'strong about it all...' Rural and urban women's experiences of the security forces in Northern Ireland, edited by Helen Harris and Eileen Healy (2001)
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The following chapter has been contributed by Helen Harris and Eileen Healy. 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.
This chapter is taken from the book:
'strong about it all...'
Orders to local Bookshops, or:
(Front cover photograph: Mrs Bradley)
This chapter is copyright (© 2001) of Helen Harris and Eileen Healy and is included
on the CAIN site by permission of the authors (/publishers). You may not edit, adapt,
or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use
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‘strong about it all...’
Rural and urban women’s experiences
"I wouldn’t feel safe, wouldn’t feel safe at all."
"Once the security forces enter your home, any rights you have go out the window."
"Mental torture, definitely mental torture."
"I'm almost in tears, just thinking about it."
WAINS & YOUNGSTERS
"You’d think you weren’t a mother... They were taken off us."
"It affects women more than men because most women here, the woman is the person who runs the house. It's your sort of domain, it's your territory."
"It’s harder for a woman."
"It's keepin’ your dignity more than anything else."
"Ahh that’s right. We can do whatever we like."
"Threatening you in a sexual manner, I think that’s always there."
"I wasn‘t the one arresting him. It wasn‘t my fault."
"I think I could paper my house with letters that say
‘There is no case to answer'."
"No, it wasn‘t enough but people were afraid."
ATTITUDES TOWARDS THE RUC, BRITISH ARMY AND UDR
"There’s no trust there at all."
"We need to have faith in them in order for them to be able to work for us."
Castlederg is a town in Co. Tyrone with a population of 2,000, which is half nationalist / republican, half unionist / loyalist. It is proportionately the most bombed town in the 6 Counties. The rural area west of Castlederg is isolated from the rest of Tyrone. At the time of interviewing, most of the roads from West Tyrone to Donegal were sealed and impassable, isolating the area further. Now all the roads are reopened, making a huge improvement on quality of life in the area. Derry City has a population of 120,000 and is divided by the River Foyle. The Cityside is almost exclusively nationalist while the Waterside is two thirds unionist. It is just three miles from the border. Donegal, particularly the Inishowen peninsula, is in many ways the city’s natural hinterland.
Throughout this publication the following symbols are used to distinguish interviewees from rural and urban areas.
Denotes those living in rural areas
Denotes those from urban areas
and the surrounding area
Karen is in her 40s and lives in the town on a nationalist housing estate. She is a grandmother. She describes herself as a republican and works as a housewife.
Mrs. O’Hagan is in her 70s. She lives very close to the border in a ‘very loyalist’ area. She used to work as a barmaid and is retired now. She has grown up children, some of whom still live in the area.
Mrs. Bradley lives in a rural area very near the Donegal border. She is in her 60s.
Marian is in her 40s and lives in the nationalist end of town. She is a housewife and has teenage children.
Eilis is in her early 30s and works full time with young people. She grew up outside Castlederg and now lives in Derry on a nationalist estate. She visits her family in Castlederg regularly but doesn’t see herself ever moving back.
Mrs. Sullivan is in her 70s and lives a few miles from the border in the country. Her family was split up by the conflict, with one son being killed and other children not being able to come home for fear of security force harassment and arrest. She works as a housewife.
Betty is in her 30s and has young children. She moved from Castlederg town and now lives in the country on a farm near the border.
Mary is in her mid 30s and lives in a mostly nationalist housing estate near Castlederg. She has young children.
Mrs. McLaughlin is in her 60s and lives on her own since her son Cormac was killed following a ten year campaign of harassment by the security forces. She lives in a rural, mostly Protestant area outside Castlederg where she has lived all her life.
Aine is in her 20s and works full time in Derry. She lives with her parents.
Theresa is in her 30s and is a mother of young children. She works as a housewife. She grew up in a middle-class area in Derry.
Rose is a mother in her 30s and is from a middle-class background. She works in the community sector in Derry.
Deirdre is in her early 30s and lives with her children and partner. She is active in community groups in her area.
Aileen is in her early 40s and is a youth and community worker. She has lived in Derry for nearly 10 years.
Martina is in her 30s and was raised in a republican / nationalist working-class community and now lives in a similar community. She has been active in community groups and campaigns. She now has a daughter and a new partner.
Kathleen is in her 30s and lives in a middle-class area of Derry. She has an eight year old son and works in the community sector.
Julie is in her 30s and lives with her partner and young children. She works full-time in the community sector.
Nell is in her 30s and is a mother. She lives on the Waterside, which she describes as ‘near enough’ a border area.
Sinéad is in her 30s and also lives on the Waterside. She works full-time in a profession and lives in a middle-class area with her partner and children.
Elaine is in her 30s and describes herself as republican. She lives in a housing estate with her husband and children and is a housewife.
Frances is in her early 50s and is active in her local community. She has six children.
Marie is in her 50s and is from a middle-class background. She is a mother. She is a member of Sinn Féin and works full-time.
Siobhán is in her 40s and active in her local community. She has children in their 20s.
Breda is in her 50s and is a housewife. The area she lives in now would be mostly republican and is near the border.
Margaret is in her 50s and active in her local residents group. She was raised in a predominantly unionist area in the country and has lived in Derry for nearly thirty years. She is a grandmother.
Eimear is in her 60s and has been active in her community for many years. She describes her area as republican and nationalist, "...a great community, the people have a great sense of community and caring."
Mrs. Doherty is in her 70s. She grew up on the Lonemoor Road in the Brandywell; "It was all a mixed area and I would say it was a good area." She was active in the Relatives Action Committee in the late ‘70s and worked in different jobs as well as raising her family.
Mrs. Heaney is in her 70s and is a housewife. She is originally from Donegal.
"It’s keepin’ your dignity more than anything else.
Resisting the security forces can be as simple as refusing to give more information than is legally required. Some women describe how it took time for them to develop the confidence to stand up to the security forces. Insisting on the proper procedures can mean longer delays for women if, for example, a female member of the security forces has to be sent for to carry out a body search. Women make judgements in each situation about the amount of time and energy they can invest. This often depends on whether they have children with them. Ways can always be found to resist on some level. Women tend to describe resistance in terms of keeping their dignity and self worth and ‘not letting them off’. This seems to be especially important during raids.
You feel like hitting them a wallop up the face you mean?! Aye. (Laughter). I did many’s a time aye. I did it once or twice.
One time I jumped on a soldier’s back and I wouldn’t get off it. You know. There was an army foot patrol stopped us outside the house. But they wouldn’t let [me and the wain] into the house, they kept us for ages and ages in the rain and I just finally cracked up. I was wile frightened for the wain, you know. Danny was only about eight months old and would have been in and out of hospital with turns and croup and things like that, you know. John was carrying him. The soldier was pulling my husband John, one was pushing and one was pulling him you know and I just cracked up and jumped on the soldier’s back.
But it is like everything else, you’ll get pushed so far. Everybody will get pushed, they have a, you know you draw a line somewhere. You just don’t let somebody walk over the top of you. You know that sort of a way?
Women described ways in which they resisted the invasion of their homes.Mrs. Heaney
They knew every stick of furniture that I had in this house and everybody else that they raided. They went ‘round the house making maps, oh lots of times. They knew every part of your house, where you kept your television, where you kept your table. And if that was changed the next time that they would come back, they would -they wouldn’t say to me of course, but you knew what they were doing. They would nosey around to see, wonder why this was changed. And I made sure I changed them. (Laughter). I made sure it was changed. If nothing else, only changing a bed. You know, that sort of a way.
There was one night in particular [the army] came in, and there was this lady, a searcher with them. She was a lady and of course she wanted to search me. And I just told her, "You’re a younger woman than I am and I daresay you’ll do it, but I’m not going to stand here and let you do it, because I’ll die in the attempt." She never put her hands on me. A young girl of that age coming to search me, after getting me up out of my bed! There was no way would I let her search me, and I told her that.
They never got anything belonging to me because I kept my handbag and under no circumstance would I let them touch it. They did do that in lots of houses you know, but I think the people weren’t firm enough. If they hadda been firm enough, you know. People were frightened ye see. But then when you start to get it nearly every two weeks, you sort of get used to it, you know. Well, you never get used to it, but you just don’t let them off with it, like you did when they came in the beginning.
So after that then I just thought, I need to sort of, I was too nervous with them and I think they realised during the search that I was nervous and that’s why they came back to me. So I thought ‘No, they’re not going to leave me a nervous wreck’. So I tried then to put on a brave face and I would say that’s why I would be aggressive with them now. It’s nerves, aye, but it’s my way of handling things.
She was in the first time [we were raided], the [RUC] woman, and I says, we were sitting in the sitting room and I went, "What is she doing here?" - just like that, as ignorant as anything - I says, "How did she get in here?" She wouldn’t even look at ye, you know, and she wouldn’t even look at me, and I said it to the boy - from London he was, we couldn’t understand a word he said - and he says, "In case you pass out. And to help you get dressed, if you want to get dressed.’ I says, "I’m well able to get dressed myself if! want to." Aye. I says, "I’m well able to dress myself (quietly). Sure I don’t want her" (more defiantly). Aye.
I mean they’d tell you you weren’t under house arrest. I would say "Am I under house arrest?" and they would say "No." So I says "Right, I’m going to the shop for cigarettes." "Oh no you can’t." "So" I says "that means I’m under house arrest." "Oh no you’re not." I says "Then let me go across for a neighbour to go to the shop for me."Breda
They have called me a lot of names. I can’t remember [which ones] because I be shouting right back at them.
Stops & searches
Yes. When it was at its worst it could have been every day, at least a few times a week. You were stopped and told at times to open your coat. ‘Take your coat off. Take your shoes off. Take your child out of the pram’. If you didn’t do it they sent for what they called a military policewoman, if it was the army. And if it was the RUC they sent for a policewoman and if you still refused to do it you were taken to the RUC barracks.
Did you ever refuse?
Well, I wouldn’t open me coat or take me coat off for a group of soldiers or RUC men. And even when a woman came along I didn’t feel like taking my coat off in the middle of the street and I would never have lifted the children out of the pram in the street. So.
Were you often taken down to the barracks?
Quite a few times, aye.
What kind of names has [the army] called you?
‘Irish whore’ and you know. ‘Slut. Fenian’. Just the usual. I had a few smart things to say back to them (laughs) which weren’t very nice.
So it went on, and he discovered that I had a bald tyre, and took me out and showed me the bald tyre and all the rest, and I agreed, ‘Yes’, that would have to be seen to. He said "I’ll not take you (book you) for that bald tyre, give me your occupation, I’ll not take you for it." So I says "Well have you suddenly come up with a reason for needing to know it?" And he says "No, I haven’t." "Well," I says, "I’ll not give it to you."
Alright I shouldn’t have had a bald tyre, but if they were doing their job properly they’d have been more interested in my bald tyre than my occupation.
It’s keepin’ your dignity more than anything else. Alright they’re there, they have to know where you’re going to, comin’ from. Other things I just ignore.
Indeed I am, I’ll not let them off with anything if they come near me.
[Once] there was a checkpoint down there (points out the window) and the boy says to Patrick (husband) - and he gave me a right dirty look too, he’s always giving a dirty look, I’ve seen him several times - he says "Have you any means of identification?" he says to Patrick. I says, "Did you ever hear anything like that, ‘means of identification’, and us on the doorstep at home!"
[That boy] knows right well who we are, he knows.
It’s usually when you’re going to Mass or something. I’ll always be ready to say something. I feel angry, I do feel angry, surely. It’s not so often they do it at the minute. Just I feel, I feel that it shouldn’t be when you’re going to Mass. (Pause). And the helicopters are always over the Church too, when we’re at Mass and that shouldn’t be either.
It really upset me. Very much so. And I don’t know why, because I wasn't political at all [then], I wasn’t.
Oh I refuse to let a man touch me. Occasionally men have attempted and I say "Don’t you lay a finger on me or I’ll do you for sexual assault." So I’ve never been touched by a man. I’ve always tried this one - it hasn’t worked recently but certainly in the ‘80s when I was getting stopped a lot I refused to let a man near any bags that I had. And it used to work then.
Numerous times I have lied myself and said that I was pregnant (laughs). They kept saying ‘Why are you not going to get out of this vehicle’? I would have said ‘Well I am pregnant’. They would have said ‘Well are you not going to get out of the car when you go home’? I would say ‘Aye, but then I’ll want to get out. I’m not going to stand as a spectacle on the side of the road for other cars coming up’.
"They’re games about power"
So he did do that and says "As soon as we can when we’ve checked these over we’ll leave them back." I says "You better for them cost me money."
Sunday morning at eight o’clock the big, hard knock came at the front door. There was the parcel sitting on the front doorstep. They had the books all parcelled up and there was no sign of them about. I checked all the books and they were all there only ‘The Freedom Struggle’. So I got James (friend) to phone for me and the next thing they came up in a landrover and says "Major Neil wants you down in the barracks."
I says "Me! ‘What does he want me for?"
"He wants to discuss a book with you." I says "Does he?" I had to go to the barracks in the landrover, so I went in and this boy got up, with his hand out to shake hands with me [and I wouldn't shake hands with him]. I says "What d’you want me for?"
"It’s about this book," he says, "you know perfectly well you are not supposed to have this book."
This was the time that Solzhenitsyn, the Russian was put in, for writing a book. I says "Ach, you’re at that carry on now, the Russians are at. You’re not allowed to read books, are you not?"
"Well you’re not allowed to read that one," he says. I says "Did you read it?" "No."
"Well," I says "I would advise you to read it, you’ll get your eyes opened. But,’ says I, "you’ll not learn anything there, because d’you see you lot (the British army), Hitler was a bad pig, but anything he done you learned it to him."
He says "I could put you in Armagh prison for reading that book or having it in your possession." "I suppose you could, there’s nothing youse can’t do. But," says I "if you put me in I’ll be in good company for Bernadette Devlin is in." So she was (laughs).
He says to me "We’ll forget about it this time." So he let me go then but never gave me the book. I says 'Alright I’ll get another one’, and so I did.
Aye, I certainly did take him seriously (the prison threat) because I knew what they could do. My heart was thumping but thank God I got out. See a couple of women that I knew used to say to me, when we were stopped by the army, ‘You don’t look a bit scared’. But they didn’t know what sort of a stomach I had, it was going like a Lambeg drum. I could conceal that, you know.
[One time] I was throwing the bottles over to the wains [to throw at the army]. Jesus, the plastic bullet just missed my leg. I ran into the house then. I mean he was a bad shot and I got in before he fired the next one. It scared the life out of me.
Never. It’s hard sometimes to keep your mouth shut.
What would you like to tell them?
I would just like to tell them, I couldn’t actually say what I would like to tell them, but it begins with ‘F’.
They’re always threatening to shoot you. "Stop or I’ll shoot!" "Shoot away!" I’m shouting back, "Shoot away!" (laughs). So anyway, I’m not being bravado or anything, you know. Some days I’m walking on and I’m thinking ‘One of these days you’ll be feeling a bullet in your backbone’. You do some of those foolhardy things at times and they are foolhardy things to a degree. But I don’t care what they know. I’m just, I’m not afraid of them anymore. So what, so they’ll shoot you or they’re going to arrest you. So they come search your house. They’ve done all them things on us you know?
I know my rights. I know that I am obliged because of legislation - British legislation - to give my name and address, where I have been and where I am going, not my date of birth, just that I am over twenty one. I am not obliged to answer any other questions, so I don’t. And I tell them that. Times I tell them ‘You can have my name and address but you’re not getting anything else’. And that starts a confrontation. Now if I wanted to make things very simple for myself I [could tell them], now it depends. And sometimes I do that. It depends on the degree of urgency about my life and what I am doing, where I need to be.
And you know that these people are playing games, and you know that they’re games about power. And they have it all, the legislation, the whole weight of the British military machine behind them. And here you are and what you have is your own sense of dignity and self worth. You don’t want to allow yourself to play these sorts of games. And you know if you say ‘No’, then you have to pay the price or take responsibility for whatever happens. So you play the game and I think we have learned to play the game ourselves.
Black and Tans: British ex-servicemen recruited in 1920 to bolster the RIC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) during the Irish War of Independence.
British army: Arrived in the North in 1969 and are still present today.
B Specials: Established in 1920 by the new Stormont government following partition. Only Protestants joined this part-time force, which was abolished in 1969 and replaced by the UDR in 1970.
CAJ: Committee on the Administration of Justice. Belfast-based human rights group.
Devenney, Sammy, Finucane, Pat, Hamill, Robbie and Nelson, Rosemary: Unresolved killings of two nationalists and two solicitors, in all of which the security forces are implicated. Groups are campaigning for independent inquiries in each case.
Good Friday Agreement: International agreement negotiated and signed by all the main political parties in the North in April 1998.
IRA (PIRA): Provisional Irish Republican Army, also known as the Provos. Illegal republican military group. Born out of the Belfast pogrom of August 1969 and established after a split from the Official IRA later that year.
Patten Report: The Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland was established by the Good Friday Agreement and chaired by Chris Patten. The report made extensive recommendations.
NIACRO: Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. This nongovernmental organisation has provided support for ex-prisoners, ordinary and political and their families.
Ombudsman (sic): The Police Ombudsperson post was established in May 2001 and is currently processing complaints about the security forces. Her range of powers is unclear and many have questions about the independence of this role.
RUC: Royal Ulster Constabulary. Police force in the North of Ireland established in 1921.
SDLP: Social Democratic Labour Party. Established in 1970 with the aim of promoting a united Ireland by peaceful means. Currently the largest nationalist party in the North.
Sinn Féin: All-Ireland political party which aims for a socialist 32 county republic (an end to the partition of Ireland).
UDR: Formed following the disbandment of the B Specials, this is a British army regiment which exclusively recruits people from the North, overwhelmingly Protestant. In 1992 it was amalgamated with the Royal Irish Rangers to form the Royal Irish Regiment (RIR).
UYF: Ulster Volunteer Force. Illegal loyalist military group set up in the l960s. Began a sectarian campaign in 1966, 3 years before the start of the Troubles.
Women’s Aid: Non governmental organisation established in the 1970s providing support and refuge for women experiencing domestic violence.
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.
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