Northern Ireland: Oppression, Struggle and Outright Murder

Northern Ireland: Oppression, Struggle and Outright Murder

by Betsy Swart

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey is a pioneer in the campaign for civil rights in the North of Ireland. Seeing herself as a “community activist,” since 1969 she has consistently worked against discrimination and oppression in the North of Ireland and at the age of 21 was elected MP for Mid-Ulster. Her term lasted from 1969-1974. She now lives in a rural Nationalist community in County Tyrone.

Devlin McAliskey was interviewed last spring by Betsy Swart, contributing editor to On the Issues. Swart is a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland and has spent considerable time in the North of Ireland.

Betsy Swart: What kinds of choices brought you to the work you do? Bernadette Devlin McAliskey: Like many other young people, I became involved in the civil rights movement in the ’60s when I was a student at Queens University in Belfast. The civil rights movement in Northern Ireland was actually inspired by the Black civil rights movement [in the United States]. As a result of my activities, the University called me before a disciplinary committee. I was a psychology student, just five weeks short of my exams, and I had never missed a paper. But they wouldn’t let me sit my exams. So I left the University without a qualification. I actually thought, “Well, suit yourselves” because I thought I’d just nip out and we’d get our civil rights and I’d be back next year. But now it’s some 20-odd years later and, of course, we never quite got to the point where I could go back and do my exams. In terms of American society, by and large people make intellectual choices to take up particular issues. But the very possibility of making the choice in the first place is based on the assumption that you have the socio-economic freedom to make that choice – which most of the Nationalist community in Northern Ireland don’t have. So to ask me that, well, it’s like asking a Black person why they got involved in the Black civil rights movement. Because it’s my life – the only life I’ve got.

Can you give us some background on the abortion controversy in Southern Ireland regarding the 14year-old girl who was raped and refused permission to go to England for an abortion?


Those of us who live and work in Ireland weren’t at all surprised about what happened. We fought the prolife amendment in the Constitution when it was first proposed and we lost. We lost very heavily. Like America, the southern state of Ireland has a written Constitution. Very often, like Americans, the Irish people are not aware of the responsibility that puts on themselves. People like to roll around the country in agony and blame the government for everything. But the Constitution, for all its weaknesses, clearly defines the people of Ireland as the sovereign will of the state. Every adult over the age of 18 must – in a referendum – make decisions on the Constitution. So it’s at this point I fall out with some of my feminist friends south of the border. Because it was not the government’s fault that the referendum was passed. It was the people of Ireland – who voted to put the prolife amendment into the Constitution. These were intelligent, sane human beings who were prepared to go out and make an adult decision on the basis of ignorance, prejudice, self-interest or church-interest. Nobody tortured them into it. They went out of their own free will and consent and voted for prejudice. And voted for ignorance. And voted for hypocrisy. Because it did not affect them there and then. I worked in Dublin before the election, and 48 hours before polling day, Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) put a leaflet under the door of every home in the constituency and leafleted every supermarket and mass [in Catholic churches] in the constituency. The leaflet said “Bernadette McAliskey Kills Babies.” And this started an argument among the people working on the campaign about whether we should back off. People said, “Now that they’ve raised it, Bernadette, go you out and say that you’re against killing babies.” And, I said, “I don’ikill babies. And I am against killing babies. But I’m not going out there to accommodate SPUC.” But the amendment got passed. Afterward, all the things that those of us who had campaigned against the amendment believed would happen did happen. The moral majority have a marked disinterest in born children. Once you’re born, your rights are out the window – no rights for the living! And so finally we have this unfortunate child who’s 14 years of age and is a victim of rape and is going to England for an abortion. SPUC took out a high court injunction to prevent her leaving the country. Her parents were ordinary people. They /me? actually left the country; but they were so intimidated by the court order that they didn’t know they didn’t have to come back! So they came home. And then they found themselves in the position of not being able to leave again. The matter was ultimately resolved in typically Irish judicial fashion. The Supreme Court not only disgraced themselves judicially, they disgraced themselves intellectually, and they took the back door out. They had two choices. The people of Ireland voted for the imprisonment of 14-year-old pregnant girls and the forcing of them to give birth. That’s what they voted for. And they ought to have realized that’s what they voted for.

The Supreme Court, on the one hand, shouldhave said, “That’s what you voted for; is that what you want? Or will we have another referendum?” Alternatively, the court should have said, “There are two issues here: One is the constitutionality of the prolife amendment and the other is the freedom of movement. And this young girl has freedom of movement. If she moves out of this country, she can do what she likes.” They did neither. They came up with this idiotic idea that the Constitutional amendment that balanced the life of the child and the life of the mother could conceivably be read that the mother might commit suicide. Therefore, on the basis that there was a risk to her life, she would be entitled to have the abortion in Ireland! So now, in order to get an abortion in Ireland, which you can get in spite of the Constitution and the law, you just have to stand at the top of the stairs and shout, “I’m going to jump!” And if you can convince somebody that you might indeed jump, then you can have an abortion! It’s hypocrisy in action and it’s saying to you and me and every other woman, “It’s not that you have rights. But if you can grovel, if you can despair, if you can get as far down into the gutter as I can put you, I, out of the mercy of my superiority, might allow you certain luxuries in this life – like the right to control your own body. If you get far enough down and beg for it in a manner that is sufficiently nonthreatening, then I might allow you your basic human rights as aprivilege.”

What is life like in the North of Ireland now?

We live all of our lives under constant military authority. When people come to Northern Ireland, the first thing they become aware of is how visibly militaristic the society is – more than they ever conceived of. It is, of course, possible within the tourist areas and outside of the Nationalist community, to go to parts of Northern Ireland where the war is totally invisible. You can go to parts of Beirut, too, where you don’t see the war. But if you’re in the Nationalist community, what is most striking is probably that armed soldiers – heavily armed soldiers – mingle with the pedestrian population, taking people in their rifle sights. Similarly, heavy armored vehicles mingle with the routine traffic, but unlike the civilian traffic, these army vehicles are not required to obey the traffic laws. The native population, of course, knows to look first for the light and second for the military. But a person coming into the country for the first time very often learns that the hard way – as they jump for their lives out of the way of military vehicles.

The other thing that visitors become suddenly aware of is the degree of authority these soldiers who are walking about the streets have. They may stop any civilian and require that they open their purse, open their coat, empty their pockets, give their name, address, identification, inform the authorities where they’re going, where they’re coming from. People don’t have privacy even in their own homes. If the soldier comes to the door, they are required to give the same information. If the soldiers want to come into the house and search, they don’t require a reason, stated or unstated. They don’t require a warrant. Our daily lives are led against a background of total military authority over our every movement. There is also a second level of scrutiny – the mechanized authority which becomes more visible as you go into the small rural towns and villages: The surveillance cameras, the military roadblocks preventing and limiting and controlling access to town centers and so on. Our daily lives are also led with the knowledge that it is very difficult to stay on the right side of this authority – that is, if you want to exercise any degree of independent thought or organization.

This military threat extends over the whole of our lives. There is quite clearly a shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Ireland that does not simply originate at the military ground level. It is a policy at the highest level of the British government to use Loyalist death squads in conjunction with British intelligence to wipe out political opponents. A number of people are just murdered outright – and that’s represented as “sectarian” killing and they’re referred to as Catholics or whatever. Others are killed through what might be called entrapment – which basically means that the British army sets up known Republican activists by creating a situation through which they can kill these persons and then claim, “We thought they were going to fire. We thought they had guns, and so on.” By and large, the only way you catch the British army out in schemes like these is when you have a situation like that of young Kevin McGovern. Kevin was shot because his hair was red. When the British soldiers saw him coming and they mistook him for a young, red-haired man whom they suspected of being active in the Republican movement, they just shot him.

And they put out a statement saying he was acting suspiciously, they believed him to be armed, they thought he was going to open fire. Now, if it had been the other young man, their statements would have had some credibility. But as it turned out, they had just shot this young agricultural student who was not involved in anything political or doing anything suspicious. They just shot him as he was walking down the street in the dark.

Many children have been shot in Northern Ireland, too, with plastic bullets. Geographically, the West Bank, South Africa, and Northern Ireland are the three places where they shoot plastic bullets. Of course, the name “plastic bullet” gives the general public the impression that these weapons are fairly harmless. But they actually are very solid plastic missiles which travel at high speeds. Their purpose – their military purpose – is actually to break people’s legs. But if they hit a child in the head, they crush the child’s skull. And a number of children have been killed that way.

But news we get here makes it sound like this military presence is necessary to preserve law and order.

First of all, people in mainstream America whose source of information is their daily newspaper and the evening news on television, by and large have no awareness of the existence of Northern Ireland. Because most of the time there is no news coverage at all. And then from time to time there is suddenly some dramatic news coverage that flares onto the screen when the level of violence reaches a peak. It might be when 10 people have been killed at once, or when by rapid succession half a dozen people have been killed over 48 hours.

Then the networks will showcase that information with no context other than this bizarre habit they have of identifying the religious worship of the person who died! You never hear, for example, “A Jewish woman crossing the road was knocked down by a car;” or “Yesterday a Protestant fell off a building.” But in Northern Ireland, almost everybody who dies is identified by religion and that clearly keeps the false idea in front of people’s minds that Northern Ireland is equivalent with religious intolerance and religious warfare. When people are always identified by their religion, it’s logical to conclude that they must have been killed because of their religion. And so it misrepresents the situation.

Much more importantly, people in America are not aware that there is legal censorship in Britain and in Southern Ireland relating to the North of Ireland. For example, Sinn Fein, as an organization, represents half of the Nationalist community in the North. People choose democratically to elect them; they vote Sinn Fein; they choose to elect them as their political representatives. But members of Sinn Fein are not allowed to be interviewed on the electronic media, and criminal responsibility for being interviewed rests with the journalist who interviewed them.

Therefore, there is a great deal of pressure on journalists to err on the side of caution. And rather than interview people like myself who may, in the course of an interview, express an opinion that concurs with one that might be expressed by an illegal organization, or by a political organization like Sinn Fein, journalists choose to play it safe. So people like myself don’t get interviewed either. And so you have on the one side no information, and on the other side totally biased information. For example, there is not a single newspaper or television network in America that has a correspondent in Ireland, so all their information comes either from the British media or directly on the wires. And, of course, the source of the wire stories is the British Army Headquarters in Lisburn in Northern Ireland. It should come with a warning label: “This information is censored.” For people who want the truth about what’s happening, the most important thing is for them to begin to inform themselves through alternative sources.

What can women here do to reach out to women in the North of Ireland?

In terms of immediate situations, I think something women in particular might do is to address themselves to the plight of women political prisoners. The women prisoners in Maghaberry Prison are regularly subjected to the strip-search procedure for no valid security reason. On an individual basis, women could write to these young women. Or they could take up the issue of strip search with public representatives – write directly to the prison governor and to the British authorities. And also take up the issue of strip search with local amnesty groups in the U.S. – with civil liberties groups.

[On March 2, 1992, nearly every woman political prisoner in Maghaberry was brutally held down and strip searched by prison guards. A number of the strip searches also included beatings and sexual assaults.

Since 1982, Irish women prisoners have been subjected to strip searches, sometimes on a daily basis. Some women have been subjected to over 400 strip searches. The brutality of the March incident incited 42 U.S. Congresspeople to send a letter of protest to the British Embassy.]

How do you respond to people who say that women in Northern Ireland should initiate a nonviolent reponse to the war?

People need first and foremost to have a clear idea of what they’re doing. The American peace movement against the war, for example, was a peace movement in the land of the oppressing na- tion, calling for peace by making the demand on the oppressor that they cease to oppress. A peace movement in Ireland and such that exists within what I call the pseudo-peace movement – the new consensus movement, the Peace Women – is a movement which demands peace in the oppressed country by demanding that the oppressed accept peacefully their oppression. And that distinction has to be clearly understood. I am very much in favor of demands for peace – but the place to organize the demand for peace is not in Ireland, it is in Britain. And the demand should be addressed not to the Irish people but to the British government. So if American women do want to become involved in building a peace movement, then London is where they should be marching, demanding that the British government cease to oppress the people of Ireland.

What do American tax dollars pay for in the North of Ireland?

Taxpayers’ money, through the International Fund for Ireland (see box), is a scandal on two levels. Money coming into Ireland is exclusively used for counter-revolutionary purposes – to further isolate the Republican community and to add strength to those people in the Nationalist community who are prepared to collaborate with the state. A great deal of it is funneled through the social outlets of the Catholic Church. The Catholic hierarchy have basically become the arbiters of the worthy poor. And I have a second personal objection to it, too. I have a fundamental objection to American taxpayers’ money being sent out of America to a group of people who are socially and economically better off than the people in America themselves. I see comfortable, middle-class, Catholic shopkeepers, for example, getting $5,000 of American taxpayers’ money to refurbish their shops. I see hotel owners in the North of Ireland getting $10,000 to put Jacuzzis in the bathrooms of their hotels. These things go on while American citizens are lying out on the streets with no homes! American tax dollars are actually going out of the country to people who’ve never had an overdraft in the bank while American mothers are standing in line waiting to buy deteriorated food to feed their children. I think that if I were an American taxpayer, I would register my very fundamental objection. Certainly women should be vitally concerned about this injustice. At a time when there is widescale women’s poverty, a high percentage of homelessness among women, and many women just struggling to keep their families fed, I think women have a right to know why American money is going into the pockets of healthy, white males in another country! It’s time to ask where millions of their tax money is going!

What do you think the ramifications of the April 9th British general election will be for Northern Ireland?

I think the British might try to use the loss of Gerry Adams’ seat to allege there’s been a drop in political support for Sinn Fein. [Gerry Adams, former MP from West Belfast and leader of Sinn Fein, lost his seat in the British General Election on April 9,1992.] And they might use Adams’ loss as indication that they could begin even further repression against the Republican community. It would be very unwise for them to consider it. But there has been speculation that they might try to reintroduce internment. Internment has been a common feature of the Northern Ireland state. We’ve had internment without trial before and the authority remains on the statute books to reintroduce it at any time. You see, the Special Powers Act from 1922-1972 – and, when it was abolished, the Emergency Powers Act – gives the government statutory authority simply to issue internment orders and hold people for an indefinite period of time without charge – never mind trial. They are held without any stated reason for their imprisonment. They are allegedly held in the interest of “national security.”

The last time that internment was used was 1971 and it was in place essentially from 1971-1975. Then the political court system – the diplock court – was introduced. This is a system of courts without jury with the burden of proof being on the accused. I think the British authorities are awaiting their opportunity to intern the leaders of the Republican movement and many community activists. Their policy would basically be to take people like Adams, leaders of the political movement of Sinn Fein, than certain other leaders. The British thinking is that such a move would simply remove their political opposition. Their intention would be to intern people for about five years and during that time to set more firmly in place their own policies. But the reality would be quite different from what they expect. Internment would just add another spiral to the existing situation. And the Nationalist community would organize dramatically against it.


What do you forsee for the future?

I do think the British authorities will make one last try at wiping out the Nationalist community. In the Republican rural area where I live, for example, we’ve had about 18 months of a dual policy of harassment and open murder of political opponents by the British. This includes murder of active political representatives who are in Sinn Fein, and of young men who are suspected of being involved in the military struggle. I think that this killing will continue. And, if they can, the British will introduce internment in an attempt to totally terrorize and demoralize us. But the reality is that we have produced a new generation of young people in the North of Ireland. And you have never seen a generation of young people so determined and so courageous. If British repression continues, it will create in these young people such a great wave of anger – that we will very likely see the rise of an Irish intifada.

An American feminist group, Committee on Women and Ireland, distributes action alerts and information on women and civil rights issues in Northern Ireland. They are linked to the British Women and Ireland Network. For more and continuing information, write them at P.O. Box 53255, Washington, DC 20009.

The International Fund for Ireland Set up in the wake of the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985, a number of countries, including the U.S., contribute to it. According to the Irish Echo newspaper, it is politically neutral. Out of the U.S., funds are distributed via the U.S. Aid Office in Washington. So far, $150-$170 million has been contributed by the U.S. government. The money goes to fund community investments and grants, and small business grants on boarder areas.


The English conquest of Ireland was initiated in 1170. The history of Northern Ireland began in the 17th century when the British crown, after suppressing an Irish rebellion, populated much of Ulster with Scottish and English settlers, giving the area a Protestant character in contrast to the rest of Ireland. The question of political separation did not arise until 1886 when proposals of Home Rule for Ireland aroused fears in Protestant Ulster of domination by the Catholic majority in the south.

By World War I, civil war was imminent. The Government of Ireland Act in 1920 attempted to solve the problem by enacting Home Rule separately for the two parts of Ireland. Protestant Ulster became the province of Northern Ireland, but the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland), established in the remainder of Ireland in 1922, refused to recognize the finality of the partition.

Sinn Fein, which means “we ourselves,” is the Irish nationalistic movement that triumphed in the establishment of the Irish Free State. The party gained control of the government in 1932 and advocated separation from Great Britain. A few intransigents merged with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) whose political arm is still known as the Sinn Fein.

In the late 1960s, protest by the Catholic minority against economic and political discrimination led to widespread violence by the “provisional IRA” wing on one side and the Ulster Defense Association, a Protestant terrorist group, on the other. The British government sent in troops in 1969, and assumed direct rule of the province in 1973.

Protestant and Catholic activists rejected several efforts at power-sharing, and conflict marked by bloodshed continues.

Leora Tanenbaum is a freelance critic who lives in New York City.