Published by Pluto Press. ISBN 976 0 7453 3250 5
Turning on the television it seems this country is obsessed with war. If its not past episodes of Allo, Allo or Dad’s Army there are constant documentaries about the Nazis. Next year is the centenary of the First world War and already the Tory government has given millions to making sure that their version of the conflict gets centre stage.
So it is good to see a leftwing history book about war and how it has affected women in particular. It is written by a political activist, Lindsey German, and so we get an insight into the dynamics of political movements. Lindsey was one of the founders of the Stop the War campaign and gives an insiders view on why it started and the particular characteristics of the organisation. But there is a major flaw in this book……..
The conflict in Northern Ireland had a massive effect, not just on those people living on the island of Ireland, but also shaped the politics of this country in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet in this book there is no reference to it and it is hard to understand why. Maybe because the women concerned do not fit into Lindsey’s analysis of women and war/peace. Or perhaps she cannot fit the Irish struggle into her analysis of how conflict has put women at the centre of peace campaigning? Going to Northern Ireland at that time was going to a war zone. It was a frightening place and for the women who lived there their choices were limited. Women did play a major role in the republican communities including volunteering as soldiers in the IRA. Their choice was a challenge to those of us who were anti-war. But their choices were shaped by the society they lived in. So for some women this century has not allowed them the opportunity to choose peace, but has pushed them into taking a combative role.
Absent from this book is any reference to the Irish community in Britain, a community that is here because of Britain’s continuing role in our country, even after the peace process. That relationship has had a profound effect on British society, and particularly the democratic rights of every protestor from the ordinary law to the terrorism legislation.
Many people were involved in the campaign against Britain’s occupation of Ireland from left wing organisations such as the Labour Committee on Ireland and the Troops Out Movement to my own community organisation, the Irish in Britain Representation Group. Trade unions sent delegations to Ireland to witness human rights abuses and to call for a negotiated settlement.
Today the Irish community is not so visible and the shortlived economic revival in Ireland meant that many Irish (including second generation) could return home and get jobs. The peace process has ended the war and so-called “normal” politics have returned to Northern Ireland, even if the British are still in charge.
Two years ago I was asked to speak at a meeting in Oldham which had been organised by activists in the Asian community who were concerned about the use and abuse of the Terror legislation.
In 1974 the Prevention of Terrorism Act was rushed through Parliament by a Labour Government. They said it was to deal with the increased activity of the IRA in Britain following the bombs in Birmingham. It effectively silenced the Irish community for at least seven years and led to many innocent people being imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, the most well-known being the Birmingham 6. Many Irish people, at least 80,000 a year, were stopped for no reason at ports and docks as they travelled to Ireland.
It did not just affect Irish people, many people who were active on Ireland were caught up in this “war on terror”. That included councillors, MPs, journalists etc. The Irish community through IBRG, through the P.T.A. Repeal and Welfare Association and individual campaigns did challenge the way the legislation was enforced. We were appalled that people could be held for 7 days without charge and without access to a solicitor.
Our campaign involved organising meetings in our community to inform people about their rights under the legislation. We supported people who were held and got them legal support. A leaflet was circulated with information about the PTA.
The meeting in Oldham was important for the Asian community as I see the same thing happening to their community as ours. Only the legislation is much worse as people can be held up to 28 days.
In this book Lindsey explains how one of the interesting aspects of the Stop the War movement was the role of Muslim young women and the way in radicalised them. But I remember at the time, in 2003 in Manchester, watching the arrival of many young Muslim women with their religious leaders and that made me feel very uncomfortable.
And I wonder where those young women are now, I do not see them on the marches against the cuts or the big NHS march that took place in Manchester recently. Maybe they are “keeping their heads down” because of the growing Islamaphobia and the threats felt because of the political situation globally? Never mind the day to day problems of, getting an education, getting a job, living a fulfilled life.
A century of war certainly did change the lives of women but it was not the same for all women on these islands. Lindsey’s book is a good starting point but in the end it is down to the women themselves, be they Irish, Asian, Muslim or Mancunian to tell their own story.
Here are some links for further reading….
Across the Water by Mary Lennon, Marie McAdam and Joanne O’Brien. Published in 1988. A unique collection of oral history of the lives of Irish women in Britain.
Mother Ireland – a documentary that was banned at the time because it included an interview with IRA volunteer Mairead Farrell who was murdered by the SAS in Gibraltar in 1988. See
The Wearing of the Green written by radical historian and activist Michael Herbert. A history of the Irish in Manchester. Buy from redflagwalks.wordpress.com
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