In the kitchen of her lovely old redbrick house, Nell McCafferty apologises for the lack of biscuits. As I sit down at the table and she makes tea, I get the feeling that this is the kind of kitchen where visitors are regularly treated to home baking. The house, the kitchen, the invitation to tea send me certain messages. Homemaker. Breadbaker. It is an interesting backdrop for a woman who is known as a cantankerous feminist, barricade stormer and some-time IRA defender.
Feminism and republicanism are very much in the news at the moment. After the murder of their brother, Robert McCartney, by IRA members, The McCartney sisters have dominated news about Ireland. Their demands that the killers be brought to justice have thrown traditional support for the IRA in Catholic communities in the North into question. McCafferty, who describes in her book how she was shunned in the past because of her “refusal to condemn a neighbour’s child”, has her roots in that same community. What does she make of the events? “I think it has changed everything. It is obscene what happened to those men [a number of men were beaten in the attack]. The McCartney sisters are from a Republican background, and would have supported the IRA as defenders of the community. Now that has changed – what they see, what we are all seeing is that the IRA will kill you, kill their own. It is a terrible shock that members of the IRA could conduct themselves like a murderous gang”.
But was it not well known already, what the IRA was up to? Can it really be a surprise that an army kills? McCafferty vehemently rejects this. “This is different. I am not saying I am suddenly waking up and smelling the coffee. Sure, human rights were violated, we were under siege and there was a war on – but not like this. And now the war is over, has been over for 9 years. Sinn Féin wanted the IRA to stand down. OK, there were a few difficulties with certain people, but we thought the IRA wanted the IRA to stand down. Now I don’t know. Perhaps there will be a split, which would be terrible because it could bring back the guns”.
She is critical of media who she feels have not covered the story well enough – not spelling out exactly what happened on that night in Maginnis’s pub in Belfast. She believes people need to know what happened to understand why this is a real watershed. “The community is 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”.
Women and rebellion is something McCafferty knows a lot about. Having grown up in Derry, she was at the centre of Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement for equal votes, homes and jobs for Catholics. McCafferty was there on Bloody Sunday in 1972, when British soldiers shot dead 14 marchers in Derry. She also campaigned on behalf of republican women in jail. She moved to Dublin in 1970, and as a journalist opened many people’s eyes to what was happening to the most vulnerable in Irish society when she wrote about the children’s courts. She soon became part of a small but vociferous group of women who started the campaign for equality and women’s rights. She went on the famous contraceptive train – a group of Irish women went to Belfast, stocked up with condoms, pills (which, she reveals in her book, were actually aspirin, but customs never knew that) and other illegal articles and brought them back to Dublin. Here they were met by police and waiting media. Yes, it is true: 30 years ago, contraceptives were still illegal in the Republic. Pints were another thing women could not have – and so the same women went in to a famous pub in Dublin’s city centre, ordered 40 brandies, waited for them to served, then ordered a pint. The barman refused, and they in turn never paid for the brandies.