DODIE McGUINNESS is a member of the Sinn Fein Ard Comhairle (National Executive) and was a councillor for Derry City Council between 1985 and 1993. ZANNY BEGG spoke to her about her involvement in Republican politics.
Dodie McGuinness was working at Altnagelvin Hospital the day civil rights protesters were ambushed by Loyalist thugs on Burntollet Bridge. She was shocked as she saw protesters dragged into the hospital covered in blood. This was one among many violent incidents that sparked the civil rights movement in the north of Ireland in the late 1960s. McGuinness was part of the generation that was swept up by the civil rights movement and thrust into political activism.
"The civil rights campaign", she explained, "was my first involvement in politics. I found myself outraged at what was going on and attending marches and demonstrations. They brought British troops onto the streets in 1969. Suddenly there were soldiers at your door. You had to deal with this incredible fear. Many people politicised through this experience and became committed to the struggle."
Her commitment was to last beyond the turbulent '60s. "The decision to get involved in the civil rights campaign wasn't really a conscious choice; it was just a reaction to the harassment and intimidation going on around you. The conscious decision that you had to make was whether you were going to stay involved. I made the decision and joined Sinn Fein in 1972."
In the 1980s McGuinness participated in Sinn Fein's electoral work. She initially agreed to stand because she didn't expect to get elected. Placed third on a ticket behind two high profile Republicans, to her surprise she topped the poll.
She served two terms on the Derry City Council. Work on the council is very hard for members of Sinn Fein. The commitments are full time, yet councillors are unpaid. McGuinness struggled with being a single mother, working full time on council and living off unemployment benefits. In an interview in a Sinn Fein Women's Department newsletter, she explained: "Councillors receive attendance allowance for meetings. But if you are unemployed, as most of us are, any payment is deducted directly from your state benefit. Despite being a single parent, their is no child-care allowance."
A strong feminist, McGuinness has sought leadership in the Republican movement. "I don't allow myself to be pushed off the rails by somebody just because I am a woman. I do my work, and I expect to be respected for it."
Women have often played a key role in Irish history. In Celtic mythology there are many women warriors, including Queen Maedhb, who is supposed to have led her army to victory by drowning an opposing army in menstrual blood. In more recent times, the IRA women's section played a key role in the Civil War by being one of the first IRA divisions to reject partition.
Encouraging women leaders is a conscious process for Sinn Fein, which has positive discrimination in its leadership bodies, the Ard Comhairle having a 30% quota reserved for women. McGuinness admits that this may have been "tokenistic" in the past, but explains that it was important to "break down barriers" to women participating in politics.
Today, "All the women on the executive are there because they are playing real roles. We could almost do away with the quotas system at this stage, although it remains as a safeguard."
McGuinness' long involvement with Republican politics allows her to reflect on Sinn Fein's evolution. She thinks that the Republican movement was "naive" during the 1975 truce because it expected Britain to give too much away.
"The current cease-fire has made people very hopeful, but people are still scared. We know the treachery of the British. During the hunger strikes they let 10 men die. The lesson of the hunger strikes is to be very wary of any promises made by the British. Not only those who are politically active, but the community at large has absorbed this message."
Sinn Fein has also learned through its involvement in politics in the south of Ireland, although its base in the south is still weak. McGuinness explained that it was a mistake for Sinn Fein to stand in elections in the south with candidates pledged not to take their seats. "Experience has taught us that it is not the best way to move forward. When it comes to elections, people wanted a voice and if you weren't prepared to be that voice, then people weren't going to vote for you."
Building a base in the south has been hard. Many young people leave Ireland rather then get involved in politics. "It's a very repressive state in the south. If someone your age started selling Republican News in Cork, the police would land at your parents' doorstep and would tell them next thing your daughter will be handling explosives and shipping weapons. Young people are interrogated by the state and their families. It becomes hard for them to stay in Ireland."
McGuinness is hopeful, however, that old barriers can be removed. "Everyone suffers from the division of Ireland. Nationalists suffer particularly. We are twice more likely to be unemployed than Unionists. But as the world economy shrinks, the Unionists are also suffering.
"The ship building industry used to be the biggest employer, but now it is whittling away. The subsidies from the British have dried up. They are now talking about privatisation. They are talking about lay-offs. The Unionists are falling into the same arena as ours. That drags them down to reality. We are all working class people; we have a lot in common."
The working-class base of Sinn Fein, McGuinness feels, made the "party grow to be socialist". "Socialism means equality for everybody. It means the right to work, the right to have unions. This is our political background." But she is careful to point out that what Sinn Fein means by socialism is interpreted differently outside the Irish context.
Dodie McGuinness is in Australia to encourage solidarity with the Irish struggle. To hear her, look for her public meetings listed on pages 26-27.
Our previous issue contained a feature on the Irish cease-fire which included an interview with Sinn Fein councillor Mary Nelis. A bad line into Derry resulted in Mary Nelis's name being spelled incorrectly.