Provo women fought but 'let men lead'
IRA women created a template for female terrorism but left it to men to lead the organisation, says Jim Cusack
Women played key roles in IRA operations but 'let the men take lead' and none has spoken out about the rape and sexual abuse that took place in the organisation.
One of the iconic images of the Troubles was of a young IRA woman in dark skirt and jacket, facing away from the camera and pointing an Armalite rifle on a Belfast street corner taken in the 1970s. It was an image repeatedly used as both a symbol of the IRA and of the supposed equality within its ranks. That image, the Mairia Cahill affair has disclosed, was a myth.
The female members of the IRA, Cumann na mBan, played very active and often leading roles, particularly in organising and carrying out bombings, reflected in the fact that eight of the 12 IRA women killed on 'active service' during the Troubles died as a result of accidental premature explosions. Women were particularly used in this role as it was determined they were less likely to be stopped at British army and police checkpoints on bombing runs.
Several Belfast women IRA members became expert bombers and instructors and helped reduce the high rate of self-inflicted casualties that accounted for about half the IRA's deaths in the opening five years of the Troubles.
Some became expert snipers and the Price sisters, Dolours and Marian, were regularly seen in west Belfast on their way to or from gun battles with the British army, their rifles hidden under raincoats. The sisters became leading figures in the organisation's frontline and led the first bombing attack on London in 1974.
The commander of the IRA in the Lower Falls area of west Belfast in the early 1970s was Madge McConville - also the woman who led the gang that abducted Jean McConville from in front of her screaming children in Divis Flats in December 1972. Madge McConville (no relation) died of old age in 2009.
Maire Drumm was the titular head of the Cumann na mBan in Belfast until she was assassinated by loyalists as she was receiving treatment in the Mater Hospital in October 1976.
While female members of the IRA continued to be referred to as Cumann na mBan, they were fully integrated into the military operations and played the same roles as men.
This was most common in Belfast and Derry city. In rural areas, more traditional roles of providing 'support' for IRA men were the norm.
The most prominent woman volunteer in the IRA was Mairead Farrell who was a leading bomber until her arrest and imprisonment in 1976 in an incident in which the British army intercepted a bombing attack she was leading against a hotel in south Belfast. Her boyfriend, Sean McDermott, was shot dead during the incident.
Farrell was leader of the women's prisoners in Armagh Prison and she and another prisoner took part in a hunger strike in 1980 against orders from the male leadership. On her release in 1986 she returned to active service and was responsible for organising and running several major operations against the police and army.
She was shot dead with two other IRA men while leading a bombing attack intended to kill members of a British army band in Gibraltar in March 1988.
In her 2008 study of women in the IRA, Tiochfaidh ar Mna: Women in the Provisional IRA, Dr Mia Bloom noted that the IRA were one of the first terrorist groups to use women and the example was followed by other terrorist organisations around the world. The IRA, she comments, "employed them exploiting gender stereotypes about the roles women play in society".
Their role and tactics were subsequently copied by Middle Eastern and Tamil Tiger suicide bombers. But, Dr Bloom noted, women did not rise up the ranks despite killing and dying for the organisation.
She quotes one as saying: "I blame the women who prefer to remain in the background. There were many of us who suffered in the jails, on hunger strikes and on the no-wash protest… but few were willing to talk about their experiences. They let the men take the lead."