'Women in Northern Ireland: Cultural Studies and Material Conditions', by Megan Sullivan
[Key_Events] Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]
WOMEN: [Menu] [Reading] [Summary] [Background] [Main_Pages] [Statistics] [Sources]
The following chapter has been contributed by the author Megan Sullivan, with the permission of University Press of Florida. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
The following extract is taken from the book:
Women in Northern Ireland
This chapter is copyright Megan Sullivan (© 1999) and is included
on the CAIN site by permission of the author and the publishers. You may not edit, adapt,
or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use
without the express written permission of the author or the publisher, University Press of Florida. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.
From the cover:
While writers about Northern Ireland traditionally discuss public events, Sullivan argues that no permanent solution to the troubles will be possible until the public deals with such issues as housing, poverty, unemployment, and domestic violence. Because the plight of Northern Irish prisoners has been an important component of the peace process, she uses prison as a metaphor and as a point of departure to discuss patriarchy in general.
Incorporating material that has been difficult to access for most North American readers, and focusing on issues that have only recently been studied, Women in Northern Ireland maps a new direction for the intersection of Irish studies and cultural studies.
Women in Northern Ireland:
Roisin McAliskey and the Discourse of Incarceration:
In March of 1998, British home secretary Jack Straw freed Roisin McAliskey, twenty-six-year-old daughter of Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, civil rights activist and former MP for Mid-Ulster (1969-74). In 1996, Roisin was taken from her mother’s home in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, and interrogated at Castlereagh Detention Center for six days. Though she was never officially charged, McAliskey was incarcerated in connection with an IRA attack on a British army barrack in Germany. When Straw freed her, he did so by quoting psychiatric reports that said extraditing McAliskey to Germany would be "unjust and oppressive. Besides, it was doubtful that the evidence used to imprison her would be upheld in court. One man who had originally identified McAliskey as the perpetrator later recanted; handwriting analyses used against her were never corroborated; the fingerprints found at the scene could have been placed there (Britain and Ireland Human Rights Centre 1997). Besides, according to Devlin McAliskey (1997), McAliskey was working in Northern Ireland at the time of the mortar attack. For the purposes of this book, the details surrounding McAliskey are most important because they demonstrate how her case has been gendered. In the details we find how others have perceived her story and what McAliskey’s case tells us about women and material conditions.
Prison narratives and the way the public perceives imprisonment testify to the material conditions that beset women in the North. Ultimately, when we analyze narratives of incarceration by Northern Irish prisoners, we see that texts by women suggest clear plans of action and outline the relation between their stories and the material, social, and economic conditions for women inside and outside prison. In contradistinction, male narratives of incarceration tend to focus on particular scenes of British injustice and on the relationship between male inmates. Let us begin our exploration of prison narratives by examining cases such as McAliskey’s to discern how she was constructed and then move toward narratives written by other prisoners.
The Roisin McAliskey Case
McAliskey was viewed as a pregnant female because she was pregnant at the time of her arrest; some suggest that the British government used her pregnancy to intimidate her. When the government of the Republic discussed McAliskey’s case, it usually spoke first of her pregnancy, highlighting her gender. Though her family seemed most concerned with McAliskey’s overall health and treatment in prison, it too discussed her pregnancy. Yet, ultimately, McAliskey and her family asked that McAliskey’s case be seen as an example of an oppressive state.
Though she had never been arrested before, and despite the fact that nobody was hurt in the mortar attack she was accused of participating in, McAliskey was automatically categorized as Special Category A Prisoner; this categorization created particular problems for her as a woman and was decried by an international community. McAliskey was regularly strip-searched, had limited access to visitors, and had restricted exercise. While these conditions would have been difficult for any prisoner, they were especially counterproductive for a pregnant woman: McAliskey’s body was changing, and regular strip-searching made her more uncomfortable; the limited exercise could have hurt the fetus. Moreover, McAliskey has said she was told that prison authorities planned for her to give birth shackled to guards, and that her child could be taken away from her after birth; with limited access to visitors, she found it hard not to believe this story. McAliskey’s security status meant that she had two guards with her at all times and that she was not allowed to use the mother and infant birthing center at Holloway (Britain’s women’s prison) if others were there at the same time. Most likely there would be other women using the center when McAliskey was to give birth. The point here is that while Special Category A status is no doubt difficult for all prisoners, it is especially confining for pregnant women.
Eventually, McAliskey’s security status was downgraded to Category A; while she was still guarded and under heavy restrictions, she was allowed to be hospitalized for the birth of her child. She gave birth in a London psychiatric hospital, where she remained until she was said to be well enough to return to Northern Ireland. That McAliskey’s incarceration would be gendered, however, was obvious immediately after she was taken into custody.
McAliskey’s interrogation after her arrest suggests that police treated her in a particular way because she was a woman and because she was the daughter of a political activist. According to independent reports by human rights organizations, after she was arrested, McAliskey was interrogated for six days and for twelve hours per day. In an attempt to psychologically damage her and to demonstrate that they saw McAliskey as a product of a Republican family, at one point during the interrogation the police brought in an officer who fifteen years earlier had carried McAliskey’s sister and brother outside the home where their parents lay critically wounded by loyalist gunfire. Roisin was unharmed during the shooting. The officer recounted the events of the day her parents were shot. After interrogation and because of her security status, McAliskey was flown to an all-male prison in London. She was placed in a cell within a cell of seventy males; the cell was dirty and was said to have been used by men on the dirt strike (Britain and Ireland Human Rights Centre). Although this could be seen as a way Roisin McAliskey was desexed, putting her in a male cell actually had the effect of highlighting not only that she was a woman but also that she was an extraordinarily deviant woman. Why else would she need to be placed in a male cell, a cell formerly occupied by the most intransigent prisoners? But it was not this "desexing" that proved most harmful. According to several reports, when she was brought to London, the police psychiatrist said that her initial interrogation had already damaged McAliskey’s mental health.
McAliskey’s gender also had a direct effect on the economics of her incarceration. When she was three days away from going into labor, the British government allowed that McAliskey could be transferred to a hospital to give birth. According to her solicitor, Gareth Peirce, and as reported in several newspapers, there were strict rules regarding the transfer: McAliskey must agree to reside twenty-four hours per day in the hospital’s mother and baby unit; her family must pay a surety of £100,000; a £95,000 security note must be deposited with her solicitors; and she must agree to consent to all future medical and psychiatric reports. A pregnant, incarcerated women categorized as a high risk must pay money to the government if she wants to deliver her baby in a hospital.
There was an international outcry against McAliskey’s arrest, an outcry which often focused on her treatment as a pregnant woman. A House of Commons motion echoed Amnesty International’s contention that "if she is still in custody at the time of her confinement, she will not be able to use the mother and baby unit at Holloway Prison if it is being used by other prisoners" (Borrill). The British government was urged to reconsider its "cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment" of the prisoner (Borrill). The Republic of Ireland had not pushed for bail for McAliskey because it understood that "Miss McAliskey could not be involved in any subversive action while heavily pregnant or in labor" (Ford). The Republic’s response to McAliskey is interesting on two levels: One, the government was working hard to broker a peace settlement and would want to be seen as supportive of the daughter of a nationalist activist. Second, enshrined in the government’s constitution is a recognition of a woman’s special role as a mother. When it made the case that McAliskey could not be involved in terrorist activity because she was pregnant and therefore did not need bail to be moved to a hospital, the government in the Republic was relying on preconceived notions of motherhood. To be a mother means not to be a terrorist. While I have no desire to argue the feasibility of being a mother and a terrorist, I do want to suggest that from the beginning, McAliskey was perceived as a mother by both governments. The discourse of these responses underscores the specifically gendered nature of McAliskey’s case, yet the support for McAliskey is more helpful when it moves from the personal to a discussion of women’s particular material concerns with respect to incarceration.
As a result of McAliskey’s imprisonment, the European Parliament, in its annual human rights report, called for "provisions throughout the EU of appropriate facilities for pregnant women held in detention" (O’Sullivan). In the same report, Ireland was criticized for its "restriction of freedom of opinion where a law prohibits publication of any material in favor of abortion" (O’Sullivan). Thus, in one report, the connection was made between women’s position in Irish society - their right to information regarding reproductive choice - and the inadequate facilities for Irish women in British prisons. The lack of provisions for women within Irish culture is reflected in British and Irish prisons, where women are not guaranteed particular freedoms and are punished in a way that is perceived to be most harmful to them as women (see chapter 3 for a fuller explanation of the effects of gender on incarceration and punishment).
McAliskey’s case is significant as well because discussion about it highlights the tension between right-to-life supporters in Ireland and pro-choice activists, a tension which was especially contentious in the 1980s and is still debated in the 1990s (see Alibhe Smyth, The Abortion Papers). Most virulent in its attack against a woman’s right to choose has been SPUC, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. Yet in April, responding to McAliskey’s incarceration, Dr. Mary Lucy, the president of SPUC, asked the society’s sister organization in England to address prison authorities regarding McAliskey. Bernadette Devlin McAliskey has been an outspoken opponent of SPUC, and SPUC has consistently sought to represent itself as an "antipolitical" organization, by which it means that it is separate from and does not intervene into the conflict in Northern Ireland. Yet as McAliskey’s case illustrates, women and their material concerns (such as pregnancy) can never be entirely separate from the conflict in Northern Ireland; by association, neither can the focus on abortion in the South be entirely separate from other political realities in the Republic and Northern Ireland. Lucy notes the unusual nature of SPUC’s intervention into the McAliskey case: "We are primarily a pro-life, antiabortion society and we have nothing to do with [political] campaigns as such, but we would also have a duty, an obligation to protect Irish mothers from the effects of abortion and to protect the life of the unborn child, so it [McAliskey’s case] would be within our remit to some degree" (quoted in John Connolly).
While SPUC denies that it is a "political" organization, and while Sinn Fein’s policy document on a woman’s right to choose is ambivalent (see chapter 2), McAliskey’s case indicates that there cannot be a separation between women’s material conditions and national conflict. SPUC’s involvement testifies that movements about women and their concerns and "political" movements can and do inform one another.
Because she was incarcerated, McAliskey underscored the connections between the material conditions that beset women and the conflict in Northern Ireland. Yet the discourse of the case suggests the extent to which gendered presuppositions affect and can alter national and international decisions. While it is true that because they invoked her pregnancy to discuss McAliskey, politicians and others were defining her incarceration in terms of her gendered status with all that the history of Irish womanhood suggests, it is also true that McAliskey’s pregnancy has forced a recognition of inadequate policy regarding women and incarceration. Roisin McAliskey and her mother have both tried to foreground the institutional concerns about women and incarceration.
In her interview with Radio Free Eireann, Devlin McAliskey (1997) said that her daughter’s arrest "formed a part of a systematic pattern of aggressive harassment and intimidation of community groups in West Belfast accompanied by the arrests of young women who worked in the area, were computer literate and were vulnerable because of pregnancy or recent childbirth." Devlin McAliskey’s socialist principles encourage her to recognize institutional patterns rather than individual wrongs (see chapter 4). If she is correct, police targeted women, especially women who were perceived to be vulnerable because they were pregnant or had recently given birth. According to Devlin McAliskey, police also targeted women who were computer literate. Interestingly, in a workingclass area such as West Belfast, women who are employed and who have marketable skills are said to be targets for arrest.
Roisin McAliskey was granted release in March of 1998 on the grounds of her ill mental health. However, in an open letter she posted over the Internet that month to discuss the need for institutional change in prisons, McAliskey appeared thoughtful and emotionally healthy. McAliskey’s case was assisted by her family’s use of the Internet and the "Free Roisin McAliskey Website." Browsers were asked to inform themselves about the case and to write letters to Roisin and on her behalf. In her open letter of thanks broadcast over the Internet to her supporters, McAliskey draws attention to the specific plight of women in prison. In the letter, McAliskey names herself as a Category A Prisoner, Holloway Prison. The overt text of the letter is that she wishes to thank people for thinking about her because incarceration has taught her that the only things people cannot take from you are your thoughts. She then begins the crux of her discussion: prison conditions. "Although everyone knows what a prison is, I don’t think anyone can imagine ‘how’ it is until they experience it." How it is, according to McAliskey, is colorless, tasteless, and lifeless. Yet for Irish female prisoners, she states, it is even worse:
It’s the closed and controlled [prison] environment that leads to closed and biased minds. Out of nearly 30 women with children in prison, only two would sit in a room with me. But when I’m treated like such a danger that I’m put in a high security male prison, why wouldn’t they be fearful and object to having to associate with what is presented as a threat to the little they have for themselves. There is a prison rule that prisoners cannot share, lend or give anything to other prisoners. So that while you are removed from your family and friends, you are prevented from building new relationships. But if you are an Irish prisoner in England, they segregate you - build a prison within their prison. With the men, they house them in S.S.U.- Special Secure Unit! And as they haven’t got a S.S.U. for females, I get a human equivalent, with two "shadow" officers accompanying at all times, human bookends, giving me my own prison within a prison.
According to McAliskey, Irish prisoners in Britain generally feel different from the regular prison population, but female prisoners who are treated as a security risk feel even more alienated. When the British government placed her in a male prison, the implication was that McAliskey was such a deviant woman (a terrorist) that she could not be housed with "ordinary decent" female prisoners. When they treated her as a security risk because they considered her a Republican and because of her mother’s political activity, the British government set the stage for McAliskey to be ostracized.
The case of Roisin McAliskey was most productively analyzed when it was discussed in terms of specific material concerns for women, especially their treatment when incarcerated. Her case should also be contextualized within what I am calling here prison narratives, or the discourse of incarceration. Taken together, male and female prison narratives will indicate how we read incarceration.
Male Incarceration Narratives: Camaraderie and Oppression
When they acknowledge female nationalists or Republicans at all, men often construct women as long-suffering martyrs for the Irish cause; Irish men who are incarcerated describe themselves as the ones who are oppressed. However, the men also construct their heroism and their camaraderie with other Republican men. In Cage Eleven Gerry Adams writes about his coming of age in prison. In the foreword to his book, Adams acknowledges that his chapters, most of them derived from articles he wrote while he was incarcerated and published in Republican journals, are "lighthearted" (13). He assures the reader that Long Kesh Prison was not a happy place, but that nevertheless "POWs were happy, funny, enjoyable people who made the best of their predicament" (13). This ethos of making the best of a bad situation not only would be familiar to an Irish audience (and to those who recognize the Republic and Northern Ireland’s beleaguered history) but also underscores the resiliency of Republican men.
Cage Eleven was published in 1990 when Adams had already been president of Sinn Fein and MP for West Belfast, so it is unclear whether or not the foreword, with its more cerebral consideration of his topic, reflects his new position or simply illustrates his maturity. Written several years after his incarceration, in the foreword Adams reminds us of the importance of personal history for political prisoners, and he notes that all the males in his family have been incarcerated: "Almost twenty years have passed since Long Kesh was opened and through the years it has been a constant element in the lives of all the members of my family. On any of these many days since then at least one of us has been in there. ... our female family members.., have spent almost twenty years visiting prisons" (12). Like other prison narratives, Adams’s acknowledges the impact of familial incarceration on a prisoner; many incarcerated Republicans grew up in families where their parents and/or siblings were also imprisoned.
Adams’s consideration of the women who visited men for twenty years may reflect the movement within Sinn Fein to highlight the roles of women; according to the Sinn Fein Women’s Department, Adams has been very supportive of the department’s work and its efforts to remind others of the plight of women in the Republican community. In an interview with Laura E. Lyons, Mairead Keane, who was then head of Sinn Fein Women’s Department, said that "Gerry Adams actively campaigns in rural and in urban areas - wherever he goes - to make sure that women are on the platform. He talks about the need to involve women in the struggle, and in Sinn Fein’s Belfast office, there have been many events and efforts to recognize women’s involvement in the struggle in the last twenty-some years" (Quoted in Lyons, 267).
Importantly, Adams’s foreword is one of the few male prison narratives to mention women who have spent years visiting men; thus his acknowledgment of the role of some Republican women is significant. Yet the narrative itself does not discuss women in any detail; when women are mentioned, they are named as the girlfriend or wife of a prisoner. Toward the conclusion of Cage Eleven, Adams consoles a friend whose wife can no longer tolerate the life of a prisoner’s wife, although she loves her husband. The book’s table of contents also indicates that the narrative is a guide for other Republican prisoners: There are chapter headings such as "Early Risers" (negotiating the differences between cell mates and prisoners); "Screws" (understanding the guards); "The H-Block" (acknowledging the history of political protest in prison); and "Dear John" (contending with the fact that your wife might leave you when you are in prison). This last chapter is particularly poignant, but it serves to suggest the friendship and camaraderie of two men and does not focus on the woman. In this final section, Adams describes how he consoled his fellow prisoner whose wife has just told him she wants a separation: "He didn’t look at me. He didn’t need to. He knew I cried with him, sad little tears of solidarity and love" (148). The two are so close, and Adams is so empathetic as a fellow Republican, that no words are needed. Adams notes, too, that he has written his story in hopes that other male and female Republican prisoners will "recognize themselves" in his words. Yet there is no chapter specific to women and their needs, nor is there a discussion of women who will wait for men to be released. Because Adams’s story is told from a male perspective, one might not automatically expect to find a chapter on women, but there were women in prison when he was and when his narrative was published. However, when a female prisoner or a female family member of a prisoner reads this book, she will not find her specific plight illustrated. She will not read about the specifically gendered conditions some women writers and filmmakers explore when they discuss incarceration: economic and financial security when a partner is imprisoned; treatment of female prisoners; strip-searching and women, and women’s rights in prison.
While Adams’s narrative may not adequately discuss a female experience, it is important that he highlights male camaraderie. One could analyze this male friendship as merely a necessary force for the psychological survival of long-term prisoners; no doubt some would find in particular prison narratives an erotic component to male friendships as well. Yet what I find poignant here is that the male friendships described are seemingly unusual. Does this mean that some males in Northern Ireland do not readily have access to male friendships in Irish society and only find them in jail? Or is Adams subtly enticing other men into a "brotherhood" that comes with IRA membership?
Women do not necessarily focus on such female community in their narratives. Perhaps female communities are more readily available to them in Northern Ireland and are thus not the aberration in prison that they are for men. More probably, the desire for female community does not itself compel women to participate in Republicanism. Instead, women write about what does compel them to fight: material conditions. Ultimately, though, Adams’s is a male coming-of-age story, albeit one that takes place in prison. The female prison narratives I have read are not specifically coming-of-age stories because women do not focus on how they grew as women or into adulthood while imprisoned. Rather, they detail what prison reforms need to be made.
Adams provides some history of imprisonment in Northern Ireland and includes a poignant letter describing his sorrow for a family accidentally killed during an IRA mission. Yet his narrative essentially recounts the story of men who serve their time together and, in the process, form a bond. Adams and two other prisoners tell stories and laugh. One recounts his embarrassment upon being roused for an early morning prison wake-up call and finding that his pant legs had been sewn together. Of this prank played upon him by his cell mates, the prisoner states, according to Adams, "it wasn’t fair, making an eejit of me in front of the Brits. Not a very Republican thing to do" (143). When he describes the pranks the men play upon one another and even when Adams recounts poignant moments of friendship and humor, he reinforces the bond between and among Republican men who are incarcerated. Yet, significantly, he never specifically suggests a call for action, nor does he use his story as an opportunity to educate others about the history of the conflict or its particular effects upon people. He also offers very little thought-provoking or intellectual discussion of incarceration.
Other narratives by men also fail to offer concrete suggestions for change, though they do suggest what is wrong with incarceration simply by detailing atrocities that take place in prison.
In accounts of the 1980 and 1981 hunger strikes and of the "H Block Struggle," male prisoners who participated in "no-wash" programs and hunger strikes describe their physical violation by prison authorities. Yet they also describe their own spirit and vitality, a vitality fostered by male camaraderie. Ultimately, male Republicans who write about incarceration construct themselves as agents of change. In Nor Meekly Serve My Time: The H Block Struggle, 1976-1981, Brian Campbell and his co-authors note that the blanket men (those who refused to wash and clothe in protest) were "historians, people who not only changed history but were themselves changed by it" (xvi). One prisoner describes his incarceration during the hunger strikes:
The worst thing was the constant fear. From half-seven in the morning when the screws [guards] came on to the wing until half-eight at night when they left again, we never knew the moment our door would open and two or three of them would come in to slap and punch us about. Usually it would be under the pretext of a "cell search." We all wore a blanket wrapped around our waist and at some point during the search they’d ask for a blanket as if to search it too. Then, as we stood naked, they’d invent some excuse to hit us. There’s an awful feeling of defenselessness when you’re standing naked in front of people who are hostile to you. (II)
While there is no doubt that men were the victims of this physical abuse, women detail physical abuse less, perhaps because they encounter the abuse less frequently, or perhaps because detailing the abuse has become a more common hallmark of the male prison narrative.
In addition to chronicling physical abuse, many prison narratives by men, especially those that discuss the 1980s, focus on the body. The Thatcher government’s withdrawal of "Special Category" status in 1976 meant that Republican prisoners were not seen as political prisoners, although they were still tried and sentenced by Diplock courts. The Diplock courts replaced three-judge courts with one judge. The courts were instituted in 1972 when Lord Diplock wrote his report on possible changes to the legal system in Northern Ireland. They allowed the following: the suspension of a jury trial for certain offenses, relaxed rules on the admissibility of evidence, and wider powers of arrest for the security forces. Though the Diplock courts were set up as an attempt to find a replacement for internment, they were only slightly less barbaric than internment. When "Special Category" was withdrawn, Republican prisoners went on a "blanket protest" in 1976; they refused to wear normal prison clothes and garbed themselves in blankets. The "dirty protest" followed; the men smeared excrement on cell walls and floors. In 1980 and 1981, there were two hunger strikes. During the hunger strikes and no-wash strikes, Republican men used their bodies as sites of resistance, so their discussion of the body is understandable. Yet because of the history of Catholicism and its repression of the body, male narratives that focus on the body have a peculiar resonance in a country that has had to tolerate centuries of religious oppression and has been affected by religious indictments against the flesh.
Republican prisoners who protested by not washing themselves or their cells were sometimes physically forced to bathe. Although many narratives relate this experience as traumatic, several men suggest that even more difficult was the experience of being searched for contraband or "illicit material" such as pens and paper or cigarettes. One prisoner describes such a search: "They [the guards] would kick and punch, drag and trail us along the landing up to cell 26 where they forced us over a mirror" (Campbell et al. 88). Another prisoner recalls a similar event: "When they got me bent over the mirror one of them said he could see something. When I refused they told me to face the wall. I said ‘no,’ so one of them grabbed me by the hair and turned me round. Two more turned my arms upon my back. ... then two more screws came and lifted my legs into the air. This left me upside-down with my head between my legs" (Campbell et al. 90-91). Feminists in particular have analyzed the use of one’s body for political purposes; also, women have been acutely aware of how their bodies have been constructed in the public and private sphere. In the context of the Republic and Northern Ireland, and with respect to prison narratives, however, there is a difference, and that difference is colonization.
The decision of the blanket men to use their body as a form of protest had its genesis in the desire to use what had been previously brutalized: the men chose to use their bodies as sites of resistance in prison because prison guards often inflicted harm upon their bodies, and, more important, because the British government refused to see their bodies as political. Yet as some (post)colonial scholars have argued, the body of the colonized "other" is often eroticized by the colonizer. Male prisoners seek to use their body because it has been prohibited and "othered," but one wonders if when they focus on the body, Republican prison narratives necessarily subvert this eroticization. Certainly, though the above-quoted treatment of a man being searched is disquieting to a reader, it is not necessarily subversive; rather, it is descriptive. Although they refused to wear prison uniforms, prisoners did refuse to remain naked; thus, donning the blanket in the first place was an act of resistance. Republican prisoners describe their physical violation in part because they recognize that readers will be correctly appalled by this violation and will therefore be more sympathetic to their concerns, but such descriptions, in themselves, do not call for specific changes within the prison system. Their stories imply that change is needed. However, because they are so consumed by the intransigence of the British government, Republican men fail to locate specific agents of change elsewhere.
The no-wash protest and the hunger strikes were an attempt to force the British government to recognize not only that Republican prisoners were indeed political prisoners but also that this government must treat them as such. Social policy analyst Mike Tomlinson, with his coauthors, underscores the veracity of the inmates’ contention when he states that "since the emergence of the modern prison system in the 19th century, penal policies and prison regimes in Ireland have been strongly influenced by the containment of political disorder, specifically militant Irish nationalism and republicanism" (Tomlinson, O’Dowd, and Rolston 195). Although it wishes to "criminalize" Republicans and view them as "ordinary decent criminals" who thus have no political agenda and are not fighting a political opponent, Tomlinson argues that the British government’s actions with respect to incarceration suggest otherwise. Tomlinson insists that the British government clearly sees Irish prisoners as being politically motivated, and this becomes obvious when one examines the specific rules the government has constructed for the extradition, transfer, and sentencing of, and security arrangements for, Republican and loyalist prisoners.
Importantly, Tomlinson highlights the difference between the criminalization of male and female Irish political prisoners. He argues that "women political prisoners have also been subject to criminalisation, but in their case the pressure came in the form of sexual violence - the authorities’ insistence in strip searching by force any prisoner who refused to comply with this ‘security’ measure" (219). Female prisoners have indeed written about strip searches and "sexual violence." The men in Campbell’s collection do contend with sexual violence, but while the men acknowledge the abuse inflicted on their body as physical abuse, some women clearly see strip-searching as a form of sexual violence. Women perceive strip searches as a form of sexual violence because the prison instituted the policy of searches in accordance with its view of gender. Yet rather than focus on whether women and/or men see bodily abuse as sexual violence, we need to analyze how readers think about what is being done to prisoners. When they read prison narratives, scholars should be at least as attuned to audience response as are the authors of the prison narratives. Only then will they fully comprehend the significance of how women and men conceive of abuse in prison.
Female Incarceration Narratives: Justice Now and for the Future
Two now-infamous women who were once imprisoned for alleged Republican activity have written about the rigors of prison, their political backgrounds, and the importance of the lessons of the prison for a future Ireland. These lessons encourage a recognition of women and material conditions.
On February 27, 1975 Aíne and Eibhlin Nic Giolla Easpaig (Gillespie) were sentenced to fifteen years in jail at Manchester Crown Court. They were charged with conspiracy to cause explosions because the two were found in a home where bomb explosives were being made. After they were released, they wrote about their experiences. In Sisters in Cells. Two Republican Prisoners in England (1987), the Gillespies begin their story by putting it in context: they describe their background and their formative years in England and Ireland. The women acknowledge that their brother’s imprisonment and the fact that the Gillespie family home was searched when the two were adolescents may have influenced their political activism, though they profess to be innocent of the charges that were levied against them. Also significant is that their brother taught them Irish national history. Especially in chapter 2, this book acknowledges how the (nationalist) tutelage of young women affects them.
When they talk about the rigors of prison, the Gillespies recount strip searches: "Everything was searched before you were allowed to put any of your clothes back on - hair, ears, mouth, toes etc." (73). The problem of strip searches appears in accounts by other prisoners as well. In Women in Struggle/Mina I Streachailt, issued by Sinn Fein Women’s Department, Republican prisoners in Maghaberry Prison (Northern Ireland’s female prison) recount the 1992 forced strip-searching of Republican prisoners (POWs Maghaberry). According to one of these prisoners, after she was forcibly strip-searched and no contraband was found, guards ordered her to clothe herself. She refused. "At my insistence, they dressed me" (5). This prisoner concludes by noting that although on March 2, 1992, twenty-one Republican prisoners were forcibly strip-searched, no contraband material was found (5). She contends that the searches were "a further attempt by the jail and its administration to humiliate, degrade and control us women POWs by stripping us naked and violating our bodies in this way" (5). The prisoner states that although the event has left "my body feeling battered and abused, my mind and resolve to continue to oppose strip searches remains steadfast" (5). Importantly, in this account, the prisoner refuses not only to comply with the demands of authority but also to clothe herself - to cover up what has been done to her. Like her male counterparts, her narrative is a tale of physical violation. However, she implicitly tells us how she resists this violation by refusing to clothe herself and by forcing the authorities to cover up what they did. The female prisoner who was forcibly stripped wants the guards and the British government to see that even though they abuse her because they see her as a criminal, she will use her body as a site of political resistance. The woman who is stripped wants those who abused her to see their action not only as physical abuse but also as sexual abuse, or at least as abuse dictated by her gender. There is no similar account in the stories I read by men.
Strip searches and no-wash protests have also become important because they were obvious divisive issues within the women’s movement. In the 1980s, some female prisoners embarked on a no-wash protest, and several women went on hunger strikes to protest Britain’s decision to revoke political status. In her provocative article, journalist and feminist Nell McCafferty says that "It is my belief that Armagh is a feminist issue." She contends that for feminists, especially for women in the Republic and Northern Ireland who are often oppressed by religious and state doctrine, bodily integrity crosses nationalist lines. Not all in the women’s movement agree, however.
In Tell Them Everything: A Sojourn in the Prison of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth at Ard Macha (Armagh) (1981), the autobiographical narrative of one women’s political activism and incarceration, writer Margaretta D’Arcy recalls furious debates at women’s conferences in Dublin. As she remembers, when women were asked to support Republican women even if they did not agree with nationalism or Republicanism, they responded, "What about battered wives? One-parent families? Divorce? Contraception? These are the real women’s issues, not trying to overthrow the state" (quoted in D’Arcy, 120). The women’s movement was split between those who would support Republican women and the no-wash protest as females, and those who felt unable to support women who were convicted of Republican activity. D’Arcy states that it was "amazing how many women calling themselves feminists, closed their eyes, blocked up their ears, and ran to their political parties - Fine Gael, Sinn Fein the Workers’ Party, and the Irish Labour Party - seeking urgent reassurance in the old patriarchal priorities of women s needs" (120). While I agree that the questions women asked indicated the divisions within the movement, and while chapter 2 discusses these divisions more fully, I would read the women’s remarks slightly differently than does D’Arcy. The questions suggested not only women’s resistance to Republicanism but also their preoccupation with their material conditions. Their questions also revealed, however, that the site of the prison brings to light these concerns. Those unable to support what they term "blowing up the state" felt this way in part because they were too concerned with their own material difficulties. Some women who could not support the female prisoners also wanted to work with the state they already had because they were not convinced that "blowing it up" would alter the status of women. Nevertheless, by calling our attention to women’s responses, D’Arcy indicates what happened when the women’s movement failed to acknowledge the concerns of Republican and nationalist women.
In D’Arcy’s narrative of her three-month imprisonment, she describes the reaction when she and another prisoner give a lecture to other Republican prisoners and political activists. D’Arcy recounts the event: "The questions expressed what we already know to be their [Republican women’s] prejudices: abortion, lesbianism, why were we [in the women’s movement] men-haters, the Catholic Church" (107). The Republican prisoners, as mostly Catholic women, were fairly conservative in their beliefs and failed to see the women’s movement’s support of abortion and homosexuality, for example, as important to their struggle for national freedom. Their response gives credence to some in the women’s movement who see the conservatism of Republican women as proof that they are subservient to Republican men, who will continue to oppress them after the conflict in Ireland has been resolved. Yet the prisoners’ forceful questioning of what they viewed as the important issues within the women’s movement reveals their real contention: the women’s movement assumes the prisoners are handmaidens of Republican men, and fails to see the incarcerated women as autonomous agents for political change. D’Arcy underscores what she learned from her discussions with the female prisoners: "By implication we [the women’s movement] were saying that the Republican Movement had not recognized their struggle in the jail as having an identity of its own and that it was no more than support for the men" (108).
The prisoners’ questions, put forward during a lecture in the prison block, illustrate to D’Arcy what the women’s movement had done. "We had never opened up channels of communication with them, so that they could have followed the debates, and taken the opportunity of letting their voices be heard..., we had been fighting on their behalf without ever asking them if they wanted it" (109). D’Arcy’s narrative concludes with her solution, one she recognizes as a result of the actions of female prisoners. She notes that when three women who were serving time for alleged Republican activity went on hunger strikes for political status, they invited their "sisters in Ireland and throughout the world to stand and be counted" (quoted on 122). According to D’Arcy, their call should be understood by "women all over the world who are victims of state imperialism and personal imperialism" (122). Clearly, D’Arcy thinks international female solidarity is the answer to women’s oppression. Her use of the terms "state" and "personal" imperialism suggest that she sees state oppression as equally reprehensible as "personal" imperialism. Thus, for D’Arcy, even women who do not wish to "overthrow the state" but who do feel personally oppressed (by patriarchy and economic inequality) must join forces with the female prisoners. Ultimately, in her prison narrative, D’Arcy does more than detail female friendship or bodily integrity: She advocates an international and cross-cultural female solidarity.
In the conclusion of their narrative, Sisters in Cells: Two Republican Prisoners in England, Aine and Eibhlin Nic Giolla Easpaig (Gillespie) suggest different solutions to the conflict in Ireland, but they also do so by centering their concerns on the site of the prison. At the end of the description of their background, arrest, and incarceration, the Gillespies announce what others must analyze in order to find a solution in Ireland. First, they speak out against the farce of prison reform: "We found in the prisons a regime ill-suited to be part of an effort by the state - by society - not only to punish prisoners but to try and reform them" (156). They think the prison system in general, and the British institution in particular, is too corrupt. They also register the hazards of inadequate prison health care, and the failure to adequately address the problems faced by Irish prisoners in Britain. They greatly lament what they see as the unproductive and degrading practice of strip-searching. They note that strip-searching has failed to provide "any apparent results that would make sense" (159).
Independent reports have confirmed their suspicions. In 1985, David Roche, chief executive officer, Irish Information Partnership, presented his report entitled Strip Searches at Her Majesty's Prison for Women. Armagh, Northern Ireland According to Roche, strip searches were "reintroduced" at Armagh Prison in 1982 "in the interests of Security and the safe custody of inmates" (quoted in Roche I) but have failed to yield appreciable results. Roche states:
There appears to be technical doubt about the need for the practice. But there is also doubt about the technical effectiveness of mechanical substitutes. If the purpose of the strip search is to discover material such as explosives or metal objects held externally by a prisoner and which would put in jeopardy the security of the prison, metal detectors and explosive detectors are available and could be used as a substitute to some degree. Metal detectors are, for instance, used during rub-down searches in Armagh and other prisons in Northern Ireland. By the British Government’s own admission, the searches do not cover the orifices and thus forbidden material (including explosives or bullets concealed in the orifices) cannot be discovered by strip searches. (8)
Roche concludes: "Therefore, on technical grounds alone, the real purpose of the strip search policy in Northern Ireland remains, in the view of the Partnership, equivocal and the necessity of the policy on security grounds is still unproven by Government statements" (8).
The report also states that the material discovered by strip searches to date "does not support the argument that the searches contribute to the maintenance of security" (8). Independent reports as well as analyses by women after their release from prison indicate the failure of strip searches. The Gillespies protest strip-searching not only because it is degrading but also because it does not work. They attack the failed logic of the activity, not the broad injustice of it.
Finally, the Gillespie sisters use their book to assert the "total innocence" of Annie Maguire, convicted with the Birmingham Eight on spurious evidence. They note, too, that when they were in prison, they were not especially friendly with Maguire. Maguire is now out of jail and still working to prove her innocence; when they assert that she is not guilty, the Gillespie sisters offer their words as a "reminder to all those in authority or with influence who have remained silent" (146). They do not focus on female friendship but rather use their prison narrative to argue for institutional change. While the sisters do not call themselves feminists and do not, as does D’Arcy, call for feminist solidarity, they do highlight the cases of other women, both those who are political prisoners and also "ordinary decent criminals."
The Gillespie sisters were released in 1983 after serving a fifteen-year jail sentence in Britain minus the legally allowable remission time, or time off for good behavior. The Armagh Jail has been closed and will be turned into a museum, as has Kilmainham Gaol, the site of the incarceration of Anne Devlin, another nationalist prisoner. New female prisons are being built in Dublin and in Northern Ireland.
Wherever they are incarcerated, female prisoners will, as we have seen, tend to write different accounts of their prison experience than will male prisoners. Female narratives call for a recognition of other female prisoners and how they demonstrate the material-economic, gender, cultural-concerns of Irish women, concerns which are brought to the forefront because women are incarcerated. Prison narratives by women also argue for institutional change inside and, by association, outside prison. Their incarceration suggests the material needs of women outside of the prison by underscoring the different forms of inequality women on the inside and outside endure because of their gender. Women writers detail injustice in many genres, but they remain consistent in their focus on specific material conditions.
In addition to prison narratives, fiction, film, and theater by women detail the complex role of nationalist and Republican women. The following chapters will examine material conditions and incarceration as written about and portrayed by women in the arts.
From the back cover:
"Sullivan is among those emerging feminist cultural critics who are breaking a critical silence: her study of fiction, films and plays by Northern Irish women not only charts new territory in Irish studies, it also provides a model for doing Irish cultural criticism."
Katherine Kirkpatrick, editor of Border Crossings: Irish Women Writers and National Identity
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within the University of Ulster.
Last modified :