THE HISTORY of the Irish Women’s Movement goes back to 1876 and the first suffragettes. it is a history studded with the names of brave and fearless women, like Countess Markiewicz and Maud Gonne, who fought against the oppression of the British, the oppression of the church and the oppression of the state. If a newly emerging women’s organisation is to influence the course of contemporary history and politics it will need not only heroines, but an effective movement which can succeed in bringing political and sexual freedom to Ireland. One group trying to do this is called Women Against Imperialism. Anne Marie Loughran spoke about the group, about herself and about life for women in Northern Ireland.
Part of my reason for joining a women’s group was from bad personal experiences with men and the pressure of being alone with four kids. i was political before and I wanted to make a nursery around here with the women on the estate but the struggle against British Imperialism comes first. High ideals are great, everything can be brilliant in theory but you’ve got to relate to practice. We won’t be able to organise any kind of community creche until there’s a society where that kind of thing can happen.
In 1972 and 1973 the struggle was at its peak. The Brits would actually come up to the door and say ‘Anne Marie, aren’t you going to make us a cup of tea? Aren’t you going to blow your whistle?’. I’d say ‘You’ll get no tea but will you wait while I get the arsenic?’. Now they come and they take a P Check, a head count, taking the names of your children. They stop you in the street, ‘Where are you going? Name? Address?’ The Republican Movement has grown, its more mature and its tighter knit. Its ideas are more progressive than revolutionary. Take the stand on women, for example. There have always been women who did as much as the men, but the women never united as women, there was a lot of sexism and chauvinism. Its gradually changing, they’ve written in Republican News about women. They see that we in Women Against Imperialism are right and they support us in everything we do.
We started Women Against Imperialism in March 1978. We were with the Socialist Women’s Group and there was a split – they are now the Belfast Women’s Collective.(1) We believe that you should work in working class areas where women are the hardest hit. Especially in West Belfast in the Catholic ghettoes. Its really tough for them. Turf Lodge, Ballymurphy, Short Strand, all wee pocket areas and especially Short Strand and Ardoyne. Its Orange all around them, they’re really isolated.
There are different political shades within Women Against Imperialism. You get PD(2), IRSP(3), Sinn Fein (4), Red Republican Party. Most of the women are working class, got a load of kids. It’s because of what’s happened to us through the struggle that we’ve come to where we are today, there’s no doubt about that, we’d have been content to sit in our wee houses. One woman’s husband was interned for two years. She was completely on her own. Before, they’d had the nice wee house, nice wee kids, wee car. He’d had a nice wee job and she stayed at home. She’s completely changed now. She is really fighting, questioning everything.
Most of us are in the Relatives Action Committees (5). Women in the RACs are ordinary working class women, they’ve got their squads of kids, maybe their husbands’ sons or daughters are inside. They’re living on the little they get from the SS (social services) and they’re really militant.
We as feminists are in the RACs and they know us, we live in the same areas, we’re brought up the same way, they can joke with us, they don’t look on us suspiciously as trendy lefties.
We are working class people and we know what we are talking about. Womens Groups before tended to work around purely women’s issues – contraception, abortion, nurseries – and they were in middle class areas and mostly from middle class backgrounds. They would have been hostile if we were campaigning around those women’s issues only and they’re thinking ‘Christ, my son’s inside, my husband’s inside, the Brits are raiding my home, my kids are being lifted and beaten up and it’s a question of I’ve got to survive.’ Obviously we campaign for abortion and contraception, but the first and foremost struggle is against the British; thats how we see it.
Sinn Fein women were always strongly anti women’s liberation and now they see we are genuine, not academic about things. They are becoming more interested and a few of them want to join the group.
Sitting and talking won’t change anything, we have to change things by doing, by being active. For example we’ve taken up the issue of the women in Armagh Jail.
We’ve had two pickets of Armagh Jail. The first one was wild, Jesus! It was a brilliant success. We could see the women inside, their hands waving and they were yelling and singing and shouting out ‘we support the men in H block!’. We were moving off quietly and within a few minutes there were five jeeps waiting to pick us up. The RUC were going frantic, they all had their rifles pointed at us. One came up to me and said he’d arrest me if I didn’t move off, before he’d finished saying it, he arrested me and threw me in the jeep. It was really rough, really tense. They grabbed us and pulled us. We were taken away and kept in separate rooms and interviewed. We ended up singing the Women’s Army is Marching, ‘Oh sister don’t you weep, don’t you mourn…the Women’s Army is marching.’ They charged us with riotous behaviour, assault, obstruction. We didn’t sign any statements and we refused to give our fingerprints.
On one picket an RUC man called us whores. I yelled back at him, ‘We’re not whores, we’re socialists, we believe in giving it away.’
On the second picket, 50 women came up from Dublin and there were 50 from the North. We got their support after a women’s conference in Dublin.
I’m on the Payment of Debts Act. I’ve been reduced to £18.50 for myself and for four kids. They’re taking money for rent and electricity arrears.
Electricity costs three times as much here as it does in England. It’s completely out of your own hands. They just take the money, however much they decide. Do you know that the Electricity Board come into people’s houses, forcibly, and rip people’s meters out? One woman had already made the voluntary agreement to pay her arrears and they ripped it out and she was without electricity for a week and then she’d to pay about £20 to have it put back on again.
I have £16 family allowance which goes on bills, coal, milk, bread and food. My kids are 3, 5, 7 and 8. We eat sausages, sausages, mince and sausages; if we’re lucky eggs, chips and bread. We don’t eat meat at all. I put some chops in the fridge once and one of the kids said, ‘what’s that?’. It’s really monotonous eating that stuff. I could go to war on the Catholic Church! In Ireland, the whole thing about male chauvinism is completely different because first and foremost of the partition. The Catholic Church really got its grip, it’s got its teeth in. Myself being anti-church means I get visits from the priests. I had a monk here, a missionary, a big six-footer from the South. he was talking to the kids saying things like, ‘Has Mummy been to the mission? And what about Daddy?’
‘Daddy doesn’t live here,’ I said.
‘Oh, separated are you? Well maybe you’ll get back together again. Children, maybe Mummy and Daddy will get together again.’
‘Fat chance,’ I said.
He looked around at my plaques and posters. ‘You’re political are you?’ he said.
‘I’m in a women’s group,’ I replied.
He asked my name. You get really distrustful, Christ, it wouldn’t have surprised me if he was from Special Branch. He went on.
‘Oh, you believe in abortion do you?’
‘I certainly do, I believe in the right of any women to choose. And I certainly don’t see you’ve got a right to say anything about it as a curate and even less as a man.’
‘Oh, tut, tut, tut!’ he said, ‘Do you mind if I say a wee prayer?’
I was laughing at him by then. ‘OK. If you want to, go ahead.’
‘Ah, dear God, please get Mummy and Daddy together again, for the four lovely children, and bless the little darlings.’
Little darlings! They’re little devils! He told me that the kids would suffer because I didn’t believe in God. They certainly aren’t suffering for that.
We had a centre in Ballymurphy but it was raided. The Brits came in and ran amok with dogs and all our stuff was taken. Then it was flooded and we couldn’t use it. We need financial support to open it up again. We want to open it and let women come in and use it when they want to. We want them to be able to come in with problems, say they’ve been beaten up or they want some help over the PDA. Or they could just come in for a chat.
I think the ways in which women in England can support us is they should go out and protest and be constantly at it. It’s important to realise how women here have to cope with so much.
1. Belfast Women’s Collective. The BWC, although more traditionally ‘feminist’ in its concerns and programme, works together with Women Against Imperialism.
2. PD. People’s Democracy. A small, Marxist democratic centralist organisation. PD were largely responsible for starting the Derry Civil Rights movement in 1968.
3. IRSP. Irish Republican Socialist Party. This is a split from the official Sinn Fein.
4. Sinn Fein. Political wing of the IRA. It means Ourselves Alone.
5. RAC. Relatives Action Committees. These were started in 1977 and are locally based with one central committee. They campaign mostly for the political prisoners.
Women’s Voice 33, 1979