  His reputation was at stake, which was his central concern.  He said he would try and negotiate some kind of compromise that would have him still saving face -- if we would go into the workshop but not to actually do the work about which we were objecting then he would work something out.  We informed him that that was our stated position from day one: “that we weren’t going to go in and do that particular type of work.”  Ignoring that he said that if we went in, that he in turn would then offer us so many hours of education. So we agreed that we would go down that road.  We also knew that the isolation was not conducive to a healthly mindset and that we needed to get out of the situation before it escalated.   Whilst we were however prepared to stay in there, we also knew that the isolation over six months was not something that any prisoner should be subjected to much longer.

We then began to campaign again -- going back to the Brixton experience -- writing to campaigning groups and any individual with influence who could put some focus on Durham and thus pressurise the Home Office to address what was happening there.  We did a bit of research about Durham and discovered that in 1969 Durham’s H-Wing, where we were held, had actually been closed down.  At that time the notorious Crig brothers and other people of notoriety were held there.  There was some kind of commission that looked into the conditions in H-Wing and its findings delivered that it was too small and too claustrophobic, and therefore should be shut down because it wasn’t healthy for prisoners to live in there for long periods of time.  At that time there were ten and at most fifteen male prisoners held there.

The outcome was that they did remove the men from H-wing and then spent over half a million pounds on security and reopened it for twice the number of women... During our time there were 40 women in H-Wing.  Some of the prisoners referred to it as a submarine, linking the 30 minutes of exercise like getting up for air.  Other than that you never actually left the building.  Then within the building you had restrictions imposed on the high risk Cat As, which were ourselves.  We were only allowed to move within non-restricted areas -- and I mean movement which was defined as me moving from this room to that door to pick up food.  I wasn’t allowed to do that.  I had to have two screws and a dog with me at all times when “moving” around the place.

Over the years there was a number of governors,  all of which defended the system as it was operating.  We wrote to one particular woman in London called Nina Hutchinson who had been very active during the strip-searching campaign in Brixton.  We were still being strip searched in Durham -- even though it was not in the number or severity that was taking place in Brixton. it was still going on after visits and with cell changes and so on.   So Nina and the other individuals concerned about the conditions in Durham got together and campaigned about the conditions under which we were being held.  Eventually Anthony Lester who was a QC and Pamila Taylor who was a head psychologist in a London hospital, were commissioned to do a report on conditions within H-Wing.

When they arrived they were stunned at the conditions. The governors arranged a meeting with Taylor and Lester as both had asked to see a representative of the different groups, i.e. the lifers, Cat As, and sentenced termed prisoners. I was representing the Cat As.  At that stage there were three Cat As: Ella, an alleged German spy, Sonja Schulze, and I.  Everybody from their own group were supposed to determined who was going in, but later we discovered that it was the system that selected the other members.

At the meeting I was highlighting the sports facilities that the male jail Frankland had, the difference in the amount of exercise periods they were given, its education wing, that they had teachers coming in, that there was all this activity going on within that jail, and that we should have similar conditions.  Now Lester and Taylor sat back and just listened because what emerged was an argument between the rest of the women and myself.  The other women were saying: “These Cat As are disrupting our life.  If they want exercise the rest of us have to be locked up.”  The screws told the women that they did not have enough staffing levels to undertake exercise and unlock, so if anyone wanted exercise, then the rest of the wing had to be locked up.  We were determined that regardless of how it was portrayed that we would take our exercise.   Rather than challenging the system for locking them up the women turned on us and blamed us. Even when it was clear that there were enough screws on to do both.  They couldn’t see what the system was doing -- ensuring that there would be ongoing animosity between us all so that we would have problems mounting support.

We two were blamed for causing disruption to their lives.  They were shouting and roaring at me.  I was trying to talk to Lester and explain to them about what was happening in the jail and what was happening in Frankland prison, when suddenly one of the other women turned on me shoutin, “But you’re a woman, you’re a woman!  You’re not a man!  You can’t expect to be treated like men.  Why do you want those conditions?   How do you think you deserve those conditions?  You’re a woman!”  I was gob-smacked.  I looked at her and as much as I was angry, I felt sorry for her because she believed what she was saying.  I looked at Lester and Taylor and said, “What more can I say?”  Both remained silent looking at us all.

I believed from the body language and from what they were saying that they also seen a bunch of very broken individuals -- in that the system had them broke.  They couldn’t get off their knees.  Some of them had horrific experiences.  Some of them had children to their brothers/fathers, had been sexually abused, raped -- there were some very sad disturbing cases, and many were in need of some kind of help and support.  Life had dealt them a raw deal.  And many of them had committed horrific offences.  And thus many of them believed that they didn’t deserve anything better.  The Lester and Taylor findings were very good, from our point of view -- their report concluded that if conditions within the jail did not improve within 12 months that the wing should be closed down.  They talked about radical and structural improvements.

At that stage we were all still slopping out.  Every winter the sewerage system would overflow into the dining area where we all ate breakfast.  So in the mornings when we were slopping-out into the waste system the raw sewerage would got blocked at ground level.  Instead of flowing out through the drains, it would gorge up and spill out over the “dining area” floor.  And many of the prisoners, on their hands and knees -- you weren’t allowed a mop in Durham -- without disinfectant, without gloves,  would lift the urine and the excrement into buckets.  And for their efforts they were rewarded with a Mars bar.  There was an on-going battle between the rest of the women and us because for many of them they viewed their response to one similar to cleaning their homes. We would challenge them, asking, “What are yous doing?  Don’t clean it.  They’re won’t fix the system if you keep cleaning it up like that.”  And, “Why are you cleaning without disinfectant?  The waste disposal is broke!”  This was every morning when the ice blocked up the pipes, and every morning they would do it.  We had refused, which actually resulted in Sonja being charged for refusing to clean it.  They tried to order us and compiled what we termed as the “shit list” -- excuse my language but this is what it effectively was.  They put up a list on the board naming groups that would clean up on a rota basis.  When we took the list from the board and tried sending it out, it never appeared again.

Now after the [Lester and Taylor] visit we were put on punishment, Once again we found ourselves “behind the door.”  We were accused of trying to orchestrate some kind of revolt within the jail.  But we were just trying to get the rest of the women to take the opportunity of talking with them.  We told them, “Look, this is your chance.”  We didn’t want them to tell any lies. “Don’t lie.”  You didn’t need to.  “Just tell them the truth.  This is an opportunity to speak out, for any of yous that feel strongly about an issue, this is your opportunity to raise it. Yous aren’t going to be punished, yous aren’t going to lose your visits, yous aren’t going to lose your parole.”  Because these were the things the system had over them -- if any of them refused to clean the mess in the mornings, they would have a visit stopped or be punished in another way.

The women could see that we were standing up and not taking any of the flack that the system was giving us... because we were the ones trying to bring about change and we were the ones trying to fight the system, and as much as we were in it for ourselves we were doing it for those women too.  We were doing it for everybody in that jail, regardless of who they were.  Everybody in that jail deserved a better living environment, a better jail life, in so far as it was possible, than what was existing there at that moment... Once those women knew that we were fighting in their corner and that they were not going to be subjected to any punishment as such...  because it was like they couldn’t take any more.  Their eyes would almost plead with you not to have them punished any more -- “We can’t take any more.”  And in one way each little thing the system gave them was like a carrot over their heads, “ Yous be good little girls or we will take this off you again.”

Women ran the regime and I have to say I had a conflict of loyalties within myself in that I was very much for promoting women’s issues and wanting women to stand up and account for themselves and do better in this male dominated society, wanting to see women do well.  And yet I have to say as a group of women, perhaps as a group of women who hadn’t thought about where society had placed us all, they could not manage or control their authority.  They seemed to possess their little enclave somewhat obsessively.  They ruled the roost, these women screws.  There were a few male governors that at times you could’ve seen would’ve moved but could not penetrate the laws that were being enforced through female staff members.  H wing was like a jail, even though it was only a wing of a jail in Durham, it was like a jail in itself.

After the Lester and Taylor report was public a new governor came into the jail and he began to look more closely and more seriously at the conditions.  I believe he was sent there with an agenda, and his job was to bring about those changes within a year.  And he did succeed I have to say in bringing a measure of change, structurally.  Three cells were broke down into two, and the whole ethos of the workshop system changed.  He brought in computers and pottery for those that wanted it.  He tried to bring in a more imaginative type of work.   But at the same time I still believe he could not change it like what would have been required -- you could work internally with what you had but there was still to be more than 40 women.  They knocked a wall down and took in a small part of F wing, they extended it perhaps the size of this room, so that they could still accommodate 40 women.  Moreover, the attitudes in the jail had to change.  You were still dealing with the same screws, the same mentality, the same approach.

One thing that did change was the women’s approach to us.  The women realised, well, I would say most of them, that they could actually come to us and that we would stand up and argue their case for them, challenge governors or the PO or whoever on their behalf.

At the time that we were sent home -- home [laughs]... to prison in Maghaberry... at the time that we were transferred I was relatively satisfied that within those years we had achieved as much as was humanly possible for two individuals, devoid of the structure that was in place over here.  We grappled with the situation over there, with structures and governors and an administration that was extremely hostile towards us, that on the whole wanted to send us home in boxes or turned into mental cripples.  But at the same time I wanted to see H wing closed, believing that the same reasons pertained today that did in ‘69 when they closed it.  I’ve heard reports from it since that we were only out of there a number of weeks when the system began to claw back all of the concessions that had been gained during that time and that it’s now back to what it once had been, a cess-pit of oppression ...  And I believe that they moved out some of the women that believed they could stand up.  We had told them about contacting groups and individuals on the outside and if nothing else to fight with a pen.

You found that in women’s prisons in relation to men’s that female social prisoners seemed to internalize any of the flack that was given to them by the system.  Whereas in male jails they’d lash out, there’ d be a riot or an argument, or verbal confrontation.  But in Durham most of the women prisoners absorbed all those problems and pressures that was coming at them from the system.  They would cut up, mutilate themselves, or suffer from anorexia and/or bulimia.  You had all sorts of problems within the jail.  I think some of that was as a result of the women not having the same type of conditioning as men, and then that compounded with other harsh life experiences.

MT:  I just want to go back and clarify some things... why were you locked up for 23 hours a day?

MA:  In Brixton initially we were locked up 23 hours a day, but in Durham it was only during the periods of “punishment” that that would’ve occurred.  For most of the time we would’ve had about 19/20 hours locked up, so you might’ve got out for about 4 or 5 hours.

The 23 hours lock up in Durham was because we were campaigning and protesting.  And I would believe that this happened periodically from 1985 until 1990. Not on a continuous basis but anytime that you were punished.  And it was only after the Lester and Taylor Report that those kinds of punishments stopped for protesting like that.  We could see the changes coming about, and knew that we had actually effected change by the campaigning we had done.  So therefore we were seeing that we didn’t have to campaign within the jail for the changes to take place -- because they were on stream, they were on line.  It was then a case of defining the changes, stating what way they should materialise.  We had actually broken through the whole block of changes that were needed in the first place.  And it was mainly during that period of demanding change that we were punished.  But once that stopped, it was very seldom would we end up “behind the door.”  It was because of a mixture of: the type of governor, the focus that was on the jail, the pressure that was on them, and the campaign and the people we had coming to see us.  They were just slightly more nervous about inflicting such punishment because they knew they would be held more accountable for it than before.

MT: Were you and Ella allowed to talk or have any communication or exercise
together?

MA: During times of punishment you were exercising on your own.  You had no contact with anyone.  But on the days you weren’t on punishment, and from the period when those punishments actually stopped, you were given exercise with all the other prisoners in the jail.

The only thing we couldn’t have were visits in the room with the other social prisoners.  The visiting area was very small, like the size of this room.  It was laid out to hold two visits and there was table for the screws to “supervise.”  When we had visits, only one visit was allowed to take place, which effectively meant that when we had visits the rest of the other women could not and vice versa.  A screw sat at each end of their table and noted conversations.  And would’ve periodically interrupted, ordering our visitors not to talk about an issue: “You can’t talk about this or that.”  Anytime that happened to myself, I would’ve talked about it all the more, but my family was concerned about me and about having the visit stopped.  It was a way of intimidating your visitors.  Your visitors would’ve been left flustered and tried to change the conversation.  And you’d be challenging the screws telling them to butt out if your visits -- “You’re here to observe the conversation, not to interrupt it.”  But you also had tension with the visitors because you would not want them to stop but they were more concerned about you than themselves and also feel silence.

I don’t wanna create the impression that we two held capacity to do things that others didn’t, but I think perhaps coming into a jail with the politics, with the thought that says “You’re right,” that you do not having the guilt that the other prisoners around you suffer from.  And having a fighting capacity within you to fight for things that you believe are right, this sort of allowed you and directed you towards bringing about necessary changes.  All of it was related to previous experiences, and we had a different life experience than those that we were held with, some of whom had horrendous and very sad lives.

MT: At what point did you get transferred to Maghaberry?  Did you have to fight for that?

MA: Throughout our time in England we had to fight for transfer.  It was agreed among us Irish prisoners over there that we would actually pursue the transfer issue. And each time we met the criteria the British government would change it.  We spent many years in legal, public and political battles, which was the other campaign that was going on that was very separate to the prison campaign.  In 1994 there was four prisoners first transferred -- myself, Ella, Paul, who’s my husband, and Gerry McLaughlin. And thereafter a small stream of prisoners were transferred -- until finally we were all sent back to jail here in the 6 counties, Maghaberry, and to Portlaoise in the 26 counties.  It took longer for the 26 county transfers because of an argument about the different jurisdiction and who would administer the sentences of those sent there.

Our transfer was termed as temporary transfer.  So they had actually devised this new type of transfer specifically for Irish Republican prisoners who were being transferred to the 6 counties.  Any other prisoner that was transferred, the administration of your sentence was handed over to the transferred state.  But the administration of our sentence was still held by the Home Office and not the Northern Ireland Office.  So all matters regarding our day-to-day living arrangements had to come through the Brits in English counties.  So matters relating to paroles, or our very location within the jail in the 6 counties, was under the control of the Home Office. They said they would transfer us for 6-month periods but that we’d have to reapply every 6 months.  So they used that as a punishment. Within the jails over here, particularly the governor of Maghaberry, would inform us that if we created any problems for him he would send us back.”

And in some ways it was the first time that -- I would have to be honest -- that such a notion was lodged in my head.  I actually had to mentally stand back and note it, note the fact that  I actually cared if they sent me back.  And I had to watch that.  Because I thought, “I am not going to allow these people now, after coming through 9 years of England and after coming through all those strip searches and battles, to have this over me, which might in some way prevent me from reacting or responding the way I naturally would do in a situation that I feel is wrong.”  That notion was never in my head before.  I couldn’t care what they did to me before.  If something was wrong I was going to do something about it.  Whereas I think I found myself at times just stopping and thinking -- about the consequences of what I might be about to do.  Any other time, I would not have even considered the consequences; I did it.  And I didn’t like that.  I didn’t like seeing that in myself...you know, being conscious that I was aware of consequences that may involve me being returned to England.  So I went round that one in my head and I thought, “No, I have not come through all this for this to happen now.  If that’s going to be the result of an action that I take based on something that I feel is wrong then so be it.”

MT: Once you got back to Maghaberry, were the conditions any better?

MA: Remarkably so.  In the sense that in Maghaberry women had fought for better conditions that I benefited from.  They had TVs in their cell.  That was a first for me.  They had little things that made the cells a little bit more comfortable -- like they had duvets on the bed.  It was prison covers but it was so different from anything that I had ever had during those times in jail.  They had access to the exercise yard -- that I’d never had before.  They had access to an education department.  They had a workshop up and running and a raft of facilities that were new to me.

Initially when we all were brought over, one of the terms of the conditions of our transfers was that we would be held in non-Republican wings.  So the men were not allow to go to Long Kesh.  They had to go to mixed wings in Maghaberry.  And we had to be held in a mixed wing in Maghaberry for females.  Our comrades there, and the OC of the jail at that time, fought very hard to get us moved over to their wing.  And with them and us challenging the NIO officials or anyone that came into the wing,  we eventually got moved onto their wing.

After about 12-13 months they conceded and allowed us to move over to our comrades. Before that, we weren’t allowed into the workshop during the hours they were allowed in.  They tried little things like that to keep us separate from them.  But at the same time, even though we had a different exercise yard, then there was only a fence between us so we could stand and talk and communicate.  If our visitors turned up at the same time we could see each other then. If we went to chapel on the Saturday night we would’ve seen our comrades there too.  There were different times that we were able to maintain regular contact with our comrades there and that slotted us into the structure.

But personally I found having regular access to visits, having access to news and information as it was happening... What we would’ve had in England would’ve been a very British version of events, and whilst the media you could say also depicts a pro-British stance over here, you could see it on the TV and make judgements for yourself -- which you weren’t able to make over there because of the lack of information that you were receiving.  By the time you would’ve got newspapers over there it would’ve been history.  Something else, some other event would’ve been taking place.  Whereas the first night I was back I remember sitting with the day’s newspaper and the radio on, Radio Ulster, listening to events, sitting in front of the TV with a duvet cover... well I just thought the world was my oyster!  And I knew I was benefiting from hard won benefits that our women comrades over here had achieved.

I hadn’t gone through what they had gone through.  I had a different jail experience from them -- but I was able to reap the benefits from the hard efforts they had made.  But you still found that the men on the other side of the jail in Maghaberry would’ve had access to the education department in the evenings.  You still had discrimination between men and women. The men, whether it was in England or over here, their conditions were always better than the women’s conditions.  We didn’t have access to education in the evenings.  They had access to sports fields and access to all sorts of facilities and amenities that weren’t available on the female side of the jail.  So you always had that difference between men and women --

MT: How did they justify that?

MA: Well they tried to justify it because of our numbers.  And we would argue that we’re going to be in jail for the same length of time.  They brought in a security argument.  And once they mentioned security, in any court over here or in any case, it always made it impossible in legal terms for us to pursue because no judge would challenge that -- and that suited all of them.  Apart from the men who had been transferred over here, the rest of the men in Maghaberry were regarded as being as less of a security risk because they had came away from the Republican or Loyalist structures, from Long Kesh, and that was the rationale for them being there.

But they made quite a faux pas with my husband.  He came along with me to Maghaberry.  You had to have eight years done at that time before you could qualify for a TV.  And he was one of the prisoners who had that time done.  When Republicans were transferred to Maghaberry the jail decided to split them through the male wings and coincidentally put Paul onto the wing where all the prisoners who had done eight years were getting all these facilities that the rest of the prisoners who hadn’t done that length of time weren’t receiving.  Paul had gone from being in the SSB, special security blocks, in England.  I was a regarded as high risk Cat A; he was viewed as being an exceptionally high risk Cat A.  He was considered one of the most “dangerous” prisoners in England -- most Irish Republicans were viewed as such so that they could keep security blocks open and justify these real extensive security operations around these men in these buildings.  Anytime he moved anywhere he would’ve been handcuffed.  Plus all the other security measures that had been imposed on him.  So he went from that to walking into Maghaberry to be handed a document allowing him to walk freely around a wide area and to have his cell unlocked at night.

And then our women on the other side, they had been told they couldn’t get such access  because of security.  So we argued this case in court and they said Paul had been de-categorized, that this was one of the reasons he was able to get it, but when we pursued that argument with the Home Office it stated that Paul hadn’t been decategorized at all.  Paul was still regarded as an exceptionally high risk Cat A prisoner.  We were able to expose that in Maghaberry.  Because of the number they felt they could get away with doing it.  It had nothing to do with security.  They wouldn’t allow the 24 hour unlock on the women’s side.  So there was always those discrepancies, there were always those things within the jail that had to be fought.

MT: Did they continue the strip searching in Maghaberry?

MA: Not in the same vein. You were strip searched in Maghaberry when you left the jail -- perhaps say if you were getting out for parole or when you got back from parole.  You also would’ve been strip-searched going on and returning from interprison prison visits.  During the latter years of my sentence they stopped the strip searching before such visits.  They gave you a body search before going on an interprison visit.  Eventually when I was put onto the Republican wing, my husband was moved to Long Kesh where he wanted to go, and I was taken from Maghaberry to visit him.  By that time they had stopped stripping us before and after those visits.  But for those of us then, once we got parole, going in and out on parole, you were strip-searched going out and coming in from parole.  And there was always the threat that if they “suspected” anything at anytime they could strip you.

MT: Did you keep track over the years -- I guess that sounds really morbid -- of approximately how many times you were strip searched?

MA: I think we did try to document it in Brixton because no one believed that they were happening like they were.  No one believed that we were being subjected to that many.  When we came to Durham we were able to count them in terms of months.  Because you always had a cell search every 14 days, and you always had a cell change once a month.  Then you could count  how many visits did you have that month?  And so you were able to count them in months as opposed to in days.  I’m sure if I was to... I could make a rough estimation but....I haven’t actually sat down and done that.

There’s still a court case going on currently because of the treatment that was meted out to us in Brixton and the number of strip searches, and it’s lodged in a European court.  And so because of that there was a rough estimate documented in a jotter that I had kept. We documented them so that we could challenge them for discrepancies.  As only two of three high risk cat As there was a marked difference in the number of strip searches that Ella and I endured compared to Sonja, while we were in both Brixton and in Durham.  And we would’ve used the figures in that way to challenge them.

MT: Was strip searching used more often against women prisoners?

MA: Most definitely.  In Brixton when our male comrades were in the landing below us -- we were able to exchange notes -- they got very angry.  There was a lot of tension in the jail because of the way we were being treated.  But definitely there was more strip searches that we got compared to the men.

MT: And why do you think that is?

MA: Well I suppose that as women we’ve be conditioned to feel more modest about our bodies.  I believe that it was akin to a sexual assault on our bodies.  I’m convinced it’s used as a weapon, as a repressive measure in jail.  And I think for women who didn’t feel confident about their bodies it was an added pressure on them.  And they felt the whole wrath of that punishment all the more.  I’m convinced that the practice of strip-searching is used to degrade -- I think it’s used to degrade prisoners, both males and females, but I think the impact that it has on women, by virtue of the fact that it’s used more so on women than it is on men, has got to do with the whole sexual connotations that’s attached to it.

MT: What are some of the long term affects, psychological or physical, of strip searching?

MA: I don’t know if I’ve actually taken time out to sit back and analyze that. I would say that I noticed when I left England... because of the case that I was telling you about that’s ongoing in Europe, our solicitors had asked us would we talk to a psychologist, now that we were out of the environment that had subjected us to so many strips.   I had a 1/2 hour meeting with this woman.  I had become accustomed to talking about it like it was matter of fact -- “Yes I’ve had so many strip searches and this would happen and that would happen,” just stating it as it was -- but that day I found that for the first time, it had a different effect on me.  I was talking about a situation that I was no longer living in the middle of.  And I think perhaps in order to survive it, living in the middle of it, there was certain mechanisms, certain blocks within my head, coping mechanisms or whatever that I had built up. And they did help me survive it.  Others might argue that they have left some other kinds of impact.  I personally haven’t seen them.

Through experiences in jail I have grown and become quite attuned to myself. One of the things I wanted to do in jail was that I wanted to grow.  I didn’t wanna come out of jail the 23 years old girl that went into jail.  I wanted to feel I had matured in so far as it was possible.  At one time I did a bit of meditation.  I tried to keep in touch with myself and what was happening within me and to me.  And I wouldn’t say that’s going on in any kind of active way now like it was then when  I had the time and leisure to do that.  So I don’t know, I don’t know what the long term effects will be, if any.  I think that, while I did sort of deal with it in some ways -- I know I put a wall around me when it was happening over there.  Talking with that psychologist meant that I looked at it that day, and I could see that it had impacted on me emotionally.

I train a lot. I would now train about three times a week.  I had been training seven days a week and to be honest -- as anyone would tell you, training can be a bit addictive.  One of the things I did when I was there was -- I could see that the women in that jail that weren’t confident about themselves, you know, it destroyed them.  They came out of strip searches and their whole day -- there was anger and fear and all sorts of emotions.  And that night they might cut up or they might do whatever they felt driven to do.  They might have a row with someone and misdirect their feelings at something or someone else.  I think ... perhaps one of the things within me about training was that I was not going to have those hang-ups about my body.  And I didn’t.  I enjoy training too.  I felt that training was a sort of a mental outlet for me during times of frustration.  So I found the two things was happening -- I felt the training was helping me deal with the frustration within the confinements of the jail, and that it was giving me confidence.  Them screws, there was nothing they could’ve said about my body that I was going to be affected by. Despite how many strip searches I went through, my body, in my mind -- other people have defined their own shapes whatever way they wanted and feel happy with it -- but for me they weren’t able to insult my body in that way.  So there was this sort of added thing with the training.  And maybe that is something that has helped me and hasn’t left the scars that perhaps it has in others.

Or maybe, who knows,  I’m not out of jail long enough to know.  I’m still enjoying life too much.  And maybe someday down the road I’ll be hit with some emotional bolt.  Sometimes you hear about different prisoners’ experiences, and some people have found that they’ll be out a while and then,  it’s hit them, or they might have something to deal with.  And sometimes I find myself thinking about this and it’s like there is this inner fear and trepidation, awaiting an emotional bolt that’ll come out of nowhere because... I know I’m still very much enjoying my life at the moment.  My husband’s out, and I’m still involved in politics, and everything is going very well for me.

MT: I’m worried that people think strip searching doesn’t happen any more, that it’s an issue that happened a long time ago... but with the Roisin McAliskey  case... could you say something about whether they’re still using it?

MA: In England they never stopped using strip searching and I don’t think they will ever stop, let alone reduce them over there.  I think it’s one of those weapons -- you may not hear an awful lot about it now because there are no Republican women in jail at the moment who are enduring strip searches.  I think we were one of the most vocal groups of people who highlighted it.  But most certainly, I mean you talked about Roisin and I know that as someone who had been in England and then I was in jail here as it was happening to her in England... I was very conscious that it was one issue that we never actually changed.  Here we are, many years on, and there is still an outstanding court case about it.  But I believe that it’s one of those issues that will always be there as a weapon in the arsenal of the British establishment.  And they will use it in any way that they can.  You hear about people being strip-searched in airports.  It’s being deployed in a number of places now that may not have been acceptable before.  And I think that whilst it will be something that they will use to target Republican prisoners or any politically motivated prisoners within their system,  it’s also being deployed within civil society too.  It’s penetrating across that whole arena and it’s being used as a weapon for anybody they regard as deviants.

MT: Are there any specific issues, like health issues for women, that you’d like to talk about?  I know in “Beyond the Wire” [a collection of interviews compiled by Maeve McLaughlin about Northern Ireland women’s experiences in regards to political imprisonment] you talked about the number of hysterectomies that were given to women in prison.

MA: I was very concerned about the number of hysterectomies that was used in Durham.  I myself suffer from dismenhoria .  In Durham I wanted to take vitamin B6 and other methods to control the effects PMS and pain. Basically I would’ve gotten a tranquilizer or some kind of sedative before I got a painkiller.  And vitamins were just taboo -- you didn’t get vitamins.  I had gone to see a gynaecologist and he gave me a smear test.  I have never been through any experience like it in my life.  When he arrived the other women referred to him as “Colonel” Francis -- he was a colonel in the British army.  And he was the gynaecologist for the women in Durham.  And I believe that that man was actually getting some kind of commission for the number of hysterectomies that he performed in that jail.

I believe that it was a covert control policy -- like the sterilization of women.  The system did not view women prisoners as being worthy or deserving of children and this was the way it was going to guarantee prevention.  I was offered a hysterectomy and I had nothing but dismenhoria , I had nothing but period pains.  I had however developed a polyp in my womb that needed to be removed -- because it was one of the things that was aggravating my period during those times of the month.  And in Durham I got a pain killer at 8:00 at night going into the cell.  And if I needed one at any stage during the night it was tough.  My cell would not have been opened. Many a morning I’d come out in excruciating pain and almost crawled up the stairs to get a pain killer.

I agreed to have a D and C -- there was no way I as going to allow for a hysterectomy.  Because I was a Cat A prisoner they would not tell me what time or what day I was to be taken out of Durham to have the D and C.  You were held overnight in hospital because there was no actual facilities in the wing should something gone wrong.  They could not provide after care of any sort.  Even though women are released from hospital after 5 or 6 hours, at the time when I was having it, that was not the case.  So since I didn’t know when I was going, I had a little bag ready with dressing gown and underclothes -- in preparation for an overnight stay.

I was woke one morning early  -- usually our cell doors were unlocked at 8 o’clock -- and told: “You should shower, you are going to hospital in 20 minutes for the D and C.”  So I shouted out to Ella to let her know what was happening.  I headed out in a Cat A van.  We drove to the Queen Elizabeth hospital -- it was only a matter of ten minutes away.  I was quickly processed because of being a high risk Category A prisoner and had armed police.  Hence, I was taken straight through, and the anaesthetist came into inject me.  I looked at the clock and it was like 7:40 am.

And the next thing I remember was being slapped across the face and woke up and being told, “Get out of the bed.”  I  didn’t know where I was.  I didn’t have control of my own faculties.  I was aware that I was naked, I was aware I had a gown on me that lay open down the back of me.  They had dragged me down this corridor and all the time I was conscious I had no underclothes on me.  I couldn’t walk.  They bundled me into this trolley.  There was a sister with me and two screws, and there were men all around me with guns, and every now and again I would feel myself going into semi-conscious states.  All this was happening within minutes, seconds.  I could feel a part of my brain going, “Get a hold of this situation,” and I couldn’t.  I was totally unable to function.

I got to the Cat A van and there was an argument about whether they were gonna handcuff me.  I’d still the hospital gown on me, open down the back.  I remember seeing this gun going round me and this cop and him saying, “She’s a high risk,” and the sister saying, “She can’t go anywhere, she’s not fit to go anywhere.”  I was bundled into the back in this Cat A van.  I can remember lying there and trying to get up and I couldn’t move.  Someone threw a dressing gown around me.

And I woke again as they were taking me out of the van at Durham jail.  I had no underpants on me, no knickers on me, no socks on me, nothing on my feet, no shoes.  My cell was two floors up.  So they got me to the door, and they must have realized that they couldn’t drag me through the jail like that.  So this male PO came down and he grabbed me and carried me from that door up two flights of stairs. As I was going through the dining room, the women were having breakfast.  And Ella was shouting at me, to see if I was OK, and different women had got up.  And I remember saying, “I’m OK, I’m all right.”   I didn’t know it was breakfast time.  It wasn’t until I was actually put in my cell.  This male screw had carried me up there, and it wasn’t until I was carried up there that I was given sanitary protection.  A pair of pants was put on me.

I was brought through that jail at no later than ten past eight that morning.  And I had been anaesthetised by injection and had been woken.  It wasn’t half an hour from the time the process started until I was brought back to the jail.

I slept for a number of hours, woke extremely angry at what had happened.  The jail had blamed the security, the security had blamed the hospital, nobody was being held accountable. The next morning I was still fairly groggy, and to add to it they moved me from that cell to another cell down below -- which effectively meant that I had to carry everything out of the cell.  You had to carry the furniture down for the cell too.  I had to cart furniture from one floor to another ?- plus my belongings.  And that was the type of treatment, what happened to me ... I know you can’t compare that to what happened to people like Giuseppe Conlon, or Paddy Kelly, who died from prison medical neglect, but it epitomized the way they treated Irish Republican prisoners in their jails.  So with regards to the medical conditions over there, for Irish Republican prisoners, it’s a story there that needs to be told in its totality.  I’m just recounting my experience.  There’s been many prisoners who have suffered much more.

MT: When did you get out?

MA: Ten months ago.

MT: What was that like?  Did you have a huge party?

MA: Sometimes I think I’m still partying.  Initially they wouldn’t allow us paroles, again because we had been under the Home Office and not under the NIO.  So prisoners who were transferred were denied paroles even though we had done the time.  After ten, eleven years over here, once you’d served that amount of time, you automatically went into the parole system where you were given a week in the summer and a week at Christmas, something like that.  But we weren’t allowed to get those paroles because we were sentenced in England.  Then eventually they changed our temporary transfer to restricted transfer.  We were still under the Home Office, they were the ones to administrate our sentence, but apart from the administration of our sentence, everything else came under the NIO.   So eventually we got paroles.

The first parole was absolutely magic for everyone.  For my family, for myself.  My husband got parole at same time.  We had a geographical difficulty, when you’re dealing with it in parole terms, because his family is from Belfast and I’m from Derry, so he went out the day before and stayed with his family, and then he came to Derry the following day.  And then I suppose Paul and I had our honeymoon -- we got married in jail, in England.

And I can remember when I was coming into Derry, the cars all stopped at the fly-over. There was a calvacade of cars waiting for me at the fly-over that took me up to the house.  There were all these banners over the door and over the street.  Everyone, had a party and the house never emptied.  Everyone has been so supportive and so loving.  It was a lovely wonderful experience.  And every parole I enjoyed tremendously.  I really got a lot out of every parole that I had.

Then I had the final release.  And there was the thing again -- not knowing.  We weren’t sure how or when our release was going to evolve with regards to the peace process because of the restricted transfer. The day I was notified I had been visiting my husband and I came in from the interprison visit to discover that a note had been there to say that I was being released the next day!  Whilst it was anticipated and expected at that stage, we thought we would’ve had some notice or some time or whatever.  I phoned my mother and caused a total panic and shock in the house.  No one could believe it.  I didn’t realize that they wanted to have a party for me, but Paul at that stage had 3 days of parole left and had kept those days anticipating me getting out.  So he was planning to come out the day of  my release, come hell or high water... But you were supposed to apply in advance of getting this so he’d applied to get out that morning.  I think because of the publicity in the case they wanted him out later in the day.  So I got out that morning and he got out for the three days parole later that day.  My family had the party on the second day so that he could be there.

At that stage there was no mission of Paul getting released.  Paul, Tommy Quigley, Pat Magee, and Gerry McDonald were four of the prisoners back from England that we believed were going to be held to the end of this process, the end of the two years’ time span that had been allocated for the release of all Republican prisoners -- despite the fact that at stage Paul was in his 15th year and should’ve qualified under the Good Friday Agreement. They said I was regarded as a discretionary lifer because it was a conspiracy charge.  It was conspiracy to cause explosions.  Despite the fact that we had ended up as two of longest female prisoners held -- no one was hurt in our case nor was there any damage done to property, not as much as a broken window, nothing had actually happened.  Whereas in Paul’s’ case he was a mandatory lifer.  He was charged with the murder of a bomb explosives expert in England, and because they had defined his charge as being mandatory and ours as being discretionary, they had given Paul and Tommy “Natural” Life -- they were never to be released, they were to die in jail.

When “Natural” Life had been given to Meyer Hinley, we realized that once they gave “Natural” Life to her that it opened the door for them to impose such sentences on Republican prisoners.  And we were aware that my husband and some other Republicans would be placed under the criteria driving that rule.  And that’s what they did. Many years into their sentence, they were informed that they were never to be released and that they were to die in jail.  They had challenged that ruling in the jail and had discovered through the courts that the secretary of state had operated double sentencing -- that he should not have actually imposed a Natural Life tariff sentence on them, that it was beyond his remit as such to do that.  They were sentenced to 35 years.  So he said, “OK, we’ll lift the Natural Life tariff and impose a sentence of 50 years,”  but the sentence of 50 years was that they were actually to serve 50 years.  That was the mandatory sentence that they were to serve.  So effectively if they didn’t die in jail they were going to come out very old and decrepit.

So himself and Tommy Quigley did a tremendous amount of legal work with legal people, challenging Jack Straw [the Home Secretary].  I don’t know if you remember the case.  At first Paul and the others challenged the commission for prisoners set up under the Good Friday Agreement.  It had actually supported the system that had been in place from England with regards to mandatory life sentence prisoners.  And they had said they couldn’t release them under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.  So Paul and them challenged that in court and won the case in court.  Consequently, the commission changed the tariffs that they had given to Paul and them.  They had changed Paul’s tariff to 21 years.  This had been the highest tariff that had been issued by the commission. What this meant was that they had to serve 2/3 of that.  So Paul had 2/3 of 21 served, Tommy had 2/3 of 21 served, and Gerry had 2/3 of 21 served.  Pat Magee had another 3 months to do before his 2/3 were up.

So effectively that meant that Paul would be released the next day.  I got a phone call to say they had changed the tariff to 21 years, he’d be out tomorrow.  Everyone was over-joyed.  His mother is 81 at the moment.  We couldn’t believe that this was happening... because as much as you knew they should’ve been out long before that time, you never really wanted to build yourself up with that hope.  Then that night Jack Straw intervened and stopped their release and said that the Home Office was taking a judicial review.  The following day the case was fought out in court.  And we didn’t think we’d win it, we thought that the judge might find some way -- we knew that the law was on our side, Paul and Tommy had worked a lot on the submission presented by the prisoners, there wasn’t a line that they had not analyzed.  But we knew that despite all that, the judge could find a loophole, some way of keeping them in.

He was very, derogatory in his commentary, not very complimentary with regards to the peace process -- he talked about, “this so called agreement.”    But he had to support the commissioner’s agreement.  I think if he hadn’t it would’ve undermined the role that the commission was playing in relation to the release of prisoners.  So I think it would’ve been a political disaster for them if they had favoured Straw’s case. The result meant that Paul and Tommy and Gerry, who was arrested with us, were released that night at 10:30. So he’s out about six months or so.

MT: It must seem too good to be true some days.

MA: His mummy kept all these cuttings from the time we were in jail in England.  And just the other week she said, “Do yous wanna take these andstore these yourself?  And we were looking through it.  It was the time Paul and I got married in England and they were saying, “Honeymoon in 20/20,” and they were coming out with all these comments.  And the two of us were just sitting smiling, thinking, “I wonder what yous are thinking now.”

MT: I don’t think we ever had you say: how long did you have to serve--?

MA: I was on my 14th year when I was released.

MT: And I might just be really thick but... you were charged with conspiracy to cause explosions.  What kind of evidence did they have to give you such a harsh sentence?

MA: They had very little evidence for the conspiracy.  They actually don’t need a lot of evidence.  They only need to plant enough doubt in the minds of the jury.  England is one of the few countries where a person can be charged with conspiracy.  Needless to say, it has been deployed over here, this is one of the few statelets where a conspiracy charge would actually hold weight in court.  I think within European rulings and in different courts in Europe, that a conspiracy charge would not be a charge that you would have heard referred to in terms of prisoners of different nationalities.  They may charge a person with possession of something but a conspiracy charge has an added value for the Brits because its ensures a high sentence.  And moreover the evidence they need to guarantee a conviction is very little.

MT: I’m asking all the women I interview whether they had any particular role models.

MA: Well I would probably have to say my mother. She’s somebody that’s been very influential in my life and still is.  She’s a great woman.  She’s been there throughout it all. She’s a Republican, a very staunch Republican woman.  And I would have to say that she has been the woman who has influenced my life more than any other woman.

My sisters -- I have 6 sisters -- and our family is like split into two.  There’s ten of us: there’s the five older ones and the five younger ones.  And the five older ones feel they had a degree of normality before ‘69, before things started to heat up, that we have never really experienced.  They would’ve been quite mindful of that and at the same time very sort of aware of where we were coming from.  I would probably say that there’s a mixture of experiences that I’ve had, from all my sisters, even from my younger sister, Sharon.

I think that probably in terms of women and roles models, my mother would’ve been very influential in shaping all of our lives in our family.  She’s still the boss as such.  Everyone still has an awful lot of respect for her and would be very aware of her views and her feelings.  We’d always take on board what she’s saying, even if you have to challenge it in some ways.  There are people whose names I couldn’t mention who have influenced me as comrades in different times.  My husband Paul has taught me a lot about life and about living.  I am very lucky to have a partner like him.

MT: What’s your plans for the future?

MA: To keep enjoying life.  I don’t know in terms of long term plans.  My short term plans revolve around getting as much out of life as what I’m getting at the moment.  I’m working with the party and I’m getting an awful lot of knowledge and experience out of that, and everyone’s been very supportive and helpful.  I would like to continue the politicization of myself.  The more I learn the less I feel I know.  I would like to keep embarking on the road that I’m on -- it’s giving me personal pleasures, it’s what I want to do, it’s what I believe in, it’s where I am, it’s me.

And I think personally with regards to Paul and I, we’re still growing and developing. We’re still talking about holidays and taking ourselves off for weekends here and there.  We have little challenges that probably isn’t much to other people... Like learning how to drive!  Sometimes we’re finding at the moment we could be trying to do too much.  But for the most part whilst that may be the case at times, we’re very much enjoying life, each other and our world.  And we’re very content personally.  We’re very content in our work and with our surroundings and what we’re doing.  Someone asked me before, “What’s your long terms plans?”  Who knows what will happen.  I’m living for now and I’m enjoying my nows, for all that they’re giving me... and whatever life throws me in ten years’ time, well I’ll deal with that when it comes.

Perhaps hopefully maybe, when we’re out a while longer... obviously I’m dealing with the biological clock -- it’s not allowing me much time left but perhaps that could be another added dimension to our lives at some stage.  And if it doesn’t happen, by nature or choice, I think we’ll still have quite fulfilling lives.  So that’s about as much as I can tell you.
 

* Prison images from Armagh and Kilmainham jails -- Thanks to Armagh City & District Council and Kilmainham Jail Museum for permission to videotape


Related transcripts:

Prisoners issues:
Ella O'Dwyer
Siobhan
Roseleen Walsh
Republican movement:
Bernadette McAliskey
Padraigin Drinan
Mary Nelis

Related resources:

Irish Republican information and history
"Released Women Prisoners Tell of Their Struggle"
Irish Prisoners of War
CAIN (Conflict Archive on the Net)
"Ireland's Sisterhood of Silence"
The Good Friday Agreement
Saoirse Prisoners' Campaign
Report on the Use of Plastic Bullets and Strip Searching of Women Prisoners
Article on"NHS failing mentally ill inmates"
Info on women Cat As currently in Durham

Also see the peace and justice in Northern Ireland portion of the links page

 

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