Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

29 October 1998 Edition

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Free in struggle

Recently released POWs Rosaleen McCorley and Marie Wright, the first women POWs to be released as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, speak to Ned Kelly. Both women served almost ten years of their sentences before being released and for Marie Wright this was her second term of imprisonment.

Rosaleen spoke of her initial shock at finding herself in prison. ``It was very traumatic but as a republican obviously I was conscious that it could happen and I ended up adapting to the way of life very quickly. People take you under their wing.''

``Women there try to make the adjustment easier for you,'' Marie added, ``you get there and you don't understand but there is a strong support structure in place.''

For Rosaleen it was her first experience of the jail regime. ``The women were so active and alert. They fought to make the best of the situation, to make it positive. The way the women republican POWs carry themselves would take your breath away,'' she said.

``The whole company was an example,'' explained Marie, ``it was their generosity of spirit and things like the battle for education.''

But the time and conditions faced by the women POWs also meant other things for Rosaleen and Marie.

Marie said, ``you get realistic, it's a time when you do lots of growing up. You can focus on yourself, on the things you never had time for in the past.''

Rosaleen added, ``there was lots of time for reflection. There was the opportunity to discuss your experiences with other women, to discover new things and strengthen your understanding of the experiences and politics of the situation here. It also meant you had time to think about and appreciate your friends and family much more.''

During the torturous negotiations leading up to the Good Friday Agreement, the women republican POWs became ``completely caught up in every detail of what was going on. We read every paper and watched every TV documentary and news programme and it continued in every visit, that hunger for news and details,'' said Marie.

``But,'' chipped in Rosaleen, ``we always took a very cynical view, even of the release programme, right up till we were released.''

The tension created by the lack of movement on the release of women POWs intensified as the numbers of male POWs being released mounted. According to Marie, it was then that many of the screws started to ``up the ante''. ``The screws would be taunting us, basically saying `why are they letting the men out and not you'?''

Rosaleen continued, ``it seemed there was no logic or chronology to the releases, and we thought that it was just the way it was but then as it got to about 130 male POWs being released we started to think it was a deliberate act against women. It was our past experience that the NIO could delay things, especially on issues relating to women.''

Speaking about the reception the two women received on their release last Wednesday 21 October, Marie said she was, ``absolutely overwhelmed'' and Rosaleen said, ``it was a lovely feeling, and such a warm reception. I felt honoured that so many people were there.''

I asked Rosaleen and Marie what were they were most enjoying since their release.

``It's the simple things,'' said Marie, ``being with family, privacy.'' For Rosaleen it was ``getting up and making a cup of tea whenever you want to - we still had lock-ups in Maghaberry. It is just odd little things like being able to phone people when you want not being restricted to 8.30pm.''

The women said that, in the short term, they would be focusing on building family relationships. Marie said, ``the POW Department has been very supportive. They came and spoke to us and brought us up-to-date about the options for getting involved with community groups and the various classes but it is difficult to assess the situation. I'm probably more interested in getting involved in community projects.''

Marie, who only just completed an exam for her Open University degree on the morning of her release, said, ``the whole ethos of the women republicans in the jail was about education. It was about getting women into education and opening up doors for those who would follow behind. We had to take the NIO to court to fight against the discrimination against us as women POWs.''

Rosaleen said, ``Mary McArdle initiated a civil action against the NIO about the discrimination and our conditions so the NIO were forced to respond and eventually settled out of court. Then the women POWs initiated another civil action about the twelve and a half hour lock-ups, the access to education, computers and the gym.''

She continued, ``they [the NIO] were trying to say access was being restricted because we were high security prisoners but other high security prisoners in Maghaberry and the male POWs in the H-Blocks have these rights. We were being discriminated against. There was a judicial review two weeks ago and judgment was reserved but should be made shortly. It's a strong case.''

Marie said, ``jail teaches you there is nothing you can't do, especially as women as part of an ongoing struggle. The Open University was brilliant, and the tutors were very supportive, they really kept us going but it was the vocational training (VT) that was one of our biggest successes.''

Expanding on the theme Marie said, ``the attitude from the prison's education department was difficult, they tried to block and frustrate everything we came up with.''

Rosaleen continued, ``the Prison rubbished the idea of carpentry and furniture classes and thought it would only last three weeks but it turned out to be really popular.''

The battle against discrimination and the victory in setting up the VT classes is, according to Marie, ``echoed in the successes of women in the community initiating and developing projects and schemes.''

For Rosaleen the educational ethos meant ``we had the opportunity to look at issues affecting women, a chance to really think about things and understand the way they are important.''

``It allowed us to look at the rest of the world and broadened the republican analysis,'' Marie said.

Visitors from around the world were also important for the two women, Rosaleen said. ``The fact that visitors from other countries, outsiders, could come here and understand the situation gave you such heart. The Basques were brilliant, they gave us the feeling that they were sharing in the struggle. There was an elderly woman writing to me from Australia and she was so strong and it was amazing to see the amount of work that people do and how well informed they are about the situation here.''

On a final point Marie said, ``we are so conscious of being home with our family and friends that our thoughts are with the families who won't have their loved ones home.''

Rosaleen added, ``it is also important not to forget the POWs in England and problems being put in the way of those in Portlaoise.''

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