The anguish of Roisin McAliskey
The anguish of Roisin McAliskey

The following article by Nell McCafferty, originally published in December 1996, recalls the campaign to free Roisin McAliskey following British attempts to extradite her to Germany. Roisin, the daughter of former nationalist MP Bernadette McAliskey, was re-arrested last week in County Tyrone on foot of a new extradition warrant. She was released on bail pending a further hearing.

Five months pregnant, asthmatic and suffering from a rheumatic dontion, Bernadette McAliskey’s daughter is locked up in Holloway prison awaiting extradition to Germany. Because of staff shortages and the conditions under which she is kept, there could be a delay in responding to a medical emergency, putting Ms McAliskey and her unborn baby at risk.

There is a panic button in Roisin McAliskey’s prison cell. It is not there specially for her - all cells in Hollway are so equipped - But it is especially necessary in her case, if the life of her unborn child is to be saved.

Roisin McAliskey is an asthmatic. The asthmastic attacks are sometimes so severe that she lapses into unconsciousness. The problem is, nobody, can guarantee an instant response to the panic button.

Hollway suffers from a shortage of staff. Hollway is so inadequate as a prison, in fact, that a team from the Inspectorate of Prisons did not finish a three-day inspectio of it this year. After 24 hours’ sxurveillance, the team walked out, appalled.

So, how long does it take to respond to a call for help from a woman of frail constitution who is five months pregnant?

That depends on the day, or the night, or hour that’s in it and how many staff are around. Ms McAliskey’s plight is further exacerbated by the fact that she is a Category A prisoner. That means she is regarded as dangerous, a high risk person who must be approached with caution. Prison officers cannot apaproach her unescorted. If she presses the button, the POs have to send for security personnel whose special job it is to protect POs from dangerous prisoners.

Between shortages and specialisations, it can take an awfully long time in the vast conglomerate of buildings that is Holloway to muster up sufficient protection for those who job it is to respond to a call for help from the asthmatic pregnant Roisin McAliskey.

The uncertainty about the time lapse between a call for help and response to it adds to the pressure on her. If there’s one thing that an asthmatic needs, it’s the certainty of an instant response to the threat of death by suffocation. Asthmatics have to gasp for air.

Since she was arraigned before a London court a moth ago, magistrates have expressed concern about the conditions under which Roisin McAliskey is enduring pregnancy. Mr. Ronald Bartle said on 13 December that reports on the treatment of her in prison made “disturbing reading.” and said that there was “no justification” for the faialure of prison authorities to provide her with the necessary medical atention.

Last Friday, 20 December, Ms McAliskey’s lawyer, Gareth Peirce agreed with Magistrate Peter Badge that there had been an improvement in the regime, but pointed out that the improvements, such as they were, had to be dragged out of the authorities “inch by inch, millimetre by millimetre.” More medical attention is available but how quickly can it be delivered.

Nobody can say.

Ms Peirce pointed ot that staff shortages in Hollway were such that her client had been locked into her prison cell since 4pm the day before. Holloway could not muster up the six policemen necessary to escort Ms McAliskey to the televisionroom for half an hour’s evening viewing. That’s another thing about Category A; the prison is not allowed to associate with other prisoners. Ms McAliskey, surrounded by six cops, plus prison officers,may not speak to the other women prisoners in the TV room. Category A prisoners may not work, associate, go to the library or to the exercise yard. Nothing personal. Roisin McAliskey is just a a number. Other Category A prisoners are treated exactly the same.

Except that she is pregnant, Gareth Peirce returned again and again to the haunting theme, in the course of a quiet, powerful, impassioned 40-minute plea for bail. A pregnant woman should be able to “eat and rink as she desires”, and this is not really possible for a prisoner, totally impossible for Category A, especially Category A McAliskey in the shambles that is Holloway.

That’s another thing about Roisin. She has suffered from birth from a rheumatic condition in her joints. She needs to exercise. Holloway has offered her a stunted trip along a short covered walkway, daily if staff are available, the time of day never known beforehand.

The medical areports on Rosin since the day she was born would fill a book,” her father says. Roisin looked grand in the early stages of the hearing which began after 9:30 in the morning. She was not looking for, does not look for, pity. She winked and smiled at those journalists she recognised. Then, at 18 minutes past 10, she pressed her hand to the small of her back and eased herself, the way pregnant women do. She became pale. Water was brought to her. You could see her struggle, just a little for breath, the way a pregnant woman might, yo reassured yourself as the long moment passed. At 20 minutes past 10 she glanced over to the press gallery and grinned.

She only once looked back at her family, who were penned in behind her, in the public gallery. Nothing personal there either?all members of the public in Bow Street Court, must sit at the back, behind a screen of glass and wood.

Roisin’s father, Michale, pressed his ear to the glass, straining to hear the proceedings. Her sister Deirdre pressed her face to the glass. The father of Roisin’s child, Belfast-born Sean McCotter, her companion since 1992, who shares a home with Roisin in Coalisland, stood with Michael and Deirdere, unable, like them, to stay seated in the pen.

“Is her family here?” an English ;journalist asked. Gareth Peirce had just reminded the magistrate of the high-profile circumstances of Roisin’s birth 25 hears ago. Her mother, Bernadette Devlin, was then an MP. Bernadette was not in court on Friday.

The magistrate indicated with a nod of his head that he knew perfectly well who Bernadette was. Who Bernadette is. Ms Peirce continued to press the point. Who “the McAliskey family are. This family’s word is their bond. They have never, never run away from difficulty or danger, not even aftere the attempted assassination....”Ms Peirce was making that point that if ever there was “a safe bet”, for bail, Roisin McAliskey was that bet.

Ms Peirce’s sole object in court was to get bail for Roisin so that thesafe passage of her unborn child into the world could be assured. The other matters were rendered almost irrelevant in the course of Ms Peirce’s address. Roisin McAliskey,who protests that she is innocent,would face and fight extradition to Germany, a charge of attempted murder, possible life imprisonment, imprisonment while awaiting the outcome of the court proceeding, as fully and openly as her family has always faced such matters.

But Ms Peirce asked for bail for Roisin, that the unborn child would have a fighting chance for life itself. It will take months, more than a year possibly, for the charge against Roin McAliskey to wind its way through Britain and Germany.

Ms Peirce assure the magistrate that if he set this pregnant woman free, while awaiting trial, his trust would “be rewarded”. She invited him to impose any conditions he wanted on bail. “Anything, anything,” said one of the most eminent and trusted lawyers in England.

an Irish Catholic Chaplaincy in London had offered to keep and supervise Roisin, while awaiting trial and she could report to the police twice a day; a Columban Order in London had made a similar offer, the owner of a nursing home in Northern Ireland had offered similar accomodation and guarantees plus £100,000 cash bail; there was £200,000, in cash, available for bail surety, from five signed-up people from Roisin’s own community in Tyrone, if the magistrate wanted, more, much more than that in cash, if one took into account pleges flowing in from people of little property and none throughout the North.

“Anything, anything,” the magistrate cared to name, so that the unborn child would have a chance. A scan showed that “the baby was still alive”, Ms Peirce said bleakly. The scan was taken on what she called “a pit stop” in a hospital, as Roisin was rushed from the all-male Belmarsh prison back to Holloway. Home Secretary Michael Howard had her transferred to Belmarsh to assure the safety of the United Kingdom “and then”, as I stood by the side of the road with Eamon O Cuiv, waiting to get in to see her, the ambulance roared out. Belmarsh got rid of her. They knew how sick she was”.

Ms Peirce pointed out that Gerard Power, who was two years agao charged with membership of the IRA and attempted murder at the same army barracks in Germany had been given bail in Bow Street (and that the charge was subsequently dropped.)

The magistrate said no. His reasons were that the German government ooposed bail, and that he personally declined to use his own discredition because “Ms McAliskey has no settled ties in Great Britain”. This fact of Roisin McAliskey’s life, that she was born in Northern Ireland, has temporarily sealed her fate and that of her unborn child. The magistrate saw her as Irish and the ties between the North and the rest of the United Kingdom as most unsettling.

Roisin turned and waved briefly to her family. Before the door into the courtroom closed, she could be seen from the press bench, out in the corridor, adjusting her hands behind her back for the handcuffs. “They’ll not break break her,” said her father afterwards. Then he added “or at least, they’ll not break her handy.” (Handy means easily in the North.) Her imprisonment, awaiting birth and trial, need not be. [Former Taoiseach] John Bruton could ensure that Roisin McAliskey is set free next week. The court sits again on Friday, 27 December.

Mr. Bruton, in the last days of his power as president of the EC, could have a word with Chancellor Kohl of Germany, impress upton him that as co-guarantor of the Anglo-Irish Agtreement and Toaiseach of the Irish citizen Roisin McAliskey and intimate with the McAliskey family history, that he, John Bruton, could personally guarantee that this pregnant woman will turn up for trial.

For Mr. Bruton is as much an intimate of that family as any of us, and all of us, are. Who among us does not know of Bernadette Devlin McAliskey? Love her, loathe her, disagree with her. Mr. Bruton knows as well as any Irish person that the McAliskey family’s word is their bond, that they do not run away, that they face up to their personal responsibilities in the political ruin that has flowed from the hsitory of the North, which has engulfed us all, caused us all to suffer, caused more suffering to the McAliskeys than most.

Must the suffering continue into the third generation, unto the unborn child? Mr. Bruton has a constitutional responsibility to protect “as far as is practicable”, the life of the unborn. While there is time, even as time runs out for the baby in Roisin McAliskey’s womb, the president of EC should pick up the phone.

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