Like her famous Irish revolutionary mother Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, Roisin McAliskey is petite, pugnosed and possessed of a personality said to be on the scrappy side.
And just like her mother several decades ago, the 25-year-old Roisin (pronounced “roe-sheen”) is pregnant, unmarried and accused of violence in the name of Irish nationalism. Just as her mother did in the 1960s and 1970s, she has focused international attention on the authoritarian way that nationalists say Britain treats its Catholic subjects in Northern Ireland.
Roisin McAliskey was arrested at her home in Coalisland and jailed in London in November for questioning about a June mortar attack against a British army base in Germany. Since then, she has garnered growing international sympathy and outrage over her harsh treatment at the hands of British prison authorities.
Nearly eight months into a difficult pregnancy, McAliskey has been held for four months while she fights extradition to Germany. Although she has yet to be charged, she has been imprisoned under the highest security conditions - at one point jailed in an all-male prison in London and at various times held in virtual isolation and denied direct contact with members of her family.
She has been strip-searched more than 75 times.
McAliskey’s supporters, including Amnesty International and the Irish government, consider her guilt or innocence secondary to the issue of her prison treatment. Their aim has been to win more gentle conditions and also bail - preferably before she is due to give birth in mid-May.
“For someone not charged with a crime and nearly eight months pregnant … there seems to be a complete lack of proportion here. She’s treated as a threat to the security of the British state,” said a source within the Irish government, which has called in the British ambassador to Ireland to complain about the case.
Amnesty International, making one of its rare pleas on behalf of an Irish prisoner, issued an “urgent action” letter last month about her imprisonment. The conditions of her detention, it said, “may amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”
British officials, though, have argued in court that McAliskey poses a security risk. Their fear is that if she is released on bail she might easily travel south from British-controlled Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland, where the case against her would essentially be dropped because Ireland does not have an extradition agreement with Germany.
After weeks of international pressure on her behalf, British prison authorities recently loosened McAliskey’s status from high risk to a standard “Category A.” They have also reduced the number of her stripsearches and allowed her access to the activity room at the Holloway women’s prison in north London, where she is now held.
The change “was not made because of allegations of harsh treatment,” British prison official A.J. Pearson said in a letter last week to the Irish Times. “It was made after an objective assessment of the risk posed.”
Though similar in many ways to her famous mother, Roisin McAliskey had been leading, until her arrest and imprisonment, a quiet life out of the public eye.
The eldest of three children born to Bernadette, she had a traumatic introduction to the sectarian violence of Northern Ireland as a little girl when both her mother and her father, teacher Michael McAliskey, were shot several times in 1981 by a proBritish loyalist who burst into their Coalisland home.
Roisin, then 9, clung to the hand of her 5-year-old sister, Deidre, while their parents were shot again and again in an adjoining bedroom - Bernadette nine times in her sides and back. Both parents survived, but Bernadette today blames the attack for her daughter’s chronic, stress-related asthma, which she says poses a threat to Roisin’s pregnancy.
Aside from one moment in the public spotlight when both she and her mother helped carry the coffin of alleged Irish rebel terrorist Dominic “Mad Dog” McGlinchey, the younger McAliskey was a virtual unknown while doing community work in Belfast.
She lived there with her longtime partner, Sean McCotter, the father of her unborn child. A recent article in the British Independent newspaper described him as the brother of convicted Irish Republican Army terrorist Liam McCotter.
According to Bernadette, the two had moved to Coalisland, a picturesque Catholic town about 40 miles west of Belfast, because they considered it a safer place to raise their child.Sitting at a Coalisland coffee shop last week, the elder McAliskey described Roisin as “a very private person. … She did not follow in her mother’s footsteps, she did not speak at public meetings.”
Yet, the elder McAliskey said, “I think the fact that I’m her mother played a considerable part in the British government’s vindictiveness, gave an edge to its belligerousness. The fact that she’s my daughter prevents people from stepping down.”
In November, the younger McAliskey and four men, including a former British soldier, were arrested in the mortar attack on a British army base in Osnabruck, Germany. In the attack, three homemade mortar rockets were fired at the base. There were no serious injuries.
McAliskey may face attemptedmurder charges if extradited to Germany, but her attorneys have fought the extradition while seeking bail. It is expected that she will give birth in prison while the legal battle continues, and prison officials said recently that she could keep her baby - at least for a while.
According to one of McAliskey’s support groups, she is under suspicion because the landlord of an alleged IRA “safe house” in Germany said he recognized her as a resident there, and also because Germans claim to have her fingerprints on the lining of a cigarette pack.
But Roisin says through her attorneys that she has never been to Germany.
“She doesn’t have a passport,” her mother said last week.
Has she ever been to Germany? “She’s been nowhere,” Bernadette said.
The British arrested her daughter, she said, thinking that a frightened pregnant woman facing extradition to Germany might collapse and give them the names of Irish terrorists.
Instead, said her scrappy mother, British interrogators found themselves “looking at 5 feet of scrap.”