“Our Day Will Come”: The Armagh Dirty Protest and the Feminization of Sinn Féin
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From 1976 to 1981 during the Northern Irish “Troubles,” the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Britain fought a proxy war within the Northern Irish prison system. The question was that of “political status,” or the right of prisoners to be treated as prisoners of war (POWS), as opposed to what the British termed “ordinary decent criminals.” Male and female prisoners went on a series of escalating protests to acquire political status. In 1980, women in Armagh Prison also protested in response to a profound escalation of British verbal, physical, and sexual violence against them. As the attacks on the women were gendered, so was their non-violent response. Nell McCafferty shocked the Irish public when she reported in the Irish Times that “There is menstrual blood on the walls of Armagh Prison.” The so-called Armagh Dirty Protests combined nationalist and women’s political goals. Due to the consciousness-raising of Republican women inside and outside the prison, as well as the desire to become officially organized, the Sinn Féin’s Women Department was created. Central issues during the prison protest, bodily autonomy and women’s equality, became core tenets of Sinn Féin’s political platform. Progressive women’s policy and women rising through the ranks of Sinn Féin were most noticeable during the 1980s and 1990s, particularly in connection with the 1983 and 1992 Irish abortion referendums. Sinn Féin’s legacy of inclusivity towards women remains important today. Today the top two party leaders are women. During the 2018 Irish Abortion Referendum, Sinn Féin campaigned tirelessly. When the results were read that Ireland had legalized abortion, leaders Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill held up a sign saying, “the North is next.” This is the same consciousness of nationalist and women’s interests boldly asserted during the Armagh Dirty Protests. My project examines not only the political and cultural origins of the Armagh Dirty Protests but the aftermath and its effects on various actors in the Northern Irish Conflict, and more largely Irish society. These include the Irish Feminist Movement, the Church, and Republican men in both the IRA and Sinn Féin. Through press coverage, government and policy documents, art and photography, and oral history, I construct a narrative of Republican women’s changing views of themselves and their relationship to nationalism and the state. In doing so, I make an intervention in the male-dominated historiography of Northern Irish prison protest to understand the legacy of women bridging the personal and the political in Irish Republican politics.