Ex-firebrand heats up in defense of daughter Irish nationalist says prison mistreats her

April 09, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

COALISLAND, Northern Ireland -- Bernadette Devlin McAliskey doesn't fear a fight.

The former Irish nationalist firebrand has been shot, jailed and jeered. At 21, she made impassioned speeches on Irish civil rights and became a member of the British Parliament, where she slugged a government minister.

Now 49, Devlin is still ready for a brawl; only this time, she's struggling to free her daughter, Roisin, from a London prison, where she was allegedly subjected to degrading treatment as a high-security-risk prisoner.

Roisin McAliskey, 25 and nearly eight months pregnant, is wanted by Germany for questioning about an Irish Republican Army mortar attack on British army barracks in Osnabruck, Germany, in June 1996. Nobody was injured in the attack.

The Germans say they have evidence she was with the attackers. They have demanded her extradition, and she is being held without charge pending a decision by the British courts in a legal process that could take months.

Bernadette McAliskey has orchestrated a campaign that has turned Roisin McAliskey into one of Britain's most celebrated prisoners. She is portrayed by her supporters as a frail, pregnant young woman treated wretchedly by British prison warders whose abuses have included dozens of strip searches.

The mother says the daughter is innocent and should be let out on bail. She says that in these parts, one thing is well known: a McAliskey won't skip town. "Even our worst enemies will admit we don't lie, we don't cheat, we don't run," she says.

In Coalisland, a predominantly Roman Catholic town 40 miles west of Belfast, Bernadette McAliskey lives with her husband, Michael, a teacher. She organizes housing and women's action groups. They have two other children, Deirdre, 22, and Fintan, 18.

Chestnut-haired and baggy-eyed, McAliskey hunches forward in her chair in a smoke-filled roadside cafe and talks of daughter Roisin (pronounced Roe-sheen), whom she proudly calls "five foot of scrap."

"Roisin is a person in her own right," she says. "She did not follow in her mother's footsteps."

Yet, there are many similarities between the mother and the daughter. Both graduated from Queens University in Belfast. The mother studied psychology. The daughter majored in sociology.

They look alike. Same hair. Same blue eyes. Nearly the same height. They also appeared together in 1994, carrying the coffin of Dominic "Mad Dog" McGlinchey, murdered founder of a radical IRA offshoot.

But Roisin McAliskey is apparently as private a person as her mother is public.

The mother has been making headlines for nearly 30 years. The daughter has been in the news only since November, when she was seized in Coalisland by British officials acting under the anti-terrorism act and taken to a London prison.

Bernadette Devlin was raised an Irish nationalist by her father, who read her anti-British stories at bedtime. While a student, she organized sit-ins and participated in pickets as a civil rights movement among the minority Roman Catholic population blossomed in Northern Ireland in the 1960s.

In April 1969, Devlin was elected to the British Parliament from Northern Ireland. Within months, the new member of the House of Commons was leading rioters against police in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, and received a six-month prison sentence.

In 1972, Devlin was in Londonderry on "Bloody Sunday," when British troops opened fired on Catholic demonstrators, killing 13. A day later, she was in Parliament, determined to participate in a debate on Northern Ireland.

For three hours, she raised her hand, demanding to be heard. But she was ignored. At the end of the debate, she punched the British home secretary, Reginald Maudling.

By 1974, Devlin was out of Parliament but not out of the limelight. On Jan. 16, 1981, she and her husband survived an attack by gunmen loyal to British rule in Northern Ireland.

"I was shot nine times," she says. "It wasn't my time for dying."

Little is known of Roisin McAliskey. And her mother is loath to add many details, other than saying that her daughter is "private and quiet."

The company Roisin McAliskey keeps is deeply engaged in the fight against British rule in Northern Ireland.

Her partner and the father of her baby is Sean McCotter, 31. According to British media reports, McCotter was imprisoned in 1989 for possession of bomb-making equipment.

He served about six years of a 12-year sentence before being released in October 1994.

One of his brothers, Liam, is serving 17 years for planning a bombing campaign on the British mainland. Another brother, Patrick, was released from prison last year after serving part of a 20-year sentence for the attempted murder of police officers in 1983.

At the time of her arrest, Roisin McAliskey was working for a firm of tree specialists in west Belfast, although she had recently moved back to Coalisland to prepare to raise her child in the country.

Friends have said her political interests range from student poverty to welfare issues.

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