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.

Women's Roles

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 1981.

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 Paper).

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 practice.

Roisin McAliskey

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 prison.

The House of Commons

The House of Commons anwers questions regarding the use of strip-searching in Britain:

"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.

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