In archiving the history of IBRG it is noticeable how many women were active as national officers as well as playing a more hidden role as the backbone of the organisation at a branch level. Margaret was one of the latter – she was a working class woman from Bolton with a big smile and a beautiful local accent. She never attended national meetings – except when they were in the northwest – and at one of the biggest in Manchester she was not there – she was organising the crèche.
But in her branch alongside Joe, her husband, she played a significant role in all their activities. She combined it with being a mother of four children. Her life shows how being involved in politics can, not just change society, but change one’s own life. Together, and as part of IBRG locally and nationally, they took on anti-Irish racism, promoted Irish music and dance and took part in some of the most important campaigns including the arrest of IBRG President Maire O’Shea, the Birmingham Six Campaign and many other issues concerning the Irish in Britain.
Bolton, a town 10 miles outside Manchester, originally a mill town, has a radical history and the Irish have always played an important role in its trade union, labour and socialist movement.
Bolton IBRG was set up in 1983, by Margaret’s husband Joe, he says “My motivation in convening the inaugural meeting of the Bolton branch of IBRG in 1983 was to give a voice to Irish people like myself whose views and concerns particularly in relating to events in Northern Ireland were never heard as a community and we were treated with derision, grossly stereotyped by the media as drunken, stupid, bigoted and sectarian.”
IBRG, unlike mainstream Irish organisations, spoke up about the worsening conflict in the North of Ireland and its effect on the Irish community in Britain.
This meant that Bolton, like many IBRG branches, was barred by Irish clubs and pubs from holding meetings- public or private. Bolton was lucky to have Bolton Socialist Club which in its past had welcomed James Connolly to speak there and IBRG was part of that radical, socialist agenda.
In 1986 Margaret was nominated as the Bolton IBRG delegate to the annual International Women’s Day delegation (IWD) to the North of Ireland organised by the Women and Ireland Network which had branches across Britain. The aim of the delegation was to offer solidarity from women activists in Britain to the women in the North of Ireland. It highlighted the number of women political prisoners in Armagh Prison and the particular issues they faced included the use of strip searching.
The first IWD picket of Armagh Prison was in 1979 which was violently attacked by the Royal Ulster Constabulery and 11 women were arrested. The next year 500 women from Ireland and Britain took part and it became an important event for women to show solidarity with the women prisoners, their relatives and the wider republican community.
Bolton IBRG Minute Books are available as part of the IBRG archive at the WCML in Salford.
In this report Margaret wrote about her experiences on the IWD Delegation 1986. We can hear the compassion in her voice. She was a woman determined to not just, be an observer of a hidden war going on in supposedly part of the UK, but a woman determined to get other women to go on the same journey and become active in the campaign for justice and peace in Ireland.
Sadly Margaret died in December 2019
Here is Margaret’s report…………..
Report on Women’s Delegation to Armagh Prison 7 to 10/3/86
Delegate: MARGARET MULLARKEY BOLTON IBRG
Boarding the ferry at Liverpool we were subjected to body and luggage searches. We were each asked several times to give names and addresses of where we were going to be staying. We had been advised by delegation stewards beforehand to say we did not know. Approximately 120 women boarded the ferry at Liverpool. On arrival at Belfast we were taken to Divis Community Centre to be billeted with different people. I, and two other women, were taken to stay with a family in Ballymurphy, a large republican council housing estate, in West Belfast.
Saturday 8/3/86 The day began with workshops at the Whiterock Community Centre. The workshops were on P.O.W. (Prisoners of War), P.T.A. (Prevention of Terrorism Act), strip searches, show trials, plastic bullets, Divis flats, women’s role, health cuts and the advice centre.
Prisoners Of War. Items discussed were the transfer of British soldiers who have been found guilty of crimes in the North of Ireland who were automatically transferred to a prison near home. Republican prisoners are forced to serve their sentence in Britain. A deliberate dispersal system seems to operate within the British penal system with Republican prisoners being frequently moved from prison to prison. The result is that often that prisoners have been moved, without informing the relatives, causing distress and unnecessary expense to the relatives. The family may have to return to Ireland without having a visit.
Strip Searches Mrs McLoughlin spoke about her daughter Bridget Ann who was detained for seven years in Armagh Prison and recalled how strip searching affected her daughter. She was completely strip searched before and after every visit. After seven years of continued strip searching Bridget Ann was on the verge of a breakdown and she knew even on release it meant another strip search. When her Mum went to collect her from the prison on the way home Bridget Ann was very quiet and sullen. A welcome home party had been arranged but she did not want to face anybody because she felt so humiliated and ashamed and she just ran upstairs and cried. Mrs. McLoughlin said it took her daughter a long time to adjust. Mary, a former prisoner, told of her experience of strip searching. When you have got a visitor and you are on a period the screws make you remove everything including sanitary wear. Your clothes and fresh sanitary wear are returned to you and you can see your visitor for twenty minutes. After the visit you are strip searched as before the visit. Only one packet of sanitary towels are allowed each month and these are only given at certain times, so if you start a period before they are given out – tough.
Prevention of Terrorism Act The recent detention and trials of some of our own members under this Act has made us aware of how the Act is used against the Irish in Britain. The Act is equally used to harass people travelling to Britain. Some of you may recall hearing about this case last summer about two women in charge of a coachload of children travelling from the North of Ireland to Glasgow for a holiday, the coach driver and the children were allowed through but the two women in charge of the party were held under the P.T.A. The children were frightened and confused. When the women were arrested they asked to see a solicitor, they were given one but he advised them not to answer any questions. The women were questioned at this point by one of us about the solicitors. They said “we did not know who the solicitor was for all we knew he could have been anybody but we had no other choice other than to trust him.” Their advice to anyone is: if you are arrested do not answer any questions until you can contact someone you know and if you do travel to or from the North of Ireland take with you the phone number of someone you know, preferably a solicitor.
Following the workshops we had lunch before boarding coaches for Armagh Prison. Approaching Armagh Prison a contingent of Saracen tanks and foot patrols were in evidence. As we came close we were stopped by the Royal Ulster Constabulary .There were two to each coach and after being searched we were allowed to proceed to the prison where we were joined by two coaches from Derry with the Glasgow delegation. They had also held a vigil outside Crumlin Road Jail on Sunday night and occupied the Fine Gael office in Dublin on the Monday. Following that on 12 March, Peter Barry Deputy Leader of Fine Gael, in Dail Eireann condemned the use of strip searching.
About 300 people took part in the picket outside Armagh Prison. Each prisoner’s name was read out followed by slogans “We support you” and “end strip searches”. I sent a message of solidarity from IBRG. The prisoners responded by banging in the cells and shouting. After half an hour the noise from the prison stopped, so we assumed the prisoners had been moved. The prison picket was cordoned by the R.U.C. They tried to provoke us. I was unable to see any prisoners because the authorities need prior notice.
On Saturday evening a social had been arranged. I was very pleased to find it was a ceili attended by all the delegation and members of the families who were providing accommodation.
SUNDAY 9/3/86 After a late night and hectic day on the Saturday we had a lie in on Sunday morning. We assembled at Beechmount Leisure Centre for an anti-strip search march along the Falls Road to Anderstown where Sean Downes was killed. At the assembly point we were advised by loud hailers coming from Saracen tanks at the front and rear and British Army foot patrols scattered about. The stewards told us to ignore the army and march, so we proceeded peacefully and no incidents took place. The march ended at the Sinn Fein Office and Gerry Adams spoke at the rally and concluded by thanking the British delegation for taking the time and trouble to support them and he hoped we would continue to do so.
IMPRESSIONS AND OBSERVATIONS I have never been to the Six Counties before and I must admit to having been a little bit nervous before going. The area I stayed in (Ballymurphy) is a no go area for the R.U.C. but is constantly patrolled by the British Army in Saracen tanks and foot patrols. At night time British Army helicopters fly overhead and shine spotlights into the houses. Despite living in that kind of environment the people endeavour to live as normal a life as possible, but it seemed to have affected the children of the family I stayed with. I noticed the young lad did not go out on his own, neither did I see many children playing on the streets. The people I stayed with and met whilst I was there, after the initial wariness had worn off, were extremely friendly and very helpful. Before going on the delegation I did not understand the effect we would have had moral wise and people really appreciated our concern and interest.
I think for the next year’s delegation we should try to increase the numbers going and to that end I would expect at least one woman from every IBRG branch and suggest a preliminary meeting early summer to organise and fundraise. Would the secretary of your branch immediately let me have the name and address of at least one woman member and I am prepared to organise a meeting.
My thanks to N.E.Lancs,Wigan, Bolton and Manchester IBRG branches for their contributions towards the cost of the delegate fees and expenses.