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Interview with Jennifer McCann

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We spoke to Jennifer McCann, Sinn Fein representative for West Belfast in the Assembly, when she visited Havana as part of a delegation of women ex combatants who interchanged experiences about reincorporation with the Gender Subcommission of the Government and the FARC-EP.

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Let’s begin with a short presentation of yourself

My name is Jennifer McCann and I am member of the Assembly and a member of Sinn Fein. I represent the constituency of West Belfast.

Could you tell us something about the importance of women struggle in the wider context of the liberation struggle in Ireland?

I think the first thing to say is that there can be no freedom for anybody is there is no freedom for women. I think that given that in Ireland women make up more than 52% of the population, really it's important that the gender equality issue is tackled and challenged. Indeed we need to have equality for women and that's right across society, it's in political life and we need to have political representation of women. It’s a right in public life but also in civic life and the community. We have quite a number of strong community leaders in Ireland particularly in West Belfast.

We have a number of women with key positions within the local community and I think we have made improvements in terms of political representation. We now have over 20% of the women who are in the power sharing Assembly. We are getting there, obviously, but it is not good enough: we would like to see 50% of women. In the South also we have increased our representation. From our party point of view we have increased our women participation and representation in elected positions both North and South and we are very proud to say that. In the previous Assembly we had 5 ministerial posts and 3 of them were filled by women. We are very keen to promote women in the party but also to give women positions were they actually have influence and power.

Also read: Historical meeting of female ex combatants

Do you see any difference between women participation in the armed struggle and in the political struggle?

We are a society emerging from conflict and we are now in a peace process and we have political institutions. We now have a peaceful way to our objective to reunify our country and a democratic way. The reality is that women did take part in the struggle, in the armed struggle, but women also in terms of the conflict suffered quite a lot because you know over 90% of the people who died were men so we have a lot of women there who lost loved ones during the conflict, we have a lot of women who had relatives arrested or interned, there were of course women also arrested and interned, but the majority were men. So women had to carry on the role in the family of being the breadwinner, or being the main sort of power for children and elderly.

And I think that big responsibility fell on women and women also had to take on a leadership role within their community. Particularly in a community like West Belfast where quite a lot of people went to prison, we had around 25 thousand people at some stage who had gone through prison. So women had to take up those roles, it was women for instance who were key in terms of highlighting the whole Blanket and No Wash protests in the jails during the jail struggles. It was so during the hunger strikes. Women were also on hunger strike during that period, they were also in the prisons on the No Wash protest and part of the jail struggle. I think women have always been involved and are still involved. As I just said about representation: we had a number of women elected recently to both the Dail in the South and the Assembly in the North so we are very keen to make sure women are recognized for the contribution that they give but also that they are part of key decision making bodies as well.

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You were in Armagh protest in 1981; can you tell us about that struggle and how important is that struggle for new generations of women?

That struggle was very important in terms of the prisons. The prisons were very brutal and dark-faced back then. What they tried to do was to criminalize the prisoners from 1976 and the prisoners revolted against that and took on what was called the prison protest and that protest included a Blanket protest where men refused to wear their own clothes. Women did have their own clothes so they were not “on the blanket”, but women were also on the No Wash protest where they weren't able to go to toilette and washing facilities, they were in their cells for 24 hours so they took part in that protest and also in the No Work protest. The jails were very brutal places then, there was a lot of beating going on, a lot of brutality from the prison's wards towards prisoners. They tried to degrade and to break the prisoners, they also used a tactic of strip searching, and they particularly used that with women prisoners to try and break them.

Also read: Interview with Seanna Walsh, ex prisoner of IRA

Women prisoners for instance were actually blindfolded with a towel on their head, thrown onto the ground, their clothes literally stripped off them by a number of prison warders and that had a real effect on women. There was a woman who was about to give birth and her waters had broken in the jail and she was actually strip-searched before she went down to give birth to her baby. There was a woman who had a miscarriage in prison, the same thing happened. So it was an attempt to break and humiliate the women but there was a lot of comradeship too and women were very strong. There was no sign of any commitment by the British government to give those basic human right demands the prisoners had been asking for, so there was a hunger strike in 1981. Bobby Sands was the first person to go on hunger strike on 1 March 1981 and Bobby died on 5th of May of that year.

There were another 9 men who followed Bobby and they died too. So the hunger strike was a very important time in our history. What the hunger strike did was to show the world that commitment and dedication of the people, of republicans: when they hadn't anything to fight with they fought with their bodies and they fought a very brutal regime in prison. It is very important that young people do learn about that time of the Blanket protest, No Wash protest and the hunger strike because I think it shows, if you like, that the struggle and particularly jail's struggle is very important in terms of human rights and to win people's human rights, because as prisoners we asked to be treated not as criminals because we were never criminals, we would never have been in prison only for the conflict.

Also read: Interview with Michael Culbert, former IRA prisoner

So we wanted to be given our rights and be treated with dignity and respect and I think it's very important that all prisoners are treated that way. And even today as Sinn Fein representatives we go into the prisons in the North and we talk to the prisoners, to the people in charge of the prisons to ensure that the prison regime is human, that is there to help people. I have been a number of times to women prison, and a lot of them were inside for many small offences, like not paying fines, for example the television licence. I think it's utterly ridiculous that women, many with mental issue and medical concerns, are put in jail for such minor offences and there is an onus and responsibility on any state to ensure that those kind of provisions is made particularly for the more vulnerable of prisoners.

You are also a community workers. Are women involved at community level? In which areas?

Women are involved in every area of the community. The community I come from, West Belfast, is a very proud community. We had to organize ourselves during the conflict. For instance they took buses off the streets, there was no public transport so taxis - we still have them, black London taxis - they provided transport for the people of West Belfast and North Belfast. That was a way we had to organize. We had to organize because there were curfews and so women organized together to break curfews to get food to people, to families.

I mentioned about the protests in the prison. Women organized that, and traveled around the world on the blanket to meet world leaders to highlight what was happening, the brutality in the prisons at that time. Women in our community are leaders in what we call community partnership and they will be bringing community organizations together to have a look in terms of education, health initiatives. Women are capable and they are very key to those.

Finally, do you think women have a just representation in the Assembly and more generally in Irish institutions?

No, I don't think it is good enough, I have to say that. I would prefer, and our party has tried to bring a quota system in, but the other parties won't support us on that. There is now a better system in the South where a certain amount of political representatives have to be women. The parties are given incentives to do that. Our party is I think above all the other parties in terms of women presence in our local areas structures, i.e. in the different levels of our movement and we would ensure that there is a certain percentage of women at each of these levels.

Also read: The Difficult Road to Peace

But more importantly, in terms of representation, we would promote women, encourage and support women to go forward to elected represented positions and we are getting better on that. But we still haven't got the half and half and that's where I would like to see: I would like to seat in the Assembly seeing 50% men and 50% women. Also we have to bring young people forward, I would like to see more young women, for example and women from different ethnic backgrounds, more people with disabilities. For me an Assembly has to represent the people, and in order to truly represent a people you have to be part of that representation. It's very important that we, 52% of the population, have that representation at government level as well.

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Could you say something about your opinion about the two days meeting you had with the gender sub commission of the government and with the FARC-EP.

I think it was very important that there is a gender sub committee, because I have worked with women and women organizations probably most of my adult life and I find when women come together they tend to work better together as women. You need that space where women can talk and what I found in the past two days was, I listened to and got to know quite a number of women, obviously with the language barrier but at the same time there were plenty of people there who could interpret for me. I felt that people spoke from their heart and people were very committed to try and help in any way they can. I also spoke to two women who had been recently released from prison and was able to share experiences with them; they were very concerned about the prisoners.

Also read: Two more deaths in prison as protest escalates

And Colombia from what I heard about the regime there is a very unjust prison system, particularly for women. Young children are taken away from them and also medical needs many prisoners have in prisons. I would hope that any of the experiences from the Irish point of view in terms of how we emerged out of conflict and how we took part in the peace process, if in any way we can help and particularly in terms of campaign to make the conditions for prisoners better in the prison. It's important also to bring families on board with that, because sometimes families on the outside are forgotten about, but they go through this as well and they worry about people. So anything we could give would be beneficial for them.

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