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Old 03-02-2005, 09:19 PM
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Default Guardian:'Once women sanction revolution, there's no stopping it'

'Once women sanction revolution, there's no stopping it'

In condemning the killing of their brother by the IRA, the McCartney sisters are following a long tradition of female protest, says Clare Longrigg
Clare Longrigg
Thursday March 3, 2005
Guardian

It has been just a month since the brutal murder of Robert McCartney, a father of two, by IRA members in a pub in the Short Strand area of Belfast - a month that has seen extraordinary changes. According to reports, on the night of January 30, as McCartney and his friend Brendan Devine lay bleeding in the street, IRA men cleaned up the crime scene and threatened witnesses, who were too intimidated to call an ambulance. In the days immediately following the murder, police questioned people who had been drinking in the pub at the time, who claimed to have seen nothing. So far, so predictable. But then, something happened: in this community of 3,000 staunch republicans, six women defied the IRA. One month on, it looks as though this murder of a man who had no paramilitary connections, might be a real catalyst for change. Five days after McCartney's death, his sisters, and his fiancee Bridgeen O'Hagans, held a candlelit vigil, and 600 local people turned out to support them. The women demanded that the IRA stop protecting its men by covering up the crime and intimidating witnesses. It was a highly risky move, leaving the women dangerously exposed, but they struck a nerve in the community. People attending the vigil expressed their anger about the IRA's continued use of punishment beatings, sexual violence and intimidation. In a strongly Republican area, where walls have previously been daubed with anti-unionist slogans, graffiti appeared saying "PIRA scum out".

The McCartney women leafletted the area, demanding the murderers give themselves up. On Sunday, 1,000 people gathered in protest at the cover-up, demanding that the IRA give up their men. Paula McCartney told a public rally: "We hope and pray over the coming days and weeks those responsible for Robert's murder and in the cover and clean-up operation will do the patriotic and right thing and hand themselves over and tell all they know truthfully. If these men walk free from this, then everyone in Ireland should fear the consequences. Justice must be done."

The resonance of the sisters' message is that anybody's brother could be next to die. They speak for the community more effectively than any remote political figure ever could.

"The McCartney sisters are from a Republican background, they freely admit that," says Nell McCafferty, journalist and playwright. "We should be clear, there have been women in the IRA, and women have supported it; the IRA couldn't exist without the support of the people. These sisters saw the IRA as defenders of the community. There is a terrible shock that members of the IRA could have conducted themselves like a gang. The community was deliberately out on the streets applauding these women. This is the hand of the community in the back of the IRA saying, 'Go now'. Once women sanction revolution, there's no stopping it."

Clearly it took extraordinary moral courage for the women to make a stand. But in circumstances like these, often it is the women who take the responsibility to protest.

"There are dire times in a community's life when only women can lead them out of trouble," says Baroness May Blood, who was made a dame for her community work in the Shankill Road. "Women would be the ones to take that risk. I have the utmost admiration for the McCartney family: they could have had the community close down on them, they could have been threatened. But the McCartney family are in a position where they want justice. These are extreme circumstances."

The sisters' message has great potency, giving voice to a rage long suppressed by ordinary people, but it takes tremendous courage to expose yourself in your own neighbourhood. Until now, the women of Short Strand could probably have been relied on to turn up at republican events.

"People have asked me why ordinary people go out and protest," says Blood. "The answer is that they are part of a community. If someone knocks on the door and says 'protest at such a time tomorrow', you have to decide what to do. If you don't go, you risk being outcast by the community. The McCartney family were taking that risk. There's a sneaky regard for women, and men, prepared to stand up. Lots of people then want to join with them. They don't want to live in ghettos, you can't be normal when you live in a ghetto. This has been an opportunity waiting to happen. You can only have the utmost praise for these women."

It is not the first time that women have taken the lead in campaigning in Ireland. In the 1970s, the Peace People, led by Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, brought thousands of women into the streets of Belfast to demand an end to violence. That movement was also sparked by a tragic event: the death of three children, crushed when British troops shot dead an IRA man at the wheel of his car.

"It would not have happened with men," says Blood. "Even in the days of tarring and feathering, years ago, women led the march against that, and paraded with placards. Women are just built that way, they want things better for their family, they are prepared to take a risk."

As public sympathy erodes, the RA (Republican army) is now referred to as the Rafia. Indeed, there are parallels between the women who have led protests in Ireland and women in Sicily, who campaigned against the mafia. In both places, women have buried their dead, year after year, with no hope of obtaining justice. The mafia relied on popular support; after each act of violence, communities closed their doors and internalised their grief.

In Sicily, the Association of Women Against the Mafia was formed in 1982, by the widows of judges, lawyers and police chiefs assassinated in the line of duty. These were the so-called years of lead, in which the mafia murdered with impunity. Giovanna Terranova, whose husband, a judge, was shot dead as he left their house in Palermo, was among the first to take a stand. "After my husband's murder, I lost the will to live, I never left the house. In the end I sought out other women in my situation, partly because I needed not to feel alone any more, but also because it seemed my grief was not just my own pain, it was something shared by society as a whole, by everyone who wanted a future for this country."

Other women quickly joined the campaign, and sent a delegation to Rome, demanding action. "Women were changing their ideas," said Rita Costa, whose husband, the attorney general, had been shot dead in the street. "They were looking for freedom. In Palermo, freedom meant getting away from the crushing, bullying mafia. Women weren't going to be bullied at home, and they weren't going to be pushed around in public life either."

The "illustrious" widows appealed to women from mafia families to turn against organised crime and denounce known criminals. They encouraged women whose sons and brothers had been murdered to take legal action against the mafia. But their mafia-dominated communities isolated these women, they lost their jobs, and their children were threatened; inevitably, they withdrew.

In 1992, after the assassination of anti-mafia judges Falcone and Borsellino, Sicilian women again took to the streets. They went on hunger strike in the middle of Palermo in the July heat, demanding the resignation of ministers who had failed to protect the judges or take any action against their killers.

"We women felt our responsibility very keenly," says Piera Fallucca, a long-term member of the Association of Women Against the Mafia. "Men are inside the system of death and violence - it is their system, at that time, women stood outside it. We wanted to break the chain of death and violence. For a time, it did have an effect. I think we shamed people into taking action."

In Palermo, women hung sheets from their balconies, inscribed with anti-mafia slogans. It was the ultimate threat to the status quo: far from shutting themselves indoors and saying nothing, they were announcing to the world that their household, their very marital bed, rebelled against systemic violence and oppression. Women's contribution to movements for change is the more powerful because they have historically been overlooked. The sheet protests, imitating the housewife's most mundane task of hanging out the washing, turned into a city-wide demonstration.

"You've got either side caught up in politics," says Blood, "and it's only the women who continue to do basic community work. Back in the 70s, women were not considered a threat, they could cross lines, and people said they're only women, they wouldn't know the difference."

There is very little loose talk in communities under intense political pressure. In Sicily, women inhabit the private domain of the family, and their voices are seldom heard in the public arena. It takes great courage for them to speak out, and the impact can be devastating. There are pitfalls with any kind of campaigning. When a woman protests, she takes her whole extended family to the front line. The ones in the spotlight are protected by publicity, but not so the distant relatives.

For now, the McCartney sisters' protest is gathering momentum, and no one knows where it will end. To everyone's surprise, they seem to have Sinn Fein on the back foot, and they may yet get results. They have barely slept for days, as the campaign intensifies. It seems the responsibility still lies with these six women.

"You could say, Where are the rest of the women?" says Nell McCafferty. "Nobody's speaking yet except those sisters. We're waiting for them to speak for us."
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"Human nature will only find itself when it finally realizes that to be human it has to cease to be beastly or brutal." (Mohandas Gandhi, In Search of the Supreme)
"I learned that familiar paths traced in the dusk of summer evenings may lead as well to prisons as to innocent, untroubled sleep." (Albert Camus, The Stranger)
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