Daughters of Ireland

PROFILE : Bernadette and Roisin McAliskey; The mother nearly died for her beliefs. Now the daughter is the cause celebre. Ros Wynne-Jones reports

Ros Wynne-Jones
Sunday 09 March 1997 00:02

In 1981 in the Republican heartland of Northern Ireland, a nine- year-old girl wakes up to the sound of gunfire. Standing in the doorway of the bedroom she shares with her younger sister is a masked gunman. In the kitchen she can hear her father, Michael McAliskey, struggling with the bolts on the back door as he is shot several times. In the bedroom next door her mother, Bernadette, is shot nine times and left for dead. Minutes later, she hears English voices and then she is carried from her room by a young British soldier.

In 1997, the same British soldier is sitting across the table from her at Belfast's Castlereagh interrogation centre. She knows he's the same soldier because he takes her back over every second of her parents' shooting. "We can end all this violence, Roisin," he tells her. "Just give us the names we want."

Today, Roisin McAliskey, who is facing extradition to Germany for questioning over the IRA bombing of the Osnabruck military base, is a category A prisoner in Holloway. The 25-year-old politics graduate is weeks away from giving birth to a baby doctors expect to be premature and which will almost certainly be taken from her hours after the birth as Holloway's mother and baby unit is not equipped to cope with category A prisoners. She has not been charged with any offence but by the Home Office's own admission she has been strip-searched 75 times in the past four months and cannot leave her cell at all without a "shadow". She has consistently been refused bail.

Roisin's story begins before she was born. When her mother, Bernadette McAliskey, was as heavily pregnant as her daughter is now, she was touring political platforms calling for Irish civil rights, already Britain's youngest woman MP.

Bernadette Devlin, as she then was, took her seat in the Commons in 1969 on her 22nd birthday and made her maiden speech within an hour. She wasn't nervous. "What I remember about that day is not what I said in some speech, it was that because of my election there was a riot in Derry and a man was beaten to death by the police at his own fireside. Sam Devenney paid in his blood for my seat at Westminster. That's what I remember."

McAliskey is impatient. She has a policy, more usually reserved for vampires, of not allowing journalists or policemen over the threshold of her home, so we are sitting in a motorway service station about an hour's drive from Belfast. She is furious at a sense of powerlessness she isn't used to. The veteran civil rights activist is fighting the most important political battle of her career, for the liberty of the child born in the same month that internment without trial came to Northern Ireland. It's all part of the same narrative to her, which has at its core what she sees as endemic British racism towards the Irish.

In January 1972, when she was the same age that Roisin is now, she was addressing a civil rights rally in Londonderry as shots rang out behind her. "I remember it in slow motion," she says. "I hear myself telling people to stand their ground. Even as I'm saying this my brain registers this is wrong and dangerous advice. I tell everyone to get down and get under a lorry. Then I tell everyone to leave without standing up and slowly everybody moves off except a small group a few yards away from me. I think they must be paralysed by fear and I'm talking to them, saying don't be afraid, just walk slowly away, no one is going to get hurt. Then, as I'm talking, I realise they are all lying still because they are dead."

The day after Bloody Sunday, as it came to be known, McAliskey was called to Parliament to debate an emergency motion on Northern Ireland. Fresh from the barricades she was determined to be heard as an eye-witness to the events of the previous day. Her contribution to that debate has gone down in history. "I sat there and listened to the lies coming from the mouth of the Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling. I had my hand up for three hours, but the Speaker never called me. When he closed the debate I got up on three points of order but they still wouldn't allow me to speak."

McAliskey seems to gather strength as she recalls the frustration of being ignored after a sleepless night comforting the relatives of the Bloody Sunday dead. "I walked down calmly to the fancy bit in the middle and I bowed to the Speaker. Then I walked over and I caught the Home Secretary by the throat and gave him a smack in the gob. At that point a Tory leapt up and hit me an unmerciful blow and then another MP jumped up and cuffed him, knocking him on to the lower bench. I left quickly, leaving a whole pile of MPs literally boxing on the floor of the House." She laughs mischievously. "I believe Hansard recorded the incident as a 'disturbance'."

It is a historic moment that Michael Howard, the current Home Secretary and the figure mother and daughter see as pivotal to Roisin's continued incarceration, might care to note.

McAliskey's unparliamentary behaviour was one of only two occasions, she says, that she has ever used violence to make her point. The other was at Bogside at the height of the Troubles when she was breaking stones for demonstrators to throw - and her involvement there led to a six-month prison sentence. "I wasn't allowed to throw anything because I have such bad hand-eye co-ordination." She is only half-joking.

"I have resisted violence because I have always found another space in which I could operate without having to take up the same cudgel as the opposition," she continues. "But if I ever come to a point where I have no room left to stand, where I am unable to think of a non-violent resolution, I don't know what I will do." She does not condemn others for using violence, she finds it "understandable".

McAliskey says she has raised her two daughters, Roisin and Deidre, and her son, Fintan, to find that space away from violence and to respect other people's right to their own beliefs. Yet one of the only pictures of Roisin and Bernadette together is at Dominic "Mad Dog" McGlinchey's funeral in 1994 where the two women carried his coffin with Sinn Fein vice-president Martin McGuinness. McAliskey denies it was political. "He was a family friend and his sons are like brothers to my children. Surely even we are allowed to bury our dead?" As she speaks she unconsciously scratches the bullet scar on her elbow from the Loyalist shooting she and her husband miraculously survived. She is convinced of Roisin's innocence and says she is certain that she has never even been to Germany. But what if she is wrong? "I have said that I find the use of violence understandable," she says. "That would go for Roisin, too. Frankly, I can think of more traumatic things than finding out that my daughter is a terrorist."

She is fiercely proud of her children. "Roisin was a funny, clever child," she says. "In her first week at kindergarten all the kids had gone for eye tests and injections and then they were sitting in their classes and the teacher says: 'God is all around us.' Roisin puts up her hand and says: 'Please, Miss, he's not in the cupboard because I've looked and I've had my eyes tested today.' "

She is excited because tomorrow is a visit day and she will see her daughter again, but it is a small comfort. Sean McCotter, the father of Roisin's unborn child, is now allowed to sit in the same tiny room as her and two guards, but other visitors have to contend with a thick partition. McAliskey is used to having to shout to be heard but she admits the heavy perspex has got the better of her. "The guard who sits on my side has gone deaf listening to me," she sighs.

She says that despite conditions Roisin won't let prison get her down. "It was the same when I was in jail," she says. "I knew I could cope, but there were other women there who couldn't and that was what really got to me. Roisin's the same. She'll still be doling out the smart-alec comments that I've been on the receiving end of for so many years." For the first time, Bernadette McAliskey sounds as if she's trying to convince herself.

The interlinking story of mother and daughter is far from over: Roisin and her unborn child have become a cause celebre in Ireland and America as a campaign headed by her mother and Guildford Four solicitor Gareth Peirce gathers momentum. Things may yet come full circle if there is any truth in the rumour that Roisin is considering standing for the Mid- Ulster seat Bernadette occupied in the 1970s.

What angers McAliskey is the depressing familiarity of the present. "I wouldn't be so paranoid as to suggest that what is happening to Roisin is down to who her mother is, that she is being punished because she is my daughter," she says quietly. "All I see is that nothing has changed. When a young pregnant Irish woman can still be imprisoned for four months without charge ... in 25 years where have we really got to?"

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