soldiers in the streets

Soldiers in the Streets

from Womankind (1972) Bernadette Devlin visited the United States to rally support for Irish freedom. (Editor's note:Bernadette Devlin, then a Northern Irish MP to the British Parliament, visited the USA to rally support for Irish freedom.)

Bernadette Devlin is not exactly a respectable "lady" with a slight problem controlling her temper. She is something else. She is a saint to many Catholics of Northern Ireland, mother to an "illegitimate" baby, and a revolutionary. She is Irish: her people were the first victims of British imperialism (conquered by Oliver Cromwell's Protestant army in 1649), and will probably be the last. She is a woman: her role in her people's fight for freedom is unusual. But as the struggle continues, the unusual becomes a bit more common.

Events in Northern Ireland are changing the lives of every woman there. Pat and Erwina are two Northern Irish women interviewed three months ago in Belfast. Pat is 23, Catholic, and works for the IRA. Twenty years before Pat was born, the IRA (Irish Republican Army) led the fight for Irish independence from England. As a result of that fight Ireland was divided into two countries. One became Eire, Catholic and independent of England politically but not economically. The other, made up of the six northern counties became Northern Ireland, 2/3 Protestant and controlled by England both politically and economically. The present struggle involving the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland has revitalized the IRA. Pat is among its present generation of supporters.

"The beginning of my activities came with the establishment of a Republican newspaper called Republican News. As a typist, runner of errands, I began to work for that. I learned quite a lot. Before that I'd had the feeling I was one of those people who were content because I had an extremely good job, good prospects. After coming out of a ghetto I got on pretty well. I was making 30 pounds a week and there was no bigotry against Catholics where I worked I was a personal secretary at Belfast Hospital. This house was raided on July 26, and they found some documents which proved I was either in an illegal organization or assisting in propaganda for an illegal organization. Not the newspaper which was not banned, but I had written certain bulletins. After about 12 court appearances, I was sentenced to nine months in prison and I was suspended for three years. If I do anything bad in those three years I go to jail for nine months. I get the feeling I’ll do the nine months."

"The Catholics feel themselves separated from the rest of Ireland; their national heritage, their language, their culture. The Catholic's feel they don't belong; what is missing is the rest of the country. Because the rest of the country is missing, the priority is to unite the country."

"Once Ireland is united there will be no return to the militarism of the IRA. The people, you see, must allow it. If the people don't allow the IRA to exist, it wouldn't. If Mrs. so-and-so next door didn't give me her money tomorrow for my collection for the IRA, the IRA doesn't exist. If the people don't open their doors and let men on the run come in and sleep at night, the IRA doesn't exist. If people don't hide the guns, the IRA doesn't exist. It ceases to be. It's the people's army, without the people it dies.”

Erwina is 37, a school teacher with a Protestant background, and a mother of two daughters. She is active in the women's action committees of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.

There women's action committees were set up when the policy of the British Government changed and the Conservatives were returned. Then there were arms searches and there were brutalities against young boys. The women started demonstrations in a fairly militant way in their own areas; now they act as a kind of a vanguard for warning the area when there's a raid on. The problem of Catholic children harassing and being hurt by soldiers is related to ghetto conditions in Northern Ireland.

"You've got to remember the size of the Catholic family and the size of the house. They live in small houses. Where do the children go? There are no playgrounds, there is no room for them in the house. Probably if they all stayed in the house playing, well it would just cause a nervous breakdown. And the parents, they've got to get out. So there is this lack of control caused primarily by living conditions and lack of recreational facilities."

To better control the population, the Northern Irish Government has a policy of "internment" for suspected activists.

"Internment" is a legal sounding word for putting people into concentration camps.

"Since August 9, internees have been subject to torture, forced to lean against the wall till they pass out and forced to run oven broken glass. There's a very strong emotional reaction in Ireland if women are interned or tortured. We have had lots of cases of women getting rifle butts in the ribs or a smack with a knife. Of the women who have been interrogated we have had reports of torture. We got a woman out on amnesty. She was pregnant with five in her family. They had found ammunition in her house."

"Under normal circumstances, we would be in the civil rights movement for equal pay, for work of equal value, and proper security for deserted wives, practical difficulties which we face. But the actual struggle at the minute is against army brutality."

What's ahead for the women of Northern Ireland? A recent development came at the funeral of an IRA member, when guards of honor wearing para-military uniforms and carrying small arms were arrested. Two women's organizations announced that at the trial a picket of women with burley sticks; wearing the IRA combat jackets and black berets would be there. The advance publicity brought swarming numbers of troops and civil officials, as well as the Shankill Protestant woman's association. Naturally, the picket was never allowed to form, and the republican women were beaten and carried off as they stepped out of their cars and buses arriving for the demonstration.

The women were initially charged with wearing Para-military uniforms, possessing offensive weapons, and subsequently charged under the Special Powers Act as well. The singing, shouting solidarity of the women as they were carried off to prison, discussing whether or not to recognize the court (an offense in Ireland which carries an extra six months with any other sentence you might have gotten) was irritating to the troops. So was the women's wolf whistling, asking permission to go to the toilet, then singing an incredibly obscene, anti-soldier song to the tune of the Sash, a fascist Orange song.

In the words of Erwina "There's been a tradition in Ireland to see that the politics are left to men and the women stay home and keep the home fires burning. This has changed in this struggle."