From New Zealand to an Irish prison cell
Twenty years ago a young Maori, Ana Meihana, left New Zealand for
Belfast. She intended to search out her Irish connections. What
she found was Armagh Jail.
What I wanted was to find out first hand what lay behind all the
news headlines concerning the Troubles.
While I was sympathetic with the republican people's struggle for
self-determination, I was nevertheless a very naive product of
`middle' New Zealand.
I was a young girl, barely out of my teens. I had aspirations of
an eventual career in the field of law, specialising in human
rights. What I saw and experienced in Belfast in 1977 and 1978
was to change my life totally.
I stayed first with a nationalist family in Ballymurphy. This
family welcomed me in warmly and willingly shared what little
I was shocked at the levels of poverty I witnessed. But a worse
shock awaited me.
On my second day in West Belfast I woke up to the sound of a
`heli' skimming the rooftops. Suddenly my room was full of armed
soldiers. Somebody had me by the shoulder, shouting `Effin' well
get up, you Provie whore!'
The family I was with were being held at gunpoint in their
lounge. I joined them as soldiers ransacked their home. The
soldiers bullied, abuse and threatened us. Permission to light a
gas heater to keep a sick baby warm was refused.
On finding a Relatives Action Committee (a prisoners' support
group) pamphlet in the house, the soldiers lifted the eldest son.
I will never forget the sight of his mother afterwards, weeping
with worry and anger.
West Belfast is similar to urban areas in New Zealand where high
concentrations of Maori and Pacific Islanders live. There were
few amenities, shocking roads, substandard housing and high
Most families were forced to exist on benefits far less than the
equivalent in New Zealand. But before receiving any benefit, it
was necessary to endure humiliating home visits from Social
My own application for `the broo' (dole) was declined, with
Northern Ireland Social Security refusing to honour UK/NZ
reciprocal arrangements then in place. They also ridiculed me for
living in nationalist West Belfast, saying that no employer would
take me on with a Ballymurphy address.
Having to pass British patrols on a daily basis was
nerve-wracking. I felt as if I'd gone back in time to
Nazi-occupied Europe, seeing tanks on the streets, having to
dodge gunfire and witnessing the harassment of ordinary people
going about their lives.
I was stopped in the streets frequently. Every time the soldiers
abused me, threatened me and assaulted me.
Once I was shoved up against a wall and a rifle with the safety
catch off was waved in my face.
I was also lifted on several occasions. During these, I was
interrogated, sworn at, threatened, subjected to sexual innuendo
and, on one occasion, shown graphic photographs of bomb victims.
Threats were also made against the family I was staying with, in
particular their adolescent daughter.
I moved on, I stayed with a young mother and her chid in
Andersonstown. Her husband was a POW in Long Kesh and she, too,
had very little.
I accompanied the families on marches in support of the POWs and
was amazed at the strong sense of community I witnessed. People
turned out on the streets in their thousands and, day to day,
helped each other in every way.
There were strong parallels to Maori society, with communities
coming together to address their own needs.
Deprived of a decent bus service, the Falls Road Taxi Association
had bought up fleets of old London taxis and set up an efficient,
affordable transport service. Fares were very cheap and profits
went back into the community.
I found temporary employment at an upmarket brasserie on the
outskirts of Belfast. The boss would drop me off in Andersonstown
after my shifts.
One night I was accosted by eight soldiers. They were Royal
Marine Commandos, stationed in Belfast at the time. They were
drunk. For over an hour they threatened me. I eventually got back
to my home in Andersonstown. I was shaken.
I then found a job with a Protestant family on the Malone Road. I
was to be their nanny. Living standards there were in sharp
contrast to the deprivations of West Belfast.
The family here teated me very well. They weren't interested in
the politics of Northern Ireland and allowed me generous time off
to visit my friends across town in the nationalist
My wages were now allowing me, finally, to reimburse the families
that had kept me for so long. But discovering that my new
employers had friends in the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) made
me feel guilty and uncomfortable.
During visits from their RUC friends, I either absented myself or
kept as low a profile as possible.
During my time working on the Malone Road I visited West Belfast
on a regular basis, attended marches and rallies and called into
the Sinn Féin rooms on the Falls Road as much as possible.
On one of these visits I briefly encountered Gerry Adams, whom
I'd previously been introduced to. I remembered the day - I was
roughed up by passing soldiers as I came out of the building.
I had a camera and decided to start using it. I took snaps of
police and army brutality at a rally in the city. I intended
sending them back to New Zealand for processing, and from there
to the news media.
I went out to post my film. I turned into the Grosvenor Road and
was watching soldiers taking tea and chatting to housewives on
the pavement. I couldn't believe how polite they were after what
I had witnessed in nationalist West Belfast.
There was a heavy army presence. Suddenly a Saracen armoured
personnel carrier swung to a stop in front of me.
At the same time I heard running footsteps.
A voice shouted, ``Stop or I fire!''
A hand came down on my shoulder. I turned to find a rifle being
waved in my face by the police.
I was hustled into a Saracen and driven to Castlereagh
I was terrified. I'd read accounts of the torture at the centre.
I was put into a white-walled room with a light that never turned
off, day or night. A low humming noise came from somewhere. It
In the distance I could hear shouting, screaming.
By the time I was taken for interrogation, I was completely
disoriented. I hadn't eaten, slept or been allowed to wash for
I was told that my mother in Auckland had been told of my arrest
and, as a result, was now in Intensive Care in Auckland Hospital.
I was told - with relish - that my troubled teenager sister would
end up `getting the broom' in a girls' home. I fainted.
By the time I was transferred to Armagh Women's Prison I was a
wreck. No one had done anything to find out how my mum was. I was
conscious of my dishevelled appearance and the fact that I smelt.
I was so relieved when a young woman named Mary Doyle came into
my cell and asked what I'd been charged with. I told her I'd been
charged with communicating information to terrorists and nearly
cried with relief with she said, ``You're one of us''.
She took me to meet Maureen McCullen, with whom I was to share a
cell. After that, a group of us gathered in the cell of another
POW, Clare Delaney, for a cuppa. Everyone was so pleasant and
friendly, listening with interest to my story and sharing what
they'd been through in Castlereagh. I heard horrifying stories of
Throughout my six months in Armagh, these women POWs maintained
the same high standards of discipline, morale and community
spirit I'd witnessed in the nationalist community outside.
Despite some straight talk later on about my naive assumptions,
these women supported me in every way.
In mid-1978 things deteriorated. We had staged a protest over the
shockingly bad quality of prison food.
Armed male warders in full riot gear stormed A Wing, batoning us
down, brutally throwing one of us down a full flight of stairs.
We were now locked up for 24 hours, denied exercise and permitted
to use the toilets at the screws' discretion.
Eventually we were permitted exercise and allowed to attend
weekly Mass in the chapel. Mass was a chance for women from
different wings to associate briefly together.
I was introduced to IRA Volunteer Dolores Price and other
sentenced POWs. I also met the late Volunteer Mairead Farrell
(shot by the SAS at Gibraltar).
In a singular, five minute encounter she made a deep and lasting
impression upon me. After her murder ten years later, my
estimations of her were confirmed in full by the moving
testimonies of family, friends and fellow ex-prisoners.
My eldest daughter, now aged six, is named in her honour.
Like all remand prisoners, I had to appear in the Belfast court
every week to be remanded. On one occasion myself and another
prisoner, Briege Brownlee, were on the way to court when the
escort van broke down. When a replacement arrived we had to walk
two yards to it. This involved blocking off the street and
marching us between two lines of heavily armed soldiers.
Everywhere I looked there were more soldiers. I couldn't believe
My cellmate, Maureen McCullen, got bail and I moved in with
Lillian McMahon from the Short Strand. I grew very fond of Lil,
who was very straight up and told me I needed to wise up. Her
brother Jake McMahon had recently been found drowned in the Lagan
River. He had last been seen in the custody of the RUC.
At no time was Lil offered any grief counselling and her only
support came from the rest of us. In fact, the authorities never
hesitated to use his death against Lil when it suited them.
I made her a taonga in his memory. It was a drawing in
felt-tipped pen on a white linen handkerchief.
During a cell search the screws demanded I hand it over. I could
not believe that even screws could sink so low.
I was equally shocked by the abysmal health care regime in the
prison. Painkillers and, later, hallucinogenic drugs were the
substitute for quality medical care.
Sick women were accused of being neurotic and even the most
serious cases of threatened miscarriages had to comply with
rigorous red tape in order to be referred to a proper hospital.
I recall Pauline McLoughlin who was allowed to waste away with
anorexia nervosa until international pressure saw her admitted to
a hospital. She was literally at death's door. She resembled
something out of Belsen.
Eventually international pressure and high profile media
attention back in New Zealand saw me released, by way of a
deportation order issued in late 1978.
I found that among the telegrams that had been sent to me was one
from Nga Tamatoa. It never reached me - a deliberate ploy, I
believe, to make me feel that the Maori community had totally
ignored my plight.
Back home, family and friends were willing to listen to my
account of life in the Six Counties, but the general public were
not. Nobody would employ me. Mainstream society treated me like
some sort of traitor.
When I registered for work at the Labour Department, I was
subjected to a severe political interrogation. Thanks to Jimmy
O'Dea, his son Pat and some other new friends, this Labour
Department interrogator was reprimanded.
Being so well known made me lose confidence in enrolling at
university to study law.
I tried hard to keep in touch with my friends in Ireland, but
every letter came back covered with SIS and Special Branch
Mum's phone was tapped and my movements monitored for a long time
I learnt many valuable lessons from my time in Ireland and `wised
up' considerably over the years. As a gesture of solidarity, I
have written a novel set in republican West Belfast. It is yet to
find a publisher. I have dedicated it to Mairead Farrell and the
I am considering whether to sue the British government for what
they did to me.
I believe that I can be one voice in exposing the full extent of
Britain's brutality and insidious cruelty in Ireland.
This article is reprinted with the kind permission of Saoirse,
the New Zealand-Irish magazine published by Information on Ireland