Mairead Farrell was 31 when she was assassinated by the SAS in Gibraltar Sunday March 6th 1988. Eyewitnesses described how she, Sean Savage and Dan McCann, members of an unarmed IRA unit, were shot without warning and were deliberately killed at close range as they lay wounded on the ground.
The British media, with the exception of Thames TV’s “Death on the Rock, repeated the British Army propaganda that the three were armed and the local eyewitnesses were lying. There was also shock expressed at how a “woman like Mairead’ could have become involved with the IRA. To Mairead, however, her membership was a logical decision made as a result of a political analysis drawn from both personal experience and a study of Irish history.
Mairead was born in Belfast on the 3rd August 1957; the second youngest of six children and the only girl. She was twelve when the British Army took over the streets of Belfast in 1969. Mairead found school work easy but left after taking her O-levels. Politics was an important issue in the Farrell household. Mairead listened to her grandfathers stories but it was her Belfast experiences that politicized her, “It was really more the events of those years growing up in the Falls we had to pass through the Brits during the curfews you could only get out for a certain number of hours. We were all victims of the British occupation really you just accepted that you would be involved to defend your country.
She joined the IRA and said later, ‘A lot of 17 to 19 year olds were involved, maybe looking back I was very young then but I was politically aware. I know that now because my views haven’t changed if anything I have become stronger, more committed.” One of the attractions was “being treated equal to the lads. I don’t think sexism is rife in the Republican Movement, although that’s not to say we were exempt from it either. I suppose I’ve always believed we had a legitimate right to take up arms and defend ourselves against the Brits’ occupation. I wouldn’t have got involved if I hadn’t believed that.”
In 1976, Mairead was arrested after taking part in the IRA’s campaign. She was convicted of possession of explosives and membership of the IRA and sentenced to fourteen and a half years imprisonment. Mairead was sentenced at a crucial turning point in British policy and was to become the leader of the women in Armagh jail when the republican struggle was focused on the prisoners.
When Mairead entered Armagh in April 1976 she was the first woman republican prisoner to be sentenced under the new regulations and was refused special category status. She was isolated from the Republican organization in Armagh and only able to talk to the other fifty or so republican women for ten minutes after Mass on Sundays. She began a “no work protest” against the loss of special category status, “I knew now the battle would begin - the real battle - that the struggle would be a long and lonely one for us all
As other newly sentenced women entered Armagh they joined Mairead in protests. Mairead became Commanding Officer. ‘There was no kudos in it, I had to take decisions that would effect all the prisoners. There were times I felt very alone, even though I knew I had the support of the others at all times.’
The dirty protest that began on 7th February 1980 was forced on Mairead and her comrades. The Republican women were able to wear their own clothes; they were all dressed in black skirts and white blouses at a ceremony to honour Delaney. A week later, to crush this example of organised solidarity, a squad of 60 male and female warders surrounded the women at lunch time. Tim Pat Coogan stated that the women “were kicked and punched until order was restored’ Their cells were searched and wrecked by the warders and after the women were returned to their cells, “Men in riot gear armed with batons appeared in the cells again. The girls (sic) were beaten and carried down the stairs to the guard room to receive their punishment. The toilets were locked and they were confined to their cells for 24 hours.’
Mairead described the events to her parents: We were not allowed exercise nor out to the toilet or to get washed. We were locked up for 24 hours and allowed nothing to eat or drink. Male officers are still on the wing, they have not left and are running the wing got something to eat still not allowed use of toilet facilities. We have been forced into a position of “Dirt Strike’ as our pots are overflowing with urine and excrement. We emptied them out of the spy holes into the wing. The male officers nailed them closed.” Then later: ‘Male officers are still running the wing Lynn O’Connell was beaten twice, the second time was the worst. The officers jumped her as she was going out to the yard her face is badly swollen and cut.’
In early April 1980 Mairead wrote to her relatives, “The stench of urine and excrement clings to the cells and our bodies. No longer can we empty the pots out the window as the male screws have boarded them up regardless of day or night, the cells are dark for 23 hours a day we lie in these celIs’ The protest lasted 13 months. It was to Mairead the most frightening time of her imprisonment. Women were locked in pairs in cells measuring 3m x 2m (9ft x 6ft). During this time, Mairead told Tim Pat Coogan, “We are in a war situation. We have been treated in a special way and tried in special courts because of the war and because of our political activities. We want to be regarded as prisoners of war.
On 1st December 1980, Mairead, Mary Doyle and Mairead Nugent went on hunger strike in united action with the men in the Long Kesh ‘H Blocks. Afterwards she recalled how important was the support received from outside and also how she hated the distress caused to her parents. She continued on hunger strike until 19th December when it seemed the N.I.O. had agreed to the prisoners’ demands. This agreement was then retracted.
The Dirty Protest was called off in January 1981 in preparation for the second hunger strike in the H Blocks on 1st March 1981. A difficult decision not to join this was made by the women prisoners. It was the worst time for them as the women waited for news of the deaths, “I know it will be more difficult this time to win anything. It will take longer for the pressure to build up.” At the end of the interview Mairead said, “I am a volunteer in the Irish Republican Army and a political prisoner in Armagh jail. I am prepared to fight to the death, if necessary, to win the recognition that I am a political prisoner and not a criminal.’
In December 1982 strip searching was introduced at Armagh. The women republican prisoners refused to undergo these searches that were made before women were allowed out of the prison. Her last inter-prison visit to see her fiancee in Long Kesh was in October 1982 and she did not see him again until her release four years later. The remand prisoners suffered most from strip searching as they were searched before and after court hearings and were subject to regular beatings. The women republican prisoners ended their resistance to strip searching because of the fear of increasingly serious assaults. Mairead was strip searched on her release from Maghaberry Prison, “I felt it was the final insult. It’s designed as psychological torture, as a way of intimidating us.” Looking back on years in prison she saw them as teaching her the real values in life and making her more committed to her political beliefs.
During her last years of imprisonment, Mairead took Open University courses in Politics and Economics, and gained a place at Queen’s University on her release. She worked with the Strip Searching Campaign, speaking at meetings all over Ireland. She then reported back to the IRA. Just before her death she said, “You have to be realistic, you realise that ultimately you’re either going to be dead or end up in jail.”
“Everybody keeps telling me I’m a feminist. I just know I’m me and I think I’m as good as anyone else and that particularly goes for any man. I’m a socialist, definitely, and I’m a republican. I believe in a united Ireland; a united socialist Ireland, definitely socialist. Capitalism provided no answer at all for our people and I think that’s the Brit’s main interest in Ireland Once we remove the British that isn’t it, that’s only the beginning.”