Tonight The Pensive Quill carries a talk by Bernadette McAliskey, delivered on International Women's Day 8 March 2012 at Conway Mill Belfast. Thanks to Sandy Boyer for sending it to TPQ.
Moderator: In 1969 Bernadette became MP for Mid-Ulster at the age of twenty-one. The youngest MP at the time, and as I am aware, she still holds the record as youngest MP ever to be elected. Bernadette, like myself, was active within the Armagh and H-Block Committee and for years has remained vocal insisting on the rights of prisoners and people be upheld and respected.
I hand you over to Bernadette. Please, give her a hand.
Bernadette: Thanks very much.
I have no real idea how we are supposed to express the sense of loss, the sense of anger, the sense of a great many things that come to me sitting here on International Women's Day in two thousand and twelve.
I shouldn't be here. Monsignor, you shouldn't be here. None of us should be here. This was supposed to be over. This was supposed to be sorted.
And when I do sit here on this International Women's Day, there's a depth of pain, (Bernadette pauses and does sound check as audience could not hear) there's a depth of personal pain, when I sit here, that has to be shared by a whole lot of the faces I'm looking at.
How much we gave. And how much we paid. And how much we lost. And how hard we fought. Every day. Every single day from the very first day that we decided that this depth of injustice for human beings was not good enough for us!
It wasn't good enough for our families, our children, our neighbours, anybody. And because we said it wasn't good enough we were punished. And somehow we got caught in a long, long, long line of sorrow and imprisonment and internment and running to gaols and trying to explain to people that we weren't the problem.
And we're still here. And this hasn't changed.
Now I know a whole lot of other things may well have changed, but it hasn't changed if Marian Price is as she is, as we all know she is: in Hydebank tonight! Where she shouldn't be. And in Hydebank tonight, alone, unwell, unsafe and unsure that her rights will be protected.
We should not be here. And this should not be happening. But it is. It is happening. That's the reality. It is happening. It's happening to Marian, it'll happen to the next Marian, it's happening to all our prisoners. And we have to ask ourselves: How can that be? How can it be that it's still happening?
Because if we don't ask ourselves that question, “How can it be?”, we can't stop it...can't stop it. Or we won't stop it. So we have to ask ourselves that question. There is a reality and we know it's a reality. Marian's existence in that prison tonight is a reality.
And then we say: How do people see that? And the Monsignor has given us an eloquent history of how the government sees it. The government's perspective has not changed. The government looks at Marian's reality and says a number of things:
- From their perspective: it is good enough for her.
- From their perspective: she brought it on herself.
- From their perspective: she is not there because of anything she did or did not do. She is there because of who and what she is.
We were supposed to have left that behind. But the fact that she is there means we have not.
At very best, the position of government tonight, and tomorrow and any other day, is arrogant indifference to Marian Price's predicament; to Marian Price's health, well-being, innocence or guilt, existence or non-existence of Marian's reality. At best it is arrogant indifference. At worst, it is calculated, intentional punishment for being what she is and being who she is.
And from the government's perspective it is a clear signal of intent to everybody who is not “on board” the project and who is not of the same mind as the government: that no dissent will be tolerated! No dissent will be tolerated and you challenge the status quo at your peril. That's the government perspective.
Now, there's something we have to be aware of: there is no point in guilt-tripping people who usen't to be in the government. They are now. Our attitude to government, any citizen's attitude to government, is that we have a right and a citizen duty to hold government to account. They are the duty bearers. They are the people with the duty to protect Marian Price's rights. They are bound by that duty, by law, by international law and by human rights conventions. And we have to hold them to account, every single one of them. That is the entire government, not simply Mr. Paterson, who fronts it ... Mr. Ford, who fronts it ... a faceless parole commission, who fronts it.
Government is a collective act. And every single member of government, irrespective of where they started, they finished in government. And they will be held to account for their treatment of Marian Price.Every last one of them!
There is another perspective and that's the legal perspective. And there is no doubt about the law. And here Marian is better served by a courageous legal team who is also feeling the weight of the political interests of government; in Kevin Winters' firm, in Peter Corrigan.
And we have been there before, too. But we have seen the legal team, human rights organisations likeBritish Irish (Human) Rights Watch, who have undertaken actions, who have briefed Amnesty International, who have briefed the Committee of Administration for Justice, who have taken some of these issues up ... and that needs to keep going on because their interest is to protect the rights of Marian Price.
Marian has rights as a human being. She has additional protection of those rights because she is a prisoner. She has further protections because she is a woman prisoner. And she has further protections because she is a woman prisoner whose physical and emotional health is poor, is deteriorating and is directly in the position it is in as an historic consequence of the way in which she was treated by the state.
So she has that perspective, from people in the human rights constituency, working around the human rights issue. And that's their perspective.
There's another perspective: those people who come from a position that recognises that the government is arrogant, at worst, well, at best and indifferent at best, and intentionally torturing that woman, at worst.
And they will put on the table, and I might be one of those, that the crucial thing to understand is the motive of government – why would they do that?
Why does a government decide to operate by violation of human rights and risk the wrath of human rights agencies? And risk the wrath of being in breach of human rights legislation? Of being brought before this court and that? It's because they know they can.
It's because they know that the distance between the violation of the right and the penalty for violating it, for the government, is still about eight to ten years.
Because we never got The Human Rights Act. We never got The Bill of Rights that was sold to us as part of the agreement that was supposed to mean all of this was over for all of us. We never got it! So it's still an eight to ten year struggle to have the government held to account for human rights abuses.
And so, those who take an approach that says you have to politically understand the motivation of government to understand why this is happening, need also to be active in the case of Marian Price.
Now, that grouping of people may come from a political persuasion that may agree with Marian's political perspective. Or they may come from a position that fundamentally disagrees with it. But what they will agree on is the motivation of government for behaving in the way it does is a political motivation. It has a political purpose in behaving in the way it does.
And its purpose here is to ensure that everybody who has suffered what we have suffered, everybody who has paid what we have paid for the little that we have gained knows that the price of asking for that (Bernadette snaps fingers, indicating an insignificant amount) more, is more than they will think we are prepared to pay. That's what the political motivation is about.
But at the back of all of that there is another reality: the people who live every day of this with Marian. And that's Marian's famil y... that's Marian's daughters ... that's Marian's sisters ... that's Marian's people.
Because their priority is not how any of this happened: what makes a government do it? What makes anybody do it? Their priority is that Marian needs to be got out of there before that place destroys her. Before that place destroys the last of her physical and emotional well-being. Marian needs to be got out of there.
And so our priority has to be to get Marian out of there. There is no point in us enlisting the support of government in this effort. They remain the people we have to struggle against on that position.
But each and every one of us, regardless of which perspective we take on this situation, has to work in the best way we know how:
- within our political perspectives, if that's what it is.
- within our human rights perspective, if that's what it is
- within our family perspective.
And we have to make room for each other to be able to work in the best way we know how. And we have to be able *not* to work in a way that makes it different for other people to do what they have to do. We have to be guided by Marian's family. We have to be guided by Marian's lawyers. In Maghaberry people are being strip-searched. We used to know, we used to know...(Bernadette speaks to people on the dais and in the audience) and Maura, you did it. I did it. Your father did it when you were only a child.
And Monsignor, you've been with us every single step of the way.
I see Claire...Claire you did it. I see all the other people who did it and I see their children. I see Gerry, down the back.
Have we forgotten how to organize?
Have we forgotten how to link arms?
Have we forgotten what solidarity looks like?
Have we forgotten how we held a government to account before?
Are we just paralysed by a sense of betrayal?
Or a sense of pain?
Or a sense of loss?
Or a sense of anger that we think somehow that if we just guilt-trip former comrades they'll come galloping (scoffs) to the rescue?
We have got to remember: to organise, to agitate, to educate!
And to send a message to government: For every single day that you put it up to us again, we're fit for it!
(Bernadette's address ends)
(Applause from audience)
Moderator: Thank you, Bernadette.