13 March 1997 Edition
Set her free!
There is no excuse for the continued detention of Roisín McAliskey, it is clear this week, as the British and German governments come under increasing Irish and international pressure over her case.
Roisín is entering her eighth month of pregnancy in a British prison while Germany, at the behest of British interrogators, continues to demand her extradition in connection with the IRA bombing of a barracks at Osnabrück.
Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern this week accused British Home Secretary Michael Howard of ``constant petty tyranny'' with regard to Irish political prisoners. Protests were held in Germany, England, Ireland, Norway, Australia, the USA and elsewhere this week in support of Roisín McAliskey and pressure is mounting to end the tradition of treating Irish prisoners as less than human in British prisons.
Our photos show a protest outside the German Lufthansa airline office in New York last Saturday and a student fast outside the British embassy in Dublin on Wednesday.
Roisín McAliskey is entering her eighth month of pregnancy in a British prison. She has been charged with nothing. The British state cannot cope with Roisín. The German authorities have colluded in the charade which is an abuse of her rights as a woman and as a mother-to-be. Her case has become an international scandal.
Below Rita O'Reilly and Eoin O Broin report on events held over the past week in support of Roisín.
Solicitor Gareth Peirce represents Roisín McAliskey. Below are extracts from her speech to a Fuaiscailt meeting in London last Friday.
``Roisín has suffered uniquely, extraordinarily, in ways that it's uncomfortable to describe. Yet however painful, it is still right that people should know, and that's the scandal of this, that a shy, private, lovely young woman is having to have everything that has happened to her exposed and made into the public scandal that it is.
Finally, the Crown Prosecutor owned up and said they have been advising the Germans all along. Who has been advising the Crown Prosecution Service all along?
Belmarsh prison, where she was briefly and scandulously treated, held no other woman prisoner. I know of no male prisoner, serial killer or child molester, who's been put in a cell that's been used for a dirty protest and who's been told that they've got to themselves clean out that cell; who hasn't been able to eat for three days because of the stench in the cell and then who's been told by doctors that their blood count shows that they are suffering advanced starvation, that their body is no longer eating up bodily reserves.
All of this has happened to Roisín. She was under no disciplinary offence, she has not been charged with anything.
There are things that are happening to her, ways of attempting to humiliate and degrade and punish, that to my knowledge have never been done to any prisoner before. And yet, they're being done to a pregnant woman and they're being done to the daughter of a famous, magnificent woman, who would strike fear into the heart of anyone who did ill to anyone who is an underdog.
Roisín has a certainty about her which I find extraordinary. She is tiny, she is the least likely person you could imagine to present a threat to anybody. She is kind and she's thoughtful and decent and caring. In Holloway, when I see her now, she comes into the room with a list of queries about other prisoners' problems and how she can sort them out.
If Roisín were charged with attempted murder it is a charge that can't possibly be sustained for a minute on the evidence that's presented, not for a minute. If she were to be charged here tomorrow there would be no requirement to prepare to defend the case; there isn't a case. I have asked for the statements that support the precis of evidence that's been presented, or non-evidence as it is, and I have been refused...
Think of the effect when a young woman with a planned, wanted first baby is heading into the uncertainty of not knowing if the baby will be taken away and knowing, as indeed she has been told, that as soon as the baby is born she will be shackled.
She's been strong, her family has been strong, but this should not have happened and this should not be happening to any prisoner, Irish, English or any nationality.
In this case, there aren't any holds barred, no sub judice, there are no restrictions. If this information is shocking, then it should be spread to the four winds.''
Flowers for freedom!
by Rita O'Reilly
Bunches of purple, white and green balloons decorated the trees outside Holloway women's prison walls last Saturday where over 300 people gathered in a noisy, busy show of solidarity with Roisín McAliskey and all women prisoners inside.
Bernadette McAliskey was there and an all-women platform included speakers from Fuaiscailt, the political prisoners campaign and singers from the Women's Choir. Southall Black Sisters drummed up yet more support in the background.
Interflora florists delivered hundreds of bouquets of flowers, all sent from Ireland in a huge show of solidarity with Roisín for International Women's Day. In the end, the prison service allowed a token 26 bouquets into the jail, which were to be displayed in public areas inside. Lines of flowers were assembled outside, including several from women's refuges.
Speaking at a public meeting organised by Fuaiscailt on the previous night, Bernadette McAliskey said that whether it was Roisín McAliskey in 1997, or O'Donovan Rossa a hundred years before, the attitude of the British authorities to Irish prisoners was unchanged.
She explained: ``Terrorism isn't the problem when we deal with the British government, when we face the PTA; terrorism isn't the problem when the Germans send for my daughter. What we're dealing with here is not terrorism: on the one hand we're dealing with a racist authority and on the other hand we're dealing with fear. Their fear is that they are not able to answer to the criticism of the people who vote for them...''
The real definition of terrorism in Britain, she said, was all those who effectively challenge the existing establishment.
``We have got to a stage in this country when all you have to do is cry terror and in the minds of people a rational sane human being goes out the window and a `terrorist' is there instead.''
She named a British official who interrogated Roisín and said he held Roisín ``because in Castlereagh interrogation centre she was not cowed, intimidated, emotionally or physically broken by a great big bully. That's what her crime is, that for all his macho threats, Roisín McAliskey sat in front of him and was not bowed.''
Most of Roisín McAliskey's work has been done through the women's movement, through Women's Aid and women's refuges, Bernadette pointed out. Most of her work was in the voluntary and community sectors.
``It's very unclear why Roisín as an individual was detained. But it was in a situation where the police in Northern Ireland were literally trawling for and questioning young computer-literate women and arresting computers wholesale in West Belfast.'' Dozens of women like Roisín were held and questioned.
``Now the Germans say they asked for her detention and extradition but not that she be held or deprived of her liberty during extradition. The British say the Germans did ask. Finally, the Crown Prosecutor owned up and said they have been advising the Germans all along. Who has been advising the Crown Prosecution Service all along?''
Responding to the news of the changes in her daughter's prison status, Bernadette McAliskey said: ``Roisín's status has now been changed from high risk Category A, escape risk, to Category A, standard risk. What was it she has done after four months in prison to convince them she won't try to escape?''
``Under her new status in Category A, Roisín has learned she might be allowed to sew. That's what everybody wants to hear on the eve of International Women's Day, that she might be allowed to sew.''
``Anne Widdecombe said I was grossly exaggerating when I said she had been strip searched in excess of 100 times. She said she had only in fact been strip-searched 75 times.''
Bernadette pointed out that Anne Widdecombe was very outspoken on the rights of mothers and the duties of mothers to their children. Yet Anne Widdecombe was the Home Office minister defending the strip-searching and the ill-treatment of Roisín McAliskey.
Both Bernadette McAliskey and solicitor Gareth Peirce highlighted the cases of prisoners involved in the Whitemoor escape attempt in September 1994, which has been the subject of an extensive cover-up attempt by British authorities. Gareth Peirce said the men, who include miscarriage of justice victim Danny McNamee, are continuing to suffer abuse and deprivation at the hands of officers and officials in the British prison service.
If this information is shocking, then it should be spread to the four winds.
Claire Casey of the Danny McNamee Campaign was amongst the speakers at an International Women's Day rally for Roisín McAliskey in Dublin. A hundred green and purple balloons were released. Noirín Greene, Women's Officer for SIPTU, the largest trade union in Ireland, led a list of speakers including the Deputy President of the Union of Students of Ireland, Noleen Hartigan; veteran women's rights activist Sylvia Meehan, Mags O'Brien, who led the Divorce Action Group; Ivana Bacik, Professor of Law at Trinity College and Kathleen O'Neill of KLEAR. Ursula Barry, speaking for the Women's Committee of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties said despite the exposure of the British justice system through numerous Irish cases, the latest being the Bridgewater Three, Roisín had been denied bail ``on the basis of secret information seen only by the presiding magistrate.''
``In this we see the real nature of the British commitment to the peace process'', she said.
Solidarity greetings sent to the rally included ones from Green MEP Patricia McKenna, Síle de Valera TD, and British Labour MEP Christine Oddy.
A solidarity message was also received from an International Women's Day conference in Galway, where in her keynote address, journalist Nell McCafferty highlighted Roisín's case.
`Only 75 times'
At a public meeting in Cork on 6 March, Justice Campaign spokesperson Oliver Kearney said it was a matter of regret that there had been no official comment from any church on Roisín's case.
Deirdre McAliskey, Roisín's sister returned from New York on Tuesday 10 March to speak at a benefit gig organised by the Justice Campaign in Dublin. Christy Moore, Eilish Moore, Luka Bloom, and Yenanja performed, adding to a extraordinary line-up which included musicians Noel Hill and Tony McMahon, Cormac Breathnach, Conor Byrne and Kila.
Chair of the National Women's Council Noreen Byrne, who was part of a delegation which visited Roisín last week told the audience that the change in Roisín's prison status ``means almost nothing really''.
Addressing the German authorities, Deirdre McAliskey said: ``Bring forward your evidence now or admit that you have been duped by the British government.'' Referring to the decision this week on whether Roisín can keep her baby, she said it was ironic that ``the very perpetrators of the human rights abuses against my sister will decide whether she will be allowed keep her child or not.''
Benefit Concert in support of Roisín McAliskey Justice Group
Friday, 14 March, 8pm.
``Only 75 times has she been strip searched in front of them, they say, only 75 times humiliated. I don't know what mercy they think they're serving her when they say she may not now be strip searched quite so often.''
Deirdre McAliskey said the campaign had three demands: that the strip searching end immediately; that Roisín be guaranteed proper medical and obstetric care and that it be guaranteed that she can keep her baby.
``None of our demands have been met. Until those three demands are met, it's not over.''
As a petition calling for Roisín's release was handed in to the British embassy by Dublin TD Tony Gregory on Wednesday, a student fast in protest at her incarceration continued outside its walls.
At the National Union of Students conference in Blackpool, delegates suspended standing orders to discuss Roisín's case.
New York, Belfast, Derry
by Eoin O Broin
In an emotional address to one of the largest Irish-related demonstrations in New York for many years, Deirdre McAliksey, Roisin's sister vowed on Saturday that ``the protests, pickets and boycotts of German goods and companies will continue until Roisin is released from jail''. The demonstration lasted an hour outside the Lufthansa Airline office on 5th Avenue before crossing the busiest part of the city to rally outside the British consulate. Speakers from Amnesty International, Helsinki Watch and Families Against Deportations along with Puerto Rican activists and a leading trade union official addressed the rally.
In Derry, a cage was placed outside the Guildhall and a woman spent four hours inside as a symbolic gesture of solidarity with McAliskey. The Bogside and Brandywell women's group painted a mural which was erected on Free Derry Corner. Hundreds of signatures were forwarded to the British Home Office calling for McAliskey's immediate release.
Protests also took place in North and West Belfast. At one protest in Divis Street in the Lower Falls British soldiers and the RUC blocked the four-lane road. However they were thwarted when over 100 managed to squeeze between armoured personnel carriers, continuing the rally near the city centre.
Protests in support of Roisín McAliskey were also held in Monaghan and Sligo and in Australia, Norway and in Germany.
``No reason to hold Roisín''
by Eoin O Broin
Following the adjournment of her application for bail on 11 March, Roisín McAliskey faces another court hearing this Friday, 14 March. Under the downgrading of her category status last Friday, strip-searching will no longer be mandatory but will, nonetheless, continue on a discretionary basis.
Extradition proceedings were to begin on 8 March. However that hearing was postponed because of the new bail application and McAliskey's appeal to the House of Lords where she is seeking to have her extradition ruled unlawful. She is due to appear before Bow Street Magistrates court again on 9 April.
On 12 March a number of social workers, probation officers and Holloway prison staff met Roisín to decide whether she will be allowed to keep her child.
Speaking to An Phoblacht, Oliver Kearney of the Roisín McAliskey Justice Group said the decision by the British Home Office to reclassify Roisin to standard risk Category A was ``breathtaking in its arrogance and in its cynical political expediency. The argument that Roisin should be refused bail on the grounds of her `High Risk' category and the likelihood that she might abscond, is now utterly unsustainable, and there is not a shred of justification for continuing to hold her in custody''.
Dr Jane Wilde of the Women's Coalition, who visited Roisín as part of a delegation on International Women's Day said: ``Much of [Roisín] McAliskey's day is spent with two male guards on either side of her. During the mornings and afternoons, they remain beside her in a television room empty of all other people. Her status means that the light is left on in her cell all night. She is not allowed to access the swimming pool or the ante-natal education classes there. Consequently through lack of information she has had problems developing a birth plan.''
Dr Wilde's main concern was that under no circumstances should Roisin be separated from her child after birth.
Speaking to An Phoblacht, Cecelia Keaveny, Fianna Fail TD for Donegal North East also stressed the importance of McAliskey keeping her child, both for her own health and that of the child. Keaveny said there were three options: ``either to transfer Roisin to Maghaberry, to reduce her category status to grade C so that she can use the mother and baby room in Holloway, or to grant her bail''.
Meanwhile, MEPs from the European Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties have been met with non-cooperation from the British Home Office since their request on 28 February for permission to send a delegation to visit Roisín.
The British Home Office says extradition proceedings against Roisín McAliskey are likely to last well into 1998.