Political women; Maria Brabiner anti-Bedroom Tax campaigner, Labour Party council candidate.

Dear Friends

I am reviving this series of interviews trying to find working class women who are activists in their political party, trade union or single issue campaign. It seems to be me they have disappeared from the political scene but please contact me if your disagree and I will be happy to interview them.

Maria 1

 

Today it is difficult to find working class people running campaigns,  never mind actually taking part. This is true of everything from Labour Party  representation to single issue campaigns including Better Buses to Palestianian Solidarity Campaign  and Keep Our NHS Public.  There are glaring exceptions,  including the  Salford Unemployment Centre, Charlotte Hughes of the Ashton Job Centre campaign and….. Maria Brabiner.

Maria is part of a working class radical tradition. Born, brought up and still living in Broughton, Salford she has experienced  first hand the discrimination that goes with poverty and an increasingly cruel benefits system.

She was brought up by her mother who was a widow and  although Maria did well at school,  she had to leave at 16  in order to get a job to support the family. Working at a local factory she went from being a clerk to secretary to the Tecnical  Director in the 19 years she worked there – until she was made redundant in 2001.

Her next job was working for Salford Council Social Services Department. But, when her mother had a stroke,  Maria felt she had little choice  except to become a carer which she did for the next five years.

After her mother died Maria thought she would have no problem in finding another job. She was wrong as unemployment and ageism kicked in. Maria  also found out that when she applied for benefits she was not eligible due to the savings she had accrued over her life and  also  discovered that carers do not get their full National Insurance credits.

For two years Maria lived on her savings, getting by in a system that did not recognise the contribution that she had made by becoming her mother’s carer. In 2013 she was hit by a new benefit cut when the Bedroom Tax was brought in by the Coalition Government.

The British Welfare Reform Act 2012 affected tenants living in social housing with rooms designated as “spare.” Tenants had their Housing Benefit cut – from 14-25% depending on the number of rooms – and were forced to fund this reduction out of their other benefits or go into arrears and potentially be evicted.  It directly attacked working class people who lived in social housing, some of them like Maria who were living in the family home and part of a local community. It also disproportionately affected disabled people.

Politicians promoted the so- called reform on the basis it would “redistribute”  family  type social housing for people on the housing list. No newly built social housing for single people was generated in order for these people to move into. Instead people were forced into the private housing sector with higher rents and less security of tenure.

Maria’s response to the Bedroom Tax was “I am not having this”. She felt she was being treated as a scrounger. “I felt angry and took it personally. I was looking for work and felt a responsibility to speak up for other people.”

Maria 2

Maria and fellow campaigner John Catterall on first Stop the Bedroom Tax Campaign march

The BT Campaign was one of the most dynamic of the 2000s. The local campaign was driven by radical activist Mark Krantz whom Maria described as the architect of the campaign. He was involved in organising some of the local marches in Manchester and Salford while Maria became a frontline speaker appearing on television, radio and local and national media.

The campaign against it brought together the left including trade unions and pushed the Labour Party into promising  that they would scrap it once in power.

The Bedroom Tax  still exists today,  although over the years exceptions, particularly for disabled people, have reformed the original legislation.

Maria feels one of the big successes of the campaign was  when Salford Council agreed not to evict anyone who fell into arrears. “And people on my estate know that they can knock on my door if they have a problem.”

Her own life changed as she got a job in 2013 working in the Higher Education sector.  But after a few months she was  made  redundant again  due to the government changing the rules over student grants.

Once again Maria was back on benefits and having to ration her food and heating. “But you know who your friends are when you are poor and I was shown a lot of kindness as well as bags of shopping and food for my cat.”

Today she has a full time job in a food factory. “I work 39 hours on a fulltime contract in a unionised workplace.”  But getting to work is not easy. When she works a Saturday she is faced with the reality that there are no buses before 10am from where she lives into Manchester. “My choices are; walk or get a taxi. Not much of a choice when you are on a low income.” Maria is not alone- throughout the city in the early hours there are plenty of people who have to  walk to get to work for early shifts.  Often they are people on low incomes,  including many migrants.

Recently Maria has become involved with the Better Buses Campaign. BBC are part of the Foundation for Integrated Transport and We Own it, funded by a combination of grants from trade unions such as Unison, Network for Social Change as well as individual donors. Looking at the people working for these organisations it is hard to find anyone from a working class background or  who like Maria actually use the buses.

Maria has, alongside other people, spoken to the media about her experiences of using the buses. But her long time aim is to become a local councillor in Broughton and represent her neighbours. This year she was chosen as the  candidate for the Labour Party for Broughton.

After the General Election result,  and the decline in people voting in local elections,  she is sanguine about the role that the Labour Party plays in peoples’ lives. “Working class people feel let down. I experienced that anger when I canvassed during the General Election.I think working class felt let down by Labour,  for not honouring the Referendum result of 2017″.

But she feels that she has the experience to represent the needs of her local community. “My experiences opened my eyes to the unfairness of the system. It made me humble. It made me less selfish. I want to use my experiences to help my constituents.”

Here is Maria speaking at a Stop the Bedroom Tax Campaign meeting in 2013  here

Article by journalist Frances Ryan on affect of Bedroom Tax today see

 

 

 

Posted in anti-cuts, biography, disabled people's campaigns, education, feminism, human rights, labour history, Manchester, political women, Socialism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

IBRG at the WCML; A Welcome for IBRG at St.Brendan’s Irish Centre.

 

In the 1980s when IBRG branches were being   set up across the country one of the biggest problems was finding somewhere to meet. There were many  Irish Centres,  but most of them did not want an Irish group with a political agenda meeting there. Most of them were attached to Catholic churches who promoted a reactionary agenda or they were commercial venues who worried about their alcohol licence as well as  police surveillance and threats to their future.

Manchester IBRG found a home at St. Brendan’s Irish  Centre in Stretford.  Originally the Lyceum Cinema, it opened as an Irish Centre on  25th April 1961. Surrounded by streets of Victorian houses it became the home for many of the  Irish who emigrated to the Manchester district in the 1960s.

St Brendans

St. Brendan’s Irish Centre

St.Lawrence’s Church which was located next to the Centre organised an Irish community care organisation which met Irish people off the train in central Manchester, brought   them to St. Brendan’s and arranged  accommodation and support for the new emigrants. Father Leo Heakin, a past priest, explained. “In times when tastes were simple and teetotal the order of the day St.Brendan’s dispensed tea and coffee along with its famous welcome. How many matches were made over the brim of those teacups. How many jobs offered …digs arranged.. news given of home.”

Tea was the preferred drink and it was not until the late 1970s that the Centre got its license which reflected a change in people’s attitudes to entertainment and also the changes that were happening to the Irish community. Changes were also  happening in the area around the Centre as the Victorian  terraces were flattened and replaced by the now infamous Hulme and Moss Side development of system-built flats which dominated the landscape. The Irish were also on the move, the more affluent were vacating  the inner city for the suburbs.

By 1988 the Centre was in danger of closing down and the parish priest, Leo Heakin, called in Liam Bradshaw to manage the Centre.  A Tipperary man, Liam had much experience in working in pubs and clubs in Britain and Ireland.  As Liam explained. “I went down two roads, firstly the commercial one, putting on dearer bands and increasing door prices and bringing in professional bar staff. The other road was a cultural one encouraging the Gaelic Athletics Association to get involved in the club, the IBRG started to use it, county associations, the Manchester Players and many other cultural groups. This gave the club a buzz and people started to talk about it and use it.”

Liam understood how the Irish community was changing as more younger people were emigrating to England, and  a new second  generation who identified as Irish wanted a broader agenda of what it meant to be Irish.  St. Brendan’s was the only Irish Centre in the northwest that offered a meeting place for the local IBRG branch and most importantly to the North West branch of the Birmingham Six Campaign. In 1991 when the men were released it was fitting that the celebration took place at St. Brendan’s.

It was not just the Irish who were welcomed in the Centre. It was located in a area that now had a sizeable Afro Caribbean community who used the Centre for Rastafarian socials, fundraising socials eg for a West Indian man facing deportation and the local Hulme Festival. Liam saw this as a positive step for both communities. “It will help them understand the Irish and get to grips with what the Irish community is like.”

As well as branch meetings IBRG held many cultural events at St. Brendan’s,  from singer Sean Brady to Manchester Irish band “Toss the Feathers.” It was the height of their popularity and hundreds of people turned up. The proceeds helped fund branch activities for many months.

St Brendans 3

 

In 1991 IBRG organised a series of events to celebrate the 75 anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising,  an anniversary ignored by the Irish Government. Events held at St. Brendan’s included an evening of “Poetry and Songs of the Rising” by actor and friend of IBRG Sean O’Neill. Later that year a meeting about the attack by the Northern Ireland Office on Glor na nGael an Irish language group in west Belfast  took place at the Centre. It was part of a speaking tour of Manchester and London organised by IBRG to highlight the discrimination against the Irish language.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act was like a black curtain that hung over the Irish community. In the 1980s the number of raids on the homes of Irish people were diminishing, but there were still thousands of people being detained and questioned at airports and ferry ports. Liam’s son was one of those detained and was, unlike most other  Irish Centres, happy  to host a meeting to call for the repeal of the PTA.

In October 1990 IBRG, with the West Midlands PTA Research Association,  held three meetings across the northwest to call for its repeal.  Manchester IBRG held its meeting at St. Brendan’s. The speakers were Fr. Bobby Gilmore of the Irish Chaplaincy in London and Kevin Hayes from the West Midlands PTA Research Association. In 2020 it is hard to explain how brave Liam was in allowing the meeting to go ahead,  but it did reflect the massive changes that were taking place and most importantly the way in which IBRG were not prepared to stay silent about such discriminatory legislation and its effect on the community.

St.Brendan’s was the venue on Saturday 3rd  July 1993 for  Manchester IBRG’s third conference, entitled “We are a  River Flowing”. It was a day of discussion and debate on the history of the Irish community. Speakers included historians Michael Herbert and Steve Fielding, IBRG officers Pat Reynolds and Virginia Moyles,  and writer Ann Rossiter. The day was dominated by speaker Mary Nelis (Sinn Fein councillor from Derry) who threw away her prepared speech and instead gave a moving talk about her experiences in Derry.

St Brendans 1

 

St Brendans 5

Manchester IBRG used many venues for its events including the radical bookshop Grassroots, Manchester Town Hall, Green Room Theatre and eventually even reactionary Irish  Centres such as Chorlton which  allowed the branch to host some  socials.  St. Brendan’s became the home for Manchester IBRG which was important in providing that essential and organic link between the generations of Irish people that have come to the city and the radical nature of that community.

The IBRG archive can be viewed at the WCML

 

.

 

 

 

Posted in Cathy Crabb, education, feminism, human rights, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, Manchester, North of Ireland, political women, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

IBRG at the WCML; BBC, Censorship and the Irish Community

The 1980s saw the rise and rise of IBRG as a local and national  grassroots campaigning organisation that exposed not only the racism and discrimination facing the Irish in Britain but drew the links between those issues and Britain’s ongoing occupation of  the North of Ireland.  IBRG challenged the British  government’s attempt  to control  the debate around their role in the North of Ireland.

The arrest of IBRG President Dr.Maire O’Shea and a number of other IBRG members in early 1985 had repercussions for the organisation  being involved in the mainstream media and illustrated  how reactionary elements within the Manchester Irish community were prepared to go along with the censorship of IBRG.

The Irish Line radio programme for Radio Manchester  was created  in 1983 and run  by IBRG members and unpaid volunteers,  Eileen Murphy, Declan O’Neill, Tony Farrell and Peter Ledwith.

It was a weekly mix  of items including music, sport and “What’s On.” Reflecting   IBRG policy  it did not shy away from the political issues of the day,  and over the two years it included interviews with National IBRG Chair (and Salford councillor) Jim King, the Irish Foreign Minister, GLC Leader Ken Livingstone and Father Raymond Murray, a human rights campaigner from Armagh in the North of Ireland.  Issues  covered included strip searching, the Birmingham Six and the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Early in 1985  the BBC erased  IBRG’s name from a poster advertising the programme, removed  a credit to IBRG from the programme’s introduction and excluded  two questions from a taped interview with Bridie Gaskin, Irish-born chair of the Manchester Social and Democratic Party. One question asked why she had joined the IBRG, while he other was on the SDP’s policy on the presence of British troops in Ireland.  Finally the BBC cut out in its entirety an interview with an IBRG delegate to the International Women’s Day in Armagh.

In July 1985 the programme was given a summer break.  It did not return:  none of the presenters were told that the BBC had taken this decision. The presenters wrote to the Irish Post (the main newspaper of the Irish in Britain) to express their concern about the way in which the programme had been censored and finally got rid of. Their letter ended “We do hope that Irish Line does not become yet another casualty of the British media’s reluctance to deal in any depth with any Irish issue.”

 

Irish Line 1

Letter from presenters to “Irish Post”

 

Following letters and articles in the Irish press and Manchester’s radical press City Life magazine in August 1985 the Acting  Station Manager of BBC Manchester Donald Kerr replied. He accused the presenters of “naivety” and that they had to be reminded that “the aims of the programme were to reflect the cultural and social life of Greater Manchester’s 150,000 Irish people”. He reiterated that it was not a political programme, “nor a platform for the presenters.”  The presenters replied criticising Kerr for not replying to their allegations of censorship but instead “ resorting to vague assertions about not letting Irish Line be a platform for propaganda.” They also asserted the right to decide what concerns the Irish community in Manchester and that reporting on social and cultural events of the Irish community must also include reporting on issues such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act “which has resulted in over 5,000 Irish people being arrested, many of them Manchester residents.”

Irish Line 2

City Life magazine 1985

Irish Line was replaced in the autumn of 1985 by a new radio programme called Come Into the Parlour.  The IBRG presenters were replaced by members of the Irish community much more acceptable to the BBC. One of them was Tom McAndrew, a leading member of the reactionary organisation the Council of Irish Associations. The new programme was happy to broadcast listings for striptease shows, “Irish jokes” were acceptable as well as a Royal Wedding special.  It represented the old guard of the Irish community with an  “Uncle Tom” attitude to being Irish which was anathema to the progressive Irish who could be found in organisations such as IBRG.

Censorship locally and nationally in the media on Ireland would worsen in the 1980s. In 1985 a BBC documentary called  Real Lives; the Edge of the Union which included interviews with Martin McGuinness  of  Sinn Fein  and Gregory Campbell of the DUP led to the Home Secretary asking the BBC governers to withdraw it. BBC and ITN journalists went on strike in protest: the amended film was  finally broadcast in October 1985.

1988 saw the the introduction of the Broadcasting Ban which prevented  the voices of representatives from Sinn Féin and several Irish republican and loyalist groups  banned by the British government from being broadcast on television and radio in the United Kingdom.  This censorship permeated any organisation that wanted to speak out on Irish issues – IBRG representatives were often invited to speak by the media only to find that instead of discussing an issue such as a new report on discrimination against the Irish community they were asked to comment on the latest IRA bombing.

Censorship did not stop people wanting to know about what was going on in the North of Ireland,  particularly when the government tried to ban it. Mother Ireland was a film commissioned by Channel 4 from Derry Film and Video Collective in 1989  which examined the history and myths that surround the idea of Mother Ireland. It included interviews with women including Mairead  Farrell who was shot dead by the SAS shortly afterwards in Gibraltar. The filmmakers stressed at the time of the interview they were unaware of her involvement in the IRA. The documentary fell foul of the Broadcasting Ban.

The Northwest Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom organised a public meeting for people to make their own mind up. It was chaired by Granville Williams of the CPBF and   Bernadette Hyland, Vice National Chair of IBRG, was one of the speakers.  Over 200 people turned up to the screening. IBRG took part in annual pickets of the BBC to oppose the ban.

Over the years IBRG got better at publicity – ironically as the British state clamped down on any debate around their role in the North of Ireland. IBRG went onto produce its own magazine  an pobal eirithe, as well as continue to organise public meetings, campaigns and conferences.

The limits of archiving an organisation is shown in that the folder for the Irish Line controversey  includes only a sheaf of press cuttings but there are Minute Books from Manchester IBRG in the archive. Michael Herbert’s The Wearing of the Green; a Political History of the Irish in Manchester includes a comprehensive summary.

Read more about IBRG at the Irish Collection at the WCML

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in education, human rights, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, Manchester, North of Ireland, political women, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

IBRG Archive at the WCML; N.E.Lancs IBRG and Irish Women in Britain.

IBRG was an organisation that reflected the history of the Irish in this country but one that was not frightened off linking up the present with the past – unlike many other Irish organisations in the era of 1981-2003. Branches  sprang up in areas that had a long and respectable history of Irish radicalism,  including North East Lancashire which covered areas including Accrington, Blackburn and Darwen.

One of the founders Michael Kneafsey explained why they decided to set up a branch; “A number of us living in Lancashire at that time were feeling very frustrated that there was no real outlet in the Irish community to debate those crucial issues. When the Irish Post newspaper began reporting the formation of the IBRG and its founding principles  we were very interested indeed. Also the fact that young people from the second and third generation were in leadership roles was inspiring. The focus of campaigning for the Irish to be recognised as an ethnic minority community, and for links to be established with Black and Asian organisations in Britain was a refreshing change from the rather insular, ‘we stand alone’ approach of some of the established Irish organisations.”

Over the years the Branch organised regular meetings from social events to miscarriage of justice campaigns. Links were developed with Trade Union branches which led to a Trade Unionists for Irish Unity Conference.

N.E.Lancs IBRG, with little resources, was neverthess able to produce a report on the needs and aspirations of the “Irish in Lancashire”. Targeting Lancashire County Council, Local Authorities and other statutory bodies it argued strongly that the Irish should be recognised as an ethnic community.

Blackburn 2

On 13 October 1993 I travelled with two other women to take part in a meeting in Blackburn organised by N.E. Lancs IBRG on “Irish Women in Britain – Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.” The meeting reflected the nature of what it meant to be an Irish woman  in Britain in 1993;  a second generation Mancunian, an Irish student from the Republic of  Ireland,  and a single parent from Armagh in the North of Ireland who now lived in Derby.

Blackburn 1

We arrived in Blackburn to find that the doors of the venue, the Library, were locked. After knocking  we were welcomed in but  were quickly reminded that the National Front were active in that area. The previous week they had attacked an Anti-Apartheid meeting in the same venue and for our safety and attendees it was a private meeting with invites only.

A small but sympathetic audience listened as we three women discussed some of the major issues affecting our lives in Britain. Eileen Carroll was a social work student in Manchester and a member of Manchester IBRG. She spoke about her experiences on the Women’s Delegation to Belfast in March that year.  Living in Britain had woken her up to the discrimination facing Irish people over here,  but also gave her an education about what was happening in another part of the island that she lived on.

Eileen Carroll

Eileen Carroll

Kate Magee recounted how she was originally  from Armagh in the North of Ireland but had moved herself and her two children to Derby. Following the shooting of an Army Careers Officer in Derby she had been arrested and charged with offences under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.  She spoke about the horror of being arrested at night in her home whilst she was nursing her young son. A local Irish builder, Pat McAndrew, noticing what had happened , alerted Kevin Hayes of the West Midlands Prevention of Terrorism Act Research Association. Pat  went onto to found a Derby IBRG branch which became central to a successful campaign that secured Kate’s freedom the following year.

Kate Magee

Kate Magee

 

In my speech I reflected on the numbers of women who were active in IBRG at branch, regional and national level. Women were a significant part of the Irish community and research showed that over the years more women than men had emigrated to Britain  and that they were active in many campaigns and organisations in the Irish community.

IBRG, unlike many left organisations at that time,  did have working class women as members, many of whom were the backbone of their branches.,

Find out more in the IBRG Archive at the WCMLwhere the  Minute Books of N.E.Lancs IBRG, the report “The Irish in Lancashire” and Michael Kneafsey’s account of the history of the branch are housed. A comprehensive account of Kate’s campaign is also included in the archive.

Posted in education, feminism, human rights, International Women's Day, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, Manchester, North of Ireland, political women, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Margaret Mullarkey; working class, Boltonian, IBRG activist

Margaret M 1

Margaret

 

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 meeting

Margaret  at an IBRG event at the WCML

 

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.

Posted in education, feminism, human rights, International Women's Day, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, North of Ireland, political women, Socialist Feminism, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , | 1 Comment

My review of “Betty Tebbs – a radical working class hero” by Mark Metcalf

 

Tebbsfrontcover

 

 

Through my friendship with Eddie and Ruth Frow I have met many women like Betty who had been  activists in the CPGB and the trade union movement. We came from different generations – and had quite different views on feminism and politics  – but I was always impressed by these women because of the struggles they had taken part in, not just in being women who had come through the Second World War,   but all the battles they had to fight  to assert themselves as women, inside the home, inside the CPGB and in their campaigning lives.

I first met Betty in 1991 at the International Women’s Day event at the Pankhurst Centre in Manchester. She was on the committee that ran the centre  when it still had some politics. The IWD event was about women in struggle and included a woman from the North of Ireland, a Palestinian woman and me.

I spoke on behalf of theIrish in Britain Representation Group,  an organisation set up in 1981 to represent Irish people of all generations who lived in Britain and to campaign for equality and against discrimination. After I spoke I remember Betty making a comment which showed that she really did not understand the position of the Irish and other ethnic communities in this country. It did not surprise me because it was a standard response from many left people at that time  who believed that class trumped ethnicity and sex inequality.

Betty had not only been an activist all her life but,  unlike a lot of women,  she had produced her own autobiography. In Mark Metcalf’s new book “Betty Tebbs  a radical working class hero” (shouldn’t that be heroine?)  he has been able to use this material, alongside stories and comments from her daughter and friends to produce an engaging story of her life which is illustrated by some lovely photos of Betty and her family.

She was born in 1918 and lived a long and activist life. Growing up at a time when trade unions were a dominating force in the industry where she got her first job at the age of 14 – the paper mills. She came from a working class family and her life began like most working class girls,   where they were treated as second class workers, like Betty, on less money than the young man sat next to her doing the same job. She joined  the National Union of Printing, Bookbinding and Paper Workers and spent her lifetime campaigning for equality.

Injustice fuelled Betty’s life, and her involvement in the trade unions. She was married and had a child at an early age,  but was widowed at 21 when her husband Ernest was killed in action. Widowhood meant  her allowances were immediately cut which enraged her, while the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki led her to vow to work for peace, a vow she maintained until her death.

After the war she married  Len  Tebbs and they both joined the Communist Party in 1952. But it was  Betty’s responsibility to work, do the childcare and attend union meetings. And throughout her autobiography there is no analysis of this double burden that many women who were parents and activists had to shoulder.

In 1952 she joined the National Assembly of Women, an organisation which was mainly made up of Communist Party women. By the 1980s Betty was the chair and she was able to travel to meetings,  mainly in the Soviet bloc.

Running through this book is Betty’s committment to trade unions and to improving the lives of women at work through pay equality.  Her trade union membership  enabled Betty to  improve her own education and  in 1963 she became a Labour councillor in Bury.

Her commitment to CND meant that at the age of 89, alongside her comrades, Neville, Alan and Jean,  she travelled to Scotland and blocked the road to the Faslane submarine base.

My only criticism of this publication  would be   (and this goes for Betty’s own autobiography)  there is too much information about her personal relationships  and not enough analysis of sexual politics. But maybe that reflects the era that Betty grew up in and the way in which women of her generation chose to live their lives.

Metcalf has produced a well-written and beautifully illustrated history of an inspiring  working class woman activist who in a different era would have been a trade union leader.

This pamphlet was produced by Unite the Union contact http://www.unitetheunion.org.

Read Betty’s autobiography “A Time to Remember”  at the WCML.

Posted in Betty Tebbs, biography, book review, Communism, education, feminism, human rights, International Women's Day, Irish second generation, labour history, Manchester, political women, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

My review of “Sisters in Cells” by Aine and Eibhlin Nic Giolla Easpaig

sisters in cells

 

Aine and Eibhlin Nic Giolla Easpaig are unique in several ways. They were republican women political prisoners in the 70s – the first women of that era to be imprisoned in England, while their autobiography “Sisters in Cells” is one of the few jail journals that has  been written by women, telling their story of growing up in Manchester in the 60s and 70s and their experiences as innocent people in the prison system.

The sisters were born in Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. It was a republican area where people spoke Irish as their first language and were closely intertwined with the politics of a united Ireland. They grew up there until the 1960s when their parents, like many Irish at that time, decided to seek work in England.

Their new life  was a massive cultural change; they were now living in urban Manchester, part of a large Irish community whose lives centred around the church, community centres, and pubs and clubs designated as Irish.

The sisters were unusual in that they spoke Irish as their first language – most Irish children and some adults quickly lost their accent so they could assimilate into a hostile environment with its everyday anti-Irish racism.

The sisters got their first taste of  this  at school by a nun who made fun of their accents. The girls got up, put their coats on and left the school.  Their mother went back in to see the teacher,  the nun apologised and they returned to school.

The sisters were shocked by the attitude of the second generation Irish girls they went to school with. “Most of the girls received very little insight into their Irish heritage from their parents. They knew very little about Ireland or the Irish situation and very few of them came back to Ireland.”

As the sisters say, even in a school predominantly made up of Irish born and second generation there was no recognition of the Irish language,  in fact the opposite; “ A teacher wrote to our mother asking her not to speak Irish at home any more as it was retarding our progress!”.

The sisters left school and got  jobs, Eibhlin as a nurse in the local hospital, Aine as a model and then hairdresser.They took part in the usual activities of young women except that they were also  political activists as members of Sinn Fein.

Politics were rapidly changing for Irish people in Britain as events in the North of Ireland entered a new chapter.  The Civil Rights Movement in 1968 brought Catholics out on the streets demanding the vote and the rights of citizens. But the reaction of the British state led to Bloody Sunday and a deepening crisis within the statelet.

Over the water in England the state responded harshly to people who objected to Britain’s war in the north of Ireland.  Conspiracy charges were used in Irish cases against people who organised to support nationalists in the North. Victims of this included Father Fell of Coventry, who organised a local Northern Relief Committee,  and with others was arrested and charged with conspiracy to cause explosions and found guilty along with a number of other people.

Organisations such as the National Campaign for Civil Liberties spoke out about the police raiding the homes of Irish people who were activists to gather information. Journalist, Chris Mullins, in his book about the Birmingham 6, wrote about the first Manchester unit of the IRA which was set up in the summer of 1973.

This is where the sisters enter the story. On 27 February 1975 they were sentenced to fifteen years in prison for conspiring to cause explosions. Aine was twenty five years old while  Eibhlin was twenty two. They both denied the charges  and later on alongside the Birmingham 6 and so on the evidence used against them was discredited. Too late for them as they were released in 1983.

The sisters lived in a house they shared with their parents and their brother Eoini. When a gun was found there Aine was arrested and charged with illegal possession of the gun. The police  told her it was her brother they wanted to interview and  she  was released on bail. When her brother returned  she advised him to leave for Ireland which he did.

When the sisters went to retrieve their brother’s car in Withington on 26 April  1974 unbeknown to them two men were making explosive devices in the house.  A bomb went off setting the house on fire and a man was injured. The sisters then decided to return to Ireland but in their brother’s car. They were arrested in Holyhead and two days later were charged with conspiracy to cause explosions.

The sisters sum up their experience in court as an “Irish” trial at a time when the atmosphere was particularly bad and the on-going IRA campaign in Britain meant that maximum pressure was on the police to get results – any results.  Results which meant “show trials and irrationally long prison sentences for anybody who can be plausibly convicted.”

Their trial took place in November 1974 against the background of the Birmingham pub bombings by the IRA. It was followed by the passage of the Prevention of Terrorism Act which was designed to curtail political discussion and activity within the Irish community in Britain, including powers to stop and surveil thousands of Irish people as they travelled back and forth to Ireland and  hold people for seven days without a solicitor.

Their jail journal details how they survived eight years as “special category” prisoners held  in one of Britain’s oldest prisons; Durham. Their parents, now elderly and fragile physically, had returned to Donegal and visiting their daughters was not just difficult but expensive. Transfer back to a prison in the north of Ireland was denied them, as was any special category or recogniton that they were political prisoners.

“Sisters in Cells” is  a well written and insightful account of the lives of two republican women. They were caught up in a period of history in this country where being Irish in the wrong place, at the wrong time meant you could be locked away as a political prisoner for a long period- even if publicly the government did not want to recognise them as such.

What makes this book different from many other prison diaries is that it is from two women’s point of view. The sisters have a strength of character that was forged by their background, family and political views and one which was not going to be crushed in the British jail system. They were released in August 1983 and were given a heroines welcome in Ireland.

 

“Sisters in Cells” was originally published in Irish in 1986. An English edition came out in 1987.

 

The IBRG archive at the WCML records some of the Irish prisoners campaigns from 1981 onwards. Not, the Gillespie sisters, as they were released before the IBRG and other campaign groups really took up the issues.

Read Michael Herbert’s  history of the Irish in Manchester for further background information “The Wearing of the Green; a Political History of the Irish in Manchester”.

 

 

 

Posted in biography, book review, Catholicism, human rights, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, Manchester, North of Ireland, political women, Uncategorized, women, working class history | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments