Ireland's OWN: History
Beyond the Wire
—Excerpts from 'A Diary From Derry'*
This book was developed from a meeting of local community activists in 1996. It was apparent that a vacuum existed around recording and documenting local woman’s stories and histories about the conflict in the north.
Its relevancy was startling. For so many years local women had struggled financially and emotionally to maintain a relationship with a partner imprisoned. For most being inside meant a double sentence. Organising visits twice a week, buying food parcels, organising baby sitters, and raising young families became part of life here. All of this happened against
After some discussion, and with the assistance of Feile' an Chreagain Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust and Creggan Neighborhood Partnership, we focused on the issue of prison visits and their impact on their families over the years.
a policy of discrimination and criminalisation of their loved ones. Their dignity was and continues to be remarkable.
Women developed mechanisms of self-help and support when other agencies lacked the understanding. Women supported each other in their own homes over cups of tea where they talked laughed and even cried. A great sense of "craic" was developed during these years as is apparent in some of the stories told. The "If you don't laugh you'll cry" mentality kept many a woman together and sane through hard times.
This is a tribute to all those women and in particular to those deceased whose stories should be part of this book. Women who showed great courage and leadership in those times. These interviews were carried out before and during the period of The Good Friday Agreement and the ongoing prisoner releases. It is worthwhile to note that some of these prisoners have now been released.
Mary Nelis, Sinn Fein Councillor and Assembly member for Foyle, described living in Creggan:
I moved to Creggan in 1960, to Foylehill. Creggan was pretty well built up and I went to the southern side of it. People there used to go to great lengths to distinguish that they lived in Foylehill not Creggan, although I don't know why. The roads in Rathkeele Way, when I moved in 1960 weren't finished. There was no street lighting, no schools, the church was just being built, there were some shops, then. Creggan was a very bleak place to be. First of all, it was on top of a mountain, it was very cold. The bus service was a bit of craic because then it was the double decker buses, the things you would have seen years ago, like people hanging on the back of it. That's how you got up and down to Creggan. Most women, who had wains and prams, couldn't avail of the service, we just had to walk everywhere.
Some of my first memories of Creggan, the first thing was the euphoria of getting your own home, with an indoor toilet and bathroom — coming from the Bogside, it was great. Then the difficulties of being up there and so far away from the extended family and the difficulties of accessing things and the cold, with a coal fire, no central heating and a wee pokey kitchen. The sink and cooker sort of sit on each other. If you were pregnant you caught fire! If you were washing the dishes you had to stand out, then your back would be against the cooker. It was really bad planning of the houses; nevertheless it compensated for not having the one room for yourself and four children. The people were from all parts of the city. Creggan was just a dumping ground for keeping nationalists in one ward boundary. I was very conscious about that.
The street I lived in, Rathkeele Way, was all young couples. Contraceptives and birth control weren't in our vocabulary, so you had something like 300 wains in 52 houses. The street wasn't even finished, with muck and dirt, no lights and stuff, which were more difficulties. All the mobile shops used to really rip you off! Most of us were in the unhappy position were most of our husbands or partners had no work or were in England. We were all one parent families before the phrase was even coined. Most of us relied on families and if my mother could she'd trip up and down to Creggan with my sisters. It was the issue of children, the roads not being finished, the lack of space etc., that was the cause that after a year or two we organised ourselves to try and organise this to be a proper place to live, with proper roads and proper lighting and schools.
It was a very good community, very caring community and once we all broke down, the reserve there was, when somebody new moved in, and we all got to know each other, we found that we had really special decent neighbours. And because the women were always pregnant we were always exchanging baby clothes, maternity clothes, everybody always pulled each other out. There wasn't any competition for grand houses, because none of us were in the position to have grand houses, just the bare necessities, we didn't have anything particularly grand, that's Creggan.Can you remember your first visit to Gaol?
I really started going to prisons as soon as prisons came into being; to visit people I knew who were interned. I visited Magilligan when it was an internment camp, the Long Kesh, just visiting friends. It was grim, but the situation was more lax interns of searches, at least we thought that at the time. My own son was lifted in 1976, when internment has just ended. He went to Crumlin Road, on remand. It was my first visit to a remand prison. It was really bad. Dirty, old, you'd always hear iron gates closing, it had a depressive atmosphere, the place looked like a dungeon. It was a prison in every sense of the word, it had that atmosphere about it.
The remand prison searches were terrible. It was women searchers when you went in, at the beginning you didn't know any better, there was something about it, you knew that some of them actually enjoyed what they were doing. The searches always caused distress, sometimes after you'd go through the search, there would be women crying, wains as well, it was all over the searches. It was something we used to talk about going up and down on the transport. The women were being searched, private parts of their bodies and being left feeling dirty.
One day, a priest, Father Murray was recording what was happening to people arrested, in the interrogation centres. They had asked me to do this work for them, go around taking statements. One day I mentioned to them that it had been a particularly nasty search that I had endured the previous day in Crumlin road. He was literally shocked; he said we shouldn't have to do that, but you were always scared that if you said to them, "No I'm not letting you do that", and you wouldn't get your visit, and your visit was so precious. I never would have told Donnacha because he was probably getting the same, and you didn't want to talk about it, you didn't want to be giving him any concern. The Father told me not to do this any more, so the next day on the bus I proposed to the women that we tell the “peelers,” because we weren't going to go through that. All the women were scared, you could tell. I was probably more scared that the lot of them, but we all agreed to stick together on it. I went in first. The way they searched you was, they gave you a formal search, they would brisk you down then tell you to lift up your jumper or pull down your trousers to lift up your skirt. When she said this to me and when I said no she was really shocked. She said to me, "Are you refusing to be searched?" I said no but I'm refusing to be indecently assaulted. So they brought in this big man who was a prison officer and told him I was refusing to be searched. I told him I was searched but I am refusing to be indecently assaulted, because I'd been indecently assaulted in this prison for 6 months and I'd talked to my solicitor and he has instructed me to tell you that you're not going to indecently assault me again, otherwise I'll take you to court. He was astonished, but he knew, for I'd said to him, "Would you like to see your name in the paper for indecently assaulting someone?" He just said to the two searchers, let her go on in. We all did that that day, and it totally changed; when I think back to the beginning, if only you knew, if somebody had told you. If we had had a better relatives committee; but we were only starting to get ourselves together.
Things greatly improved and the next week when I went up it was all smiles and stuff, there was never any "Pull up your jumper", or "let me see your bra.".
About 15 or 16 years later I went up to visit somebody else one day and she remembered me, she said so to me.
Did you join any groups or Committees, and if so, do you think it did any good?
A lot came about because of the H-block situation. Internment had ended, Diplock courts were introduced, hundreds of people were getting arrested. It was like a conveyer system, with the prisoners being moved down to the H-Blocks. We knew nothing about this removal of political status, but I soon found out after Donnacha got sentenced in November 1976. Donnacha and others were in the H-Blocks and they refused to wear the prison uniform. As more and more went in we realised how bad this place was. We knew we had to organise ourselves and get together; so one night we got relatives together to hold a meeting, there had been an internment committee. We all got together and called ourselves the Relatives Action Committee. The object was clear, to make people aware and understand, because nobody would believe you that your son was lying in prison, in his own dirt and somebody was stubbing their cigarettes in his back.
The first time I did something drastic was when we stood outside the Cathedral in our bare feet and blankets. The Catholic Church was ringing bells out for peace, I felt it was so hypocritical, even though at the time I would have been a strong Catholic, but I felt the Catholic Church was being blinded to the whole issue. That was the very first blanket protest. It was a terrible ordeal. I stood and cried my eyes out. We were getting terrible abuse from people coming out of the chapel, saying this is holy ground. Then a man came along and took pictures, and Father Faul took photographs and sent them into the papers. That day began the blanket protest; after that we'd go up and down all Ireland. This was just to raise the issue and make it known.
All the women were great, they were like myself, with families, some grown up, some young, who had nothing. Just poor women, who had nothing. It was very hard but they were determined and it took a lot out of us. But we developed a great camaraderie between us, although we were doing something that was very stark and hard. None of us had ever travelled further than Buncrana in our lives, and now we were travelling all over Ireland; standing in market squares, outside churches, in our bare feet and blankets, and men were organising campaigns. They used to have cattle lorries to go, so we used to get up on this holding a placard, trying to pull your blanket around you and you naked and in bare feet, then trying to get down from it, people would be talking and so on, you had so many funny episodes. I remember one of them, when we were in Galway. We were up on the lorry and couldn't get down, on really stony ground and hard and these men were shouting jump there, so we all jumped, except for Peggy McCool (RIP), a wee tiny women. But Eileen Harkin sat down to jump off, but she sat on the tail of Peggy's blanket. So when she jumped she took Peggy's blanket, leaving Peggy standing like the day she was born, and the Garda and everybody was just looking on in shock, we were all in shock, never mind Peggy, so somebody ran over quickly and put a blanket around her!
When I look back on it was so embarrassing, but then it was so funny. I remember asking Peggy how she felt, she said she went blind, she doesn't mind seeing anything. Some funny things like that were happening to us, even though it was so serious.
We were always getting arrested, with the RUC and the Garda. Then Barney McFadden used to have a protest every Saturday in Waterloo place. We'd always appear there, after protests or visits. Some days there would be 20 people, some days 100, some days 4, but we would have went when we could and Barney kept that going, so gradually more and more people became involved and more and more were beginning to realise what was happening in the H-Blocks.
We decided then that we would go to Europe and international. It took us months and months to organise it. Paris, Amsterdam, you name it. It took a lot of money, money that came from everywhere. Five of us were elected to go, two from Belfast and the rest of us from Derry, that was a scream but then things happened; my father died suddenly and I had to come home and rest had to go on.
The first day we stood in France outside the British Airways office, people were talking about us, and we were talking to a fella from Paris who said that they probably just thought it was the new spring fashion! At the time it attracted a lot of attention and it transferred itself although you'd think nobody noticed it, when Bobby Sands died, there was in Paris, Amsterdam, all the places we'd gone to, there was huge demonstrations, because the people we'd gone to and when we left we left behind a wee organising committee who took the whole thing on. It wasn't easy for the women involved, but again the comradeship and relationship with the women came through.
It was great, we had the humour, because as somebody said at the time, if you didn't laugh you'd cry. That's exactly what we did, we laughed, because we didn't want to cry, we needed to cry but we couldn't so we laughed all the time. We could see the humour in a lot of things, and we had absolutely funny women, in times when you had your bleakest darkest day, or you were down or depressed, they would smile and keep you going and keep the thing together.
You'd meet so many great people, like politicians, families, or women groups in Switzerland, Amsterdam, France, everywhere we went you met great people.
We went to American too, we done a marvellous campaign there, the relatives committees were all over the north by then. I can remember being in a house in Creggan with a couple of priest who were new to the parish. Lily Doherty introduced me as Mary Nelis, but the priest must have heard of me because he said, "The Mary Nelis?" At the time I was so dogmatic about the whole thing, you were either for or against us, so as soon as he said that I got my back up and when he said to me, "Do you think, Mrs. Nelis, that going around the country in your bare feet and blanket is the best way to highlight this?" I was furious, I laid into him, I said, "Did you ever do the stations of the cross? If you look at four stations, you see Mary following her son with bare feet and a blanket. What were the lessons from that period of prison struggle?
I think that parallel to the armed struggle we should have been creating a very strong peace movement, we should have been doing it. We should have made space for those who couldn’t possibly support the notion of armed struggle, that go in the way of their compassion for the prisoners.
People were concerned about the prisoners, but because we were so dogmatic about it, i.e., all or nothing, it sort of turned a lot of people off because it was so intense; I think that was a mistake, we should have been bringing these people in to show their compassion and concern. I think the British set that situation up, they knew, they could predict what would happen, they tried to criminalise the struggle so all our energies, money, time was built into that when we should have been putting it into the movement and the politicians and creating the right conditions for peace.
I think we need to look at how our enemy can tie us up in a knot, and create situations we will get locked up into, we need to always make that space for ourselves.
The end of Mary's story.
How long have you lived in Creggan, what would be your first memory of the conflict?
We've lived here 39 years, it was then when we moved here. My first memory of The Troubles really would be Bloody Sunday, I was at the march, unfortunately and I had my daughter with me. She got up to go to the toilet in Bernie O'Reiley's and I knew Bernie had a house around there, but I wasn't sure where, then someone shouted "there's the army coming in, so I dived up to the house where she was already in, and I went in to her and I thought it was her scullery, but her scullery and living room were in the front. You would have seen them anyway from either one and that's how I saw those fellas being shot. To this day I don't know if it was that fella McKinney, and there was another fella that was brought into her scullery but I never went into her scullery at all. They took the door down to carry his body, I saw another fella crawling along the wall, and I don't know who he was at all, I don't know if he was shot or injured, but I came away from the window then because I thought maybe they were just going to shoot anybody.
Do you think it was a turning point?
It was, I think that's why half the people joined the IRA, they committed a massacre that day. They definitely did. Do you remember the day your relative was arrested for the first time? The first one arrested was my son Danny, that was my first experience. I didn't really understand, I just couldn't think straight about it or what was happening, but he was sentenced and he got four years.
He was caught with Willie Tayler; Veronica knew what it was all about, and as I say this was my first experience and I still don't know if it was nerves or what making Veronica laugh but I got on to her outside the prison, "You think this is funny," but she said no, but you have to laugh, and Veronica was squealing. I remember she said you just can't let it get you down. I could have squealed out of me when I heard the four years, thinking that was very long, but as time went on you'd hear of fellas getting longer sentences.
After the sentence we didn't get to see him, they wouldn't let us see him. So the first time we saw him was in Portlaoise. It was awful, I thought it was terrible, with the wire and glass and you couldn't even touch him or anything, you were completely separated from him. It was awful, I thought it was worse that the Kesh. In Portlaoise we could only visit him every fortnight. Leaving the first visit was terrible, especially when you couldn't even talk to him about what happened, if you tried to whisper or anything they were telling you to speak up because they were listening to everything, so you had to try and talk about different things, we took him in clothes from the shop, we got them in right enough with no hassle, there wasn't much hassle in Portlaoise getting their things in, but they couldn't wear black or dark brown, but everything else it didn't matter what colour.
Then we had Kay, she was out in bail at the time Danny got out, but then she got off, she wasn't so bad. I thought it was terrible, a girl being in prison, but when we went to visit her it wasn't so bad.
You were able to get things into them, but then during the years as it went on, you could've taken anything in, like toffee apples, but after she got out and things got worse you couldn't get anything in. With the H-Blocks and the blanket protest.
It must have been awful, I definitely couldn't have gone through all of that, looking at all those women out protesting about their sons wearing blankets, no I don't think I could have done all that, I don't believe I could, but when I seen them I used to say to myself, “How do they do that?"
At one stage there was a few of my family in together, there was three of them in at the one time. I remember when JJ, my husband was arrested I really thought I wasn't going to be able to cope, I was really depressed but I found the strength from somewhere, I suppose you have to keep going. It was awful and you used to say to yourself sometimes, the money wasn't too great, how do you do it, but you had to, don't ask me how I did it but you just had to manage. You had to survive it, you got there. You didn't get any food parcels up to Portlaoise and God have mercy on them as long as they got some money in they were happy! They were able to do their own cooking in there, so they weren't so bad. It was so far out of the way, that the travelling was terrible, it would take you two or three days to get over it, and then there was running to the Kesh as well.
Do you feel you were supported with your neighbours?
A couple of the neighbours in the street, next door and a couple of neighbours further up, Kathleen McLauglin, Kathleen and Betty Doherty, and a few others but outside of that, no.
I could write a book about the Church. I think if the Church had stood by what was going on it wouldn't have lasted 30 years, it definitely wouldn't have because when the Church left them young fellas, Eddie McSheffrey and Paddy Deery, when they refused to let their bodies into the chapel for burial and watched when the mourners were beat to the ground, on the New Road, not one of them priests came out to give a helping hand. I think that's what happened to the Catholic Church now, to this day, not because of their scandals, but because of the troubles, they would always get over their scandals all right but definitely the troubles had a lot to do with it. I always said it.
One night in the chapel last year or so. There was a beating or something that went on in Creggan and they more or less said it was the IRA. Well I hit that chapel! I went round that parochial house to the priest, he hardly got speaking because I laid into him, I said to him, "Wait till I tell you something, I reared my sons, we reared them, gave the best we could and we worked hard for them." It wasn't our fault they joined the IRA that's just the way they felt, and it wasn't up to him to get up and ridicule my sons or anybody else's. I wasn't going to let him get away with it, I mean, all down the years we took it and I certainly wasn't going to take it from him. He apologised and said he didn't say or mean it to be the IRA, well I said, "That's the way we took it and everybody else in the chapel took it that way too"; and still he spoke to me after it, I mean just because he's a priest it doesn't mean you can't get your point of view over, he's only there as a disciple of God, he's not there to brow beat you and they didn't do us any favours over the years.
Not one priest came up here when our Danny was killed. And God rest him, Danny, my hand up to God, I don't know who that priest was but it was the coldest requiem mass, I never got over it for ages, and I still don't know who it was, and not one priest came up here and said anything to us. The Bishop phoned although he couldn't do anything else I suppose.
What was it like travelling to the prison, with friends and family?
It depends, they'd never want for a visit, the only ones that didn't get a visit would have been Danny, and the time he was on the boards, for about two months, but other than that there was always someone there, me or someone else, we always worked it out, should I've had to crawl up, they would never have to want for a visit. I enjoyed the craic on the buses, but as the years went on we had a car of our own, we were able to take Mrs. McCool and Isobel Anderson up just the odd person would have got a lift up and the craic on the way up with them two was great; but coming down was a different matter, leaving them in there was always hard. Scalper Doherty used to go up and we used to have some laughs with him!
One day it was snowing and the window came in and we were freezing, we didn't even have a blanket to put around our legs and he looked over to me and said, "Do you mean to tell me there's a God up there? We're starved here, it's freezing!! With everything happening on this bus! And you're trying to tell me there's a God up there!" And I'd say, "Aye he's up there, he's going to help." "Fuck," he said "He's taking his time!" Because we were freezing, we used to have some laughs, Mrs McBrearty was on the bus, Meeks, Tilly, Edger, Veronica they were there; Scalper used to bring all his pounds notes, should he have got a lend of it! He'd say, "Let them bastards count it and think I have some money".
I, Martina Anderson, was born in Derry's Bogside in 1962. I am the second youngest in a family of ten. I have six sisters and three brothers, one of whom, Peter is a Sinn Fein councillor. I would describe my family as being staunchly republican. My father died when I was ten years old, he was aged 54. When marrying my mother he converted to Catholicism — much to his family's disapproval. My mother Betty was and continues to be a prominent influence in my life.
At the age of 18, I was arrested leaving a furniture store in Derry and subsequently charged with causing an explosion and possession of a handgun. I was remanded to Armagh Jail where I remained for a brief period of two months before being granted bail.
After a conversation with my barristers on the morning of my trial about the likely duration of imprisonment, I decided to remove myself from the court building and go "on the run," to Buncrana in Donegal. I resided there until my arrest in Scotland in 1985..
I, along with four others, was arrested in a flat in Strathclyde and held for 7 days in the local police station, before being flown to London where we were questioned in Paddington Green for a further 3 days. Amid a height of publicity commonly aimed at Irish Republicans charged in England, we were remanded to Brixton prison and classified as Category “A” high-risk prisoner.
Although Brixton is an all-male prison, it was, we were informed, the only remand jail deemed secure enough to hold the women among us. Initially there were 600 men and 2 women, Ella O'Dwyer and I, until some months later when an alleged East Germany spy Sonja Schulze joined us.
Instead of concentrating on my forthcoming trial I spent my time in Brixton battling with the system about the treatment being meted out to us. By writing letters daily to concerned groups and individuals, I endeavoured to highlight the deplorable conditions under which we were being held. During the thirteen months in Brixton, I was subject almost daily to humiliating strip searches as well as frequent — and what was akin to sexual- body searches.
Cell searches and cell moves were also regularly enforced, to apply maximum pressure and to ensure deviation of trial preparation. As documented in a diary that I kept, I averaged over 25 strip searches, 85 body searches, daily routine cell searches and ten intensive cell searches and changes per month. Indeed, there were occasions when I had six strip searches per day.
There was a notable increase in the number of strip searches by Ella and I compared to the number undergone by Sonja. As conditions within the jail were publicised, anti-strip searching campaigners came to the prison every Saturday handing out leaflets and blocking roads, in order to draw attention to our plight. In the House of Commons, a number of Labour MP's signed an early day motion arguing for a debate about the treatment of Irish prisoners held in Brixton, with some relentlessly raising questions about the severity and indeed the necessity of such treatment.
Despite increasing public concern however, the application of degrading searches and repressive conditions intensified.
In June of 1986 we were all sentenced to life at the Old Bailey. A small number of Irish Republicans were given "natural life tariffs." This in effect meant that the Home Secretary had decided that they were never to be released, i.e., that they should die in jail. Some of these men had already served 23 years when they were informed of the imposition of such a scandalous tariff.
My husband Paul Kavanaugh, sentenced to 35 years, was among those who received a natural life tariff. He legally challenged and thus gained a ruling, which required the Home Secretary to review the appropriation of such a tariff. Paul has not yet been notified about the outcome of this review but suspects that it could result in the re-issuing of the natural life tariff, or a tariff in the 50-year range.
A few weeks after the trial Sonja, Ella, and I were taken from Brixton to Durham prison in the north of England. We were placed in the H-Wing, which was notorious for its confinement, isolation and general poverty of conditions. Although I was aware of its reputation I was stunned at what I encountered when I arrived. At that time there were 38 women there and at least a quarter of them were mentally disturbed and subsequently ended up in psychiatric units like Broadmoor. H-Wing has been run under a female regime, which seemed to possess its enclave somewhat obsessively.
Women lived in dread of the hierarchy and submissively conformed to the most unreasonable "orders" from screws. Very often, each winter, the sewage system overflowed on to the dining area. Since integral sanitation had not been introduced until 1993, toilet pots were used during the night and slopped out into the sewage system each morning. When the system overflowed, the dining area was covered in urine and excrement, smelling sickening offensive. On such mornings, before breakfast, "direct orders" were given to clean up the mess. Neither gloves nor disinfectant were provided. Arguing for the necessary maintenance work to be carried out, I refused to clean up the mess and endeavoured to get other prisoners to do like wise. Although some refused which resulted in a "charge" of disobeying an order, other weaker, vulnerable prisoners were afraid to do so.
During my time there I observed that remarks passed, orders issued, and insults inflicted by the system were borne by non-political women prisoners differently from their male counterparts. Whereas male prisoners would generally lash out at the system, in England non-political women absorbed jail control methods, internalising their impact, taking the frustration out on themselves. Women would cut-up or mutilate themselves by other methods such as skin burning, they suffered from anorexia/bulimia or/and they would withdraw with acute depression.
The covert repression and punitive measures that produced these mental imbalances were not easily presentable in material form for concerned bodies. I did however believe that a vital urgency pertained in these matters, thus, seeking H-wings closure, a campaign was mounted to highlight conditions in the wing and to expose the denial of fundamental facilities. I fought for the wing to be closed or at the very least to undergo massive structural reconstruction, creating sport fields and such amenities as available in male stablishments.
Due to incessant lobbying, by groups like Sinn Fein and by individuals, like Nina Hutchinson (RIP), two eminent figures, Anthony Lester (QC) and Palma Taylor (Psychologist) were commissioned to compile a report on conditions within the wing. They recommended that if within a year the necessary radical improvements and changes, which they sought, were not implemented that the wing with its "impoverished conditions" should be closed. While a degree of the former was evident in the alterations that ensued, they fell far short of what was needed. I therefore continued to argue for H-Wing's closure regarding it as unsuitable for holding long term women prisoners - just as in the 1960's it had been deemed unsuitable for holding male prisoners and thus closed.
Such challenging of the system did not go "unrewarded" as evident by the punishment meted out for "disrupting" the prison regime. On numerous occasions I was put "behind the door" or given Cellular Confinement — or both. Whereas the former consisted of being locked in the cell for 23 hours a day with access to reading material, the later constituted being in a bare cell with no reading material or other forms of stimuli and only given a mattress for night. I had been behind the door for periods of 28 day and intermittently received 3 day C.C. During my first six months, and periodically thereafter, I was constantly switched from one punishment to another.
In 1989, I married Paul in Full Sutton Prison. Despite months of preparation and expense incurred by Paul and I and by our families, the British Home Secretary cancelled our original wedding date a few days before the ceremony. We were informed that the climate here in the six counties was not conducive for the facilitation of such an event. It was nine months later before the Home Office granted permission for the wedding to proceed.
For almost 30 years, the families of republican prisoners have experienced the hardships of traveling to England to visit their loved ones. They have endured arrest, intimidation, threats, and degrading strip searches. My mother, sisters and brothers have been frequently stopped at airports throughout England and held until they had missed their connection either to the jail or to their homes. On one occasion my two sisters and brother Peter were arrested and held for 72 hours and upon their release were denied visiting access.
As well as campaigning to close H-Wing, I was active in the pursuit for the transfer of Irish Republican Prisoners to jails nearer our families. Despite it being British government policy to place prisoners in jails as close as possible to their families, for years republicans were consistently refused transfer. It was only in 1994 that any significant number of transfers started to take place, a drip-fed development arising in response to ongoing lobbying which led ultimately to a review of provisions around the transfer issue. Compare this treatment with that of the two Brits, Clegg and Thain, who were quickly transferred to England after conviction, not to mention the fact that they were released within two years and then returned to their units and promoted.
In 1994, I and three other Republican prisoners-one of whom was my husband Paul, were transferred here to Maghaberry under a system called "temporary transfer". In effect even though we were to be held in six-county jails, the Home Office retained control over the administration of our sentences and all matters of release. We were henceforth denied all types of parole, compassionate or otherwise.
While at every opportune moment SF representatives highlighted the inconsistencies and discrimination at work in relation to us transferees, our solicitors pursued a legal challenge. Consequently, in October 1997, our status was altered from "temporary transfer" to "restricted transfer” enabling us to receive the twice yearly and compassionate paroles; though the matter of ultimate release remains in the hands of the Home Office.
My last Christmas in Derry with my mother and family had been in 1981 making the Christmas of 1997 a memorable one for us all. Since "coming home' there has been a marked improvement in the bonding of family and community ties. Receiving weekly visits from family members and close, dear friends- many of whom I had not seen in almost a decade, as well as having daily access to reports of events within the community as they unfold, renders possible the re-establishment of ties weakened, due to jail restrictions, geographical distance, and cultural differences.
Coupled with enhanced inter-family relationships were beneficial factors emanating from being placed in wings with political comrades, who share the same political mindset and goals and generally living in a commune propagating comradeship and support. The active life-styles lived by us, despite our restrictions, is in marked contrast to the unfortunate inactive 'walking dead' drone, evident among many social prisoners in England. I train daily for over 2 hours and all of us Republican women are doing either graduate or post-graduate educational studies. We also attend a vocational training centre every morning, making furniture and in the vast majority of afternoons we are engaged in various classes such as Irish, French, computers and cookery.
In order to precipitate the development of personal growth in so far as it is possible, within the confines of jail life, I have pursued interests oscillating between physical (training) and mental (studying) stimuli. The personal achievements that Republican POWs have procured are evident in our academic records. My husband and I graduated at Queens University in May 1998, coincidentally on the day of our wedding anniversary; hence we opted for a weekend parole. That weekend marked a historical landmark for Sinn Fein, when over 96% of its Ard Fheis supported changes to Sinn Fein's
constitution, allowing elected SF representatives to take their seats in a six county assemble. Paul and I attended the conference and were overwhelmed by Republican activists and it will be a day that we will ever remember.
At the time of writing I am on my 14th year of imprisonment and over those years there have been webs of personal and political factors that have strengthened my conviction. My family especially my mother Betty, has been a bulwark of support. I could never repay her, nor my sisters and brothers, for the years they have dedicated in supporting and caring for me and for providing financial assistance and material aids. I am also indebted to my husband, best friend and comrade Paul, who has, throughout the years, fed my zest for life providing me with dreams and hopes, which our short parole days are bringing to fruition. He shines light during the darker moments of jail life. Finally I am beholden to the Republican movement as it provides me with the high spirits, willful determination and pride. The outcome of strategies pursued and commitment displayed by our leadership reinforces-to borrow and alter a phrase-the thought that says we're right.
Martina Anderson was reunited with her family on 11th November 1998 on her 14th year of imprisonment.
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