Female Political Prisoners in Northern Ireland/Strip-Searching
A Brief History
Since the end of the nineteenth century, Britain has been seeking rule of
Northern Ireland. The Irish have never been too terribly receptive to the
idea. In the mid twentieth century, the Irish decided to form their own
institutions independent of Britain, culminating in the Brits' declaration
of war on the newly founded Irish democracy. Things soon became ugly.
Internment was introduced in August of 1971. In March of 1972, the British
declared direct rule over Northern Ireland.
In the beginning of all this turmoil, Republican women (Irish Republican
Army sympathizers) played a more supportive than active role. Female
relatives set up the Political Hostage Action Committee, which gave women a
forum in which they could meet and exchange information on various issues
from protesting to prison visits to assisting men on the run to
participating in the massive civil rights march in January of 1972, which
came to be known as Bloody Sunday. Soon, they too became involved in the
violent and terrorist activities that were being traded between the IRA and
the Loyalists (British sympathizers). These women would do things such as
bomb buildings and kill British soldiers after promising them sex. The
British realized that these women were becoming more and more involved in
the political goings-on and in December of 1972, internment for women was
introduced. Most of the people who grew up in Northern Ireland during the
1970s were used to the violence and political mess, and many of them were
political as well. More and more women were arrested on charges such as
possession of a weapon and intent to bomb. Many of these charges carried
whole or half truths, but on the other hand, teenage girls were dragged out
of their homes in the middle of the night by the British army and
interrogated about matters which they had no part in. Within six months
after internment was introduced, nearly three hundred Republican women (but
no Loyalists whatsoever) were taken in.
In 1974, a Prevention of Terrorism Act was passed, and nationalist
organizations were banned. Several terrifying measures were taken such as
internment without trial, single judge courts, powers of detention and
search, and designation of criminal status to political prisoners, who until
that point had enjoyed freedom of movement and the ability to wear their own
clothes. In order to tighten security, a new prison was built called Her
Majesty's Maze, which was coined the H-blocks.
To protest these measures, the prisoners from Long Kesh (the men's prison)
and Armagh (the women's prison) all went on various strikes, such as the
blanket strike (where prisoners refused to wear the issued prison uniforms,
as doing so would be admitting criminal [as opposed to political] status),
hunger strikes, and the dirty protest. The women in Armagh prison went on
the dirty protest in opposition to the stripping of their political status.
"They began to punish us by not letting us use our toilets," said Mairead
Farrel. "We had to use pots in our cells and they would overflow. So to
protest that, we went on a no-wash campaign. They tried to get us off that
by locking us up for twenty-three hours a day, only letting us out for one
hour of exercise" (Shannon, 124).
Liz Lagrua offered her story: "Cystitus was common. Some had skin disease
of the head that couldn't be treated unless they washed their hair (which
they weren't allowed to do). There was vomit and diarrhea in all our cells
and dust accumulating from the shedding skin. Flies buzzed everywhere,
dying in orgies on the shit and the uneaten food. Creatures with wings,
like fleas, used to jump out of the po [toilet pots] and we discovered it
was woodworm" (McCafferty, 15).
Dirty protests took place with no changes for over two years. The blanket
and dirty protests led to two hunger strikes, on in 1980 and the other in
With the implementation of the protests, women in Armagh prison were also
subjected to strip searching. It involved women being thrown to the ground,
beaten, kicked, and more often than not sexually violated, or at the very
least sexually humiliated.
Accounts of Strip-Searching
"All women prisoners in Northern Ireland were strip-searched every time they
enter of leave their prison compound, like when they are going to meet a
visitor, or taken to court on remand, or visiting the infirmary. You have
to stand in a closed-off cubicle, take off all your clothes and them out to
two screws. I knew one woman prisoner, and she was having a miscarriage.
She was hemorrhaging and on her way to the hospital, and they stopped her
and strip-searched her while she was bleeding" (Shannon, 118).
"We were brought down to this area all alone and put into a wee cubicle.
Then someone would say "strip naked!" If you refused, you would be thrown
down on the floor and forcibly stripped. And you are so vulnerable. You
have to stand there with all your clothes off, and they stand there looking
at you, passing remarks like "you're too fat" or "you're too thin" and then
they search you and slowly walk all around you" (126).
"What happened over the next ten hours can only be described as sexual,
physical, and psychological torture. Gangs of screws [guards] dressed in
riot gear and armed with batons and shields entered the wings. A gang of
screws entered a cell and set upon the defenseless women inside, in each
case up to sixteen screws. The POW's were seized and dragged to the floor;
their faces pushed to the floor so that they couldn't see their assailants
and their mouths were covered to stifle their screams. Once inside, the
screws began to remove the women's clothes until [they] were entirely naked.
Every other woman in the gaol could hear the attack as it took place, so
in actual fact each woman spent the entire day listening to comrades being
sexually abused before and after their turn came" (Congressional Briefing
All of these women suffered severe cuts and bruising. The women were
charged with "breaches of prison rule," which resulted in the loss of
privileges. Disciplinary action taken against the women for resisting the
brutal assault included forty-two days loss of remission, twenty-eight days
loss of afternoon yard, and three days solitary confinement (Ibid.).
Prison authorities insisted that searches were necessary for security
reasons, yet after 1972, nothing was found to warrant continuation of this
Roisin McAliskey was a citizen of Nothern Ireland and the daughter of
Northern Ireland civil rights activist Bernadette McAliskey. In 1997,
Roisin was arrested by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) in London and
eventually charged with planning a mortar attack on British Military
barracks in Germany. She was four months pregnant at the time of her
arrest. She also suffered from asthma, an ulcer, arthritis, and fainting
spells, yet she was placed in solitary confinement and barred from the
gymnasium, the library, the hospital, and the obstetrics unit. The only
proof the British had of her presence in Germany at the time was a statement
from a witness who saw a photograph and said that it might have been her.
There was ample evidence placing her in Ireland at the time of the attack.
A doctor who examined Roisin said "A general practitioner faced with a
request for a visit of a woman 17 weeks pregnant with abdominal pains would
risk being struck off the medical register for refusing to visit for over an
hour" (Free Roisin McAliskey), which is exactly what many of them did.
Roisin was strip-searched seventy-five times while she was pregnant and in
The House of Commons
The House of Commons anwers questions regarding the use of strip-searching
"Full searching is a necessary measure to maintain prison security. A full
search is a visual search only and at no time is the prisoner entirely
undressed. Prison staff do not hav the power to conduct any body-cavity
search although they may require prisoners to open their mouths. All
prisoners (male and female) are routinely full searched when leaving or
returning to the prison to inhibit the passage of items such as explosives,
weapons, drugs, and other contraband into and out of the prison in order to
reduce the risk of escape and for the general safety of prisoners, staff,
and visitors" (House of Commons).
There are now no IRA women in prisons, but there is evidence that strip
searching is still going on in prisons in Britain and New Zealand, and
African-American women have been targeted at airports in the United States.
More More Information:
Fairweather, Eileen Only the Rivers Run Free: Northern Ireland: the Women's
War, Pluto Press, London: 1984.
- McCafferty, Nell The Armagh Women Co-op Books, Dublin: 1981
- Shannon, Elizabeth I Am of Ireland: Women of the North Speak Out, Little,
Brown, and Company, Boston: 1989
- Mary, Mary (link www.tallgirlshorts.net/marymary/)
- House of Commons (link
- Congressional Briefing Paper, April 1993 (link
- Free Roisin McAliskey (link http://larkspirit.com/roisin/plainbriefing.html)
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