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Liberty is Strength: 30 Years of Struggle
Lily Fitzsimons
. Privately published. £6.99. Art Shop, 53-55 Falls Road, Belfast

LIBERTY IS STRENGTH comes with a large dose of republican propaganda masquerading as history, so it should be read with that health warning in mind. Still, the rôle of women in the republican movement has not been given the attention it deserves, so Lily Fitzsimons is doing us all a service by publishing this little book. The author has been a committed republican political activist for many years.

There is no doubt that many republican women made great sacrifices for their cause in the past three decades. According to this book, twenty lost their lives in the struggle. Many more spent time in prison. Those of us old enough will remember the Sinn Féin vice-president Maire Drumm, the slain IRA activist Mairead Farrell, and the Price sisters who bombed the Old Bailey in London. Apart from them, republican women rarely entered the public consciousness. Yet women have had a long history of involvement in the republican movement.

Belfast woman Winifred Carney was involved in suffragist, socialist and republican politics alongside James Connolly as early as 1911. As a member of Cumann na mBan and the Irish Citizens’ Army, she took part in the 1916 Rising in Dublin. The British later interned her. She stood as a Sinn Féin candidate for East Belfast in the 1918 general election – then as now not very promising ground for her party!

Many women became politicised after their menfolk were interned or imprisoned. Ms Fitzsimons has an inside track here, as she was involved in the formation of the Relatives’ Action Committees and the National H Block-Armagh Campaign. These women demonstrated and agitated against internment or in favour of political status for republican prisoners.

Many others “organised safe houses for young men and women who couldn’t stay at home because of the political conflict in the North.” – i.e., they harboured on-the-run members of IRA death squads. Others played a full part in the ‘military wing’ although the author neglects to mention how exactly they did this. For example, there are documented cases where female IRA volunteers lured off-duty soldiers to their deaths by promising to take them to parties.

There is a fascinating insight to life behind bars in Armagh Gaol. Again, much has been written about Long Kesh and Magilligan, but little about the women’s prison. As with their menfolk in Long Kesh, the female prisoners organised debates on controversial issues. Apparently after one heated debate, “the women were unanimous in rejecting any idea of an ‘independent Six Counties’.”

According to this book, the republican women always had high-minded ideas and principles – the British crown forces were vicious brutes, the RUC were unspeakable and the Prods were at best pawns of the Brits – if they’re mentioned at all. Aficionados of crude unspun red in tooth and claw republican propaganda will just love it. Pity there’s no page numbers, though.

David Kerr

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