Republican News · Thursday 18 November1999

[An Phoblacht]

Prison struggle discussed in London


The Wolfe Tone Society held its annual Bobby Sands/James Connolly commemoration on Sunday 14 November in London's Camden Irish Centre. The theme of the day's rally was Irish political prisoners. Around 250 people attended and the meeting was, fittingly, addressed by Bik McFarlane, former hunger striker Jackie McMullan, and Martina Anderson, a recently released POW who spent much of her 14 years' imprisonment in English jails.

Also speaking were former POW Nick Mullen and his 18-year-old daughter Jessica, who spoke about her experiences as a child when her parents were arrested under the PTA and she was put into care: ``As I was only seven, I did not understand fully what was happening around me,'' she said. ``I remember very little of that time, but I do remember that I was very confused and upset.

``I still have the first letter that my dad sent to me from prison, trying to explain to me what was happening. For a seven-year-old to be told that her father is in prison was incomprehensible and devastating; as far as I was concerned prison was for bad people, not people like my dad. However, I was never made to feel ashamed of my dad and always supported him.''

Bik McFarlane paid fulsome praise to those who had campaigned over the years on behalf of prisoners and recalled the struggle in Long Kesh prison throughout the 1970s and `80s, saying: ``The importance of that period shouldn't be lost on people - it certainly isn't lost on political observers and politicians, who regard it as a watershed in this struggle. Even people in government over here, who were connected to foreign policy, recognised what was happening in the prisons and they knew that it was going to create a major, long-term problem for the British''.

Speaking about the current talks process, Jackie McMullan related a lesson he learned as a 20-year-old in the aftermath of the hunger strikes: ``We had a policy of not talking to the screws and I personally carried that to an extreme. I wouldn't speak a word to them. And the more it went on, the more I went deeper into my own trench. During 1982 and 1983 there were five of us that refused to come off the protest.'' But, he said, the sight of Bik sitting in the Prison Officer's room one day forced him to rethink: ``I was walking past the PO's office one day and there was Bik sitting in the office with his feet up on the desk. I went back to the cell and thought `What's happening?' And then, shortly after that, we realised what was happening; that was the escape in 1983. The screws had been completely conditioned to the point that 38 people were able to escape. It was one of the greatest morale boosters our people had ever had.

``The reason I talk about it as a lesson is because shortly afterwards, I did realise that I was wrong. I was stuck in my own trench, but whereas there were people there as committed as me, they saw the old saying that there is more than one way to skin a cat. And I think about that very often.''

Martina Anderson, on her first visit to England since being transferred, spoke of the pride and support evoked by the current leadership. She also paid tribute to the late Nina Hutchinson, who before her death campaigned relentlessly on behalf of prisoners, most especially against the indignities perpetrated against women prisoners.

Martina also spoke of the particular difficulties faced by women.''I feel that the role played by women in our struggle has not been as well documented as that played by our male comrades,'' she said. ``Women fought equally in this war, some making the ultimate sacrifice. The gender imbalance is one which I believe our movement needs to address''.

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