EVERY summer I go to Armagh for the John Hewitt summer school and I am always struck by how this charming cathedral town encapsulated the Troubles. Cheek-by-jowl, around its beautiful Georgian mall, is the ornate courthouse, the Orange Hall, Gough military barracks and, directly facing it, the old Victorian jail.
Especially striking is how the jail looks exactly as it did when it closed, with its big gates and deserted yard. It's as if they just turned the key and left. Given that this was the main lock-up for republican women, I was surprised that there was no commemoration or attempt to recreate some 'conflict heritage' aspect.
I said this to republicans whom I know and they admitted that the republican women, who also went on the dirty protest, and on hunger strike, have been almost written out of the official history of the movement. Sure enough, in the Sinn Fein bookshop, I could only find one or two pamphlets about them in among the volumes of books about 'the heroic men'.
Well, now things might be about to change. Last week saw the start of a series on TG4 called Mna an IRA, a series of profiles of former IRA women, beginning with Rose Dugdale, the English heiress-turned-revolutionary-turned-IRA bomber and art thief. In addition, we have a cinema documentary about activist Bernadette McAliskey, formerly known as Bernadette Devlin (in her young MP days).
Meanwhile, an official attempt has been made to open up the testimony of Dolours Price, who contributed to a political history project run by Boston College whereby former IRA activists would tell their story so long as it was kept confidential. It is suggested that the contribution of Dolours Price is explosive and allegedly links Gerry Adams to the murder and disappearance of Belfast woman Jean McConville. There are linkages here. Dugdale carried out the robbery of the Beit paintings to try to secure the release of Dolours and her sister Marion Price, from a prison in England. The Price
sisters were among a hard core of IRA activists and Price remains a thorn in the side of the republican movement. She is opposed to the present settlement and was recently questioned about the murder of two British soldiers at Massereene barracks in Antrim in March 2009.
McAliskey has also been opposed to the current settlement but you'd hardly know this from Lelia Doolan's reverent, soft-focus portrait of the feisty Bernadette as some sort of Northern Jane Fonda.
It is full of all that grainy black and white footage of early riots and clashes with British soldiers so beloved of filmmakers taking an indulgent, romantic view of the squalid conflict. Bloody Sunday is endlessly re-run and exploited. We rarely get the later colour shots of bombing aftermaths and bloody body parts.
And the critics have swooned about the film. Even the usually caustic Donald Clarke in the Irish Times spoke excitedly about how it showed the young Bernadette facing down a male-dominated House of Commons, echoing an angle taken by Lelia Doolan who complained that men like Bono were onstage with John Hume and David Trimble, giving them credit for the peace process, whereas women like Bernadette McAliskey were ignored.
But this banal piece of feminism ignores the reality. McAliskey was opposed to the Good Friday Agreement. A specialist in bloodcurdling speeches (one of which I witnessed in New York), McAliskey also gave the oration at the graveside of Dominic McGlinchey, the sectarian psychopath who gunned down churchgoers at prayer in a gospel hall in Darkley, Co Armagh. Some soldier, he was. But McAliskey called him "the greatest republican of them all".
By comparison, Dugdale seems like an innocent abroad, a slightly dotty-sounding English revolutionary who fell in with the republican movement to, as she put it, "break the stranglehold of British imperialism" and advance the "cause of workers internationally", or some such. But, as with the McAliskey film, the TG4 programme took a detached tone to the consequences of Dugdale's actions. There was an almost jaunty air to the description of how Dugdale and others hijacked a helicopter and tried to bomb Strabane RUC station from the air by dropping milk churns filled with explosives.
But a similar attack on Newry police station, with mortar tubes, killed nine policemen. That's nine people who left behind grieving families and loved ones. For the Strabane operation, the helicopter pilot was forced at gunpoint to fly over the station. What did he think? Did he feel, as Dr Tiede Herrema later felt, when he was kidnapped, that he was going to die? But the TG4 programme didn't
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dwell on this, and at no stage did Dugdale talk about the IRA's victims, only about what an IRA career might mean for her.
A talking head spoke about the sacrifices made by IRA members. Undoubtedly true, but did the programme not feel obliged to give us a bit of perspective and balance?
In fairness, at least the TG4 programme has done us the service of recording these people, with all their unapologetic frankness. There will also be profiles of IRA women such as Martina Anderson who served years in prison in England.
The series is also a reminder that in the republican camp, women have been among the most forceful and unyielding of activists, and gives the lie to the curious idea that women are natural healers and peacemakers who would prevent the patriarchal wars created by aggressive men.
"Take the toys from the boys," was an anti-militarist feminist slogan of the Eighties, but the reality was that, with Irish republicans, as elsewhere, the women have been among the most reluctant to let go of the toys or to encourage the boys to do likewise.
Rose Dugdale supports the current peace but Bernadette Sands McKevitt, Marion Price, and Bernadette McAliskey are all hardcore dogmatists, or idealists, who believe that compromise is bourgeois and contaminated, and the filmmakers should spell this out.