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21 January 1999 Edition

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Developing a spirit of revolution

In an exclusive interview 27-year old Geraldine spoke to An Phoblacht's Ned Kelly and described how the fight by republican women in Armagh jail and Maghaberry over the years for better conditions was a positive force that shaped her outlook on life and on struggle

Geraldine Ferrity, the last female Republican prisoner to be released from Maghaberry under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, told An Phoblacht that she only heard she would be released the day before she got out, just three days before Christmas on 22 December.

Geraldine said: ``It came out of the blue, so in many ways I wasn't fully prepared. Release wasn't something I'd really thought about and I hadn't even started the parole programme yet.''

Turning to the advances of Republicanism she said, ``in the nine years since I was imprisoned in November 1990 there have been massive changes in the level of political activity and the political commitment of Republicans. These are interesting times.''

Still firmly committed to Republican ideals, Geraldine said, ``the whole sea change towards a more focused political strategy was not a shock. The political developments are a continuation of the struggle. It is a natural progression from the political development of Republicans both inside the prisons and outside on the ground.

``Everyone has developed; where previously the struggle had been less political now it is much more political and now everyone has an opinion, which is great.''

A key moment for Geraldine was the breakdown of the first IRA cessation in 1994.

``Through the first and then second ceasefires there was loads of debate about what was going to happen, with lots of different views and strong feelings. And, even before the breakdown of the first ceasefire there was a lot of anger at [British Prime Minister] John Major. He did nothing to move the peace process forward. Republicans tried so hard to ensure the process kept up its momentum but still Major did not respond in kind.''

Over the last nine years there have also been significant successes for Sinn Féin.

``One of the great moments for me was the election of local Sinn Féin councillor Terence Brogan to Omagh council. Not such a surprising thing these days in itself but that he got so many votes over and above anyone else was a real indication of the growing political strength of the movement.''

On a more personal note, Geraldine said, ``when I first went into Maghaberry it was hard, but in that time I have learnt a lot, you have to learn to live with people who are basically strangers very quickly. The whole process of personal development, the studying, education, ad hoc political debates and deep friendships are related to the political maturing of the Republican movement as a whole. It wasn't just a political education, you also learnt a lot about other people and about living with other people.

``Although relationships with people outside of the jails were different, they were maintained and in many ways became stronger. It's also knowing that if you needed anything people would be there even if you didn't have direct physical contact.''

The commitment of family and friends from her native Co Tyrone and Sinn Féin and the POW Department were also vital links to the developing climate. Geraldine said, ``they kept you up to date on not only the wider political debates but also the local issues and also helped maintain the links with the local community.''

People writing letters from as afar afield as America, Australia, New Zealand and the Basque country were also important. ``It showed the system that we weren't on our own,'' Geraldine said.

``The spirit in Maghaberry was phenomenal. As a group of Republicans we were very strong, although there was so few of us we fought for everything like there was 200 of us. We kept up the battle for better conditions and backed each other no matter what. It also meant that everything was more informal.''

During her incarceration in Maghaberry the Republican women forced changes in the lock-up regime, the introduction of telephones and a furniture making course. But, added Geraldine, ``some of the major changes in conditions were won by the women in the Armagh jail.''

Geraldine also spoke of one of the pivotal moments in her youth, the death of hunger striker Bobby Sands. She said, ``Bobby Sands died three weeks before my tenth birthday. It was a major event, no-one thought the British would let him die. Before then I didn't really understand the depth of what was going on. I mean you knew it was bad but after that you realised that something very serious was going on.''

As we enter a decisive moment for the Good Friday Agreement, Geraldine also said that the discrimination and lack of equality rampant under Unionist power was now ``no secret'' and that the British government ``should do more to move the Unionists forward''.

``Everyone is entitled to basic rights, that Unionists are blocking the basic democratic rights of the 130,000 people who voted for Sinn Féin shows how easy Unionists find undemocratic behaviour. Equality is the bench mark for everything, there should be no discrimination for any reason.

``People shouldn't ever lose focus of the fact that religion is not the real issue, the war here is not a Protestant/Catholic thing but between the Irish and the British and their forces of repression.

``But there is a long way to go and I would be happier with the rest of the POWs being released immediately and the disbandment of the RUC and their replacement with a totally new policing service.''

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An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1
Ireland
 

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