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If they come in the morning / Interview with Margo Harkin

 

It’s not for you we did it, poster #3 by Ciara Phillips. Photographic image, Creative Commons BY-NC-SA, Camerawork Derry.
Image description: Black and white photograph of a woman with a hairstyle reminiscent of the 1980s, lying in a single bed and smoking. She lies flat and her gaze is on the cigarette in her hand. The sheets are textured flannelette and the bedspread, wallpaper and curtains have clashing checked and floral patterns. A black text box near the bottom of the photo has the words “Are you being observed?” printed in green.

Downloadable Image Here 

I actually lived in the building that hosted the Derry Film and Video Workshop. My husband and I lived in the basement of 1 Westend Park. While I was there, I had a baby as well so we had a wee family there.

There was a back stairway from the flat up to the workshop and I had a key for that and always locked it when I went back down to our flat. We were raided [by the police and army] several times. I’m not going to remember the order but I remember the first time we were raided and it was the police—you know, in the full black gear and they were extremely aggressive and I think we must have all been in the Workshop on that occasion. But they claimed that they were coming to raid us under the legislation for arms and ammunition, which is absurd, but anyway, that’s what they claimed. And they just ran rampant through the office and took lots of stuff with them. But the compelling thing that I remember is that my automatic reaction, at the time, was to ring the police. Because what do you do whenever somebody breaks into the place that you’re working and are living in? You ring the police. And I had literally lifted the phone and it dawned on me, I’m ringing the police about the police having broken in, you know? But it also bore out this very strong thing in me: I thought we’re not doing anything wrong here, because that’s what you would do. You would ring the police and we wouldn’t be ringing the police if we had guns and ammunition in the place. So, yes, I think we may have been raided three times altogether. I’m not entirely certain but I remember another occasion when they came and they were, again, beating in the front door upstairs –it was the big heavy original door–and I ran out of the basement and said, “Stop doing that. You’ve no need to do that. I mean, I’ve got the key,” and I went back and I went up through the stairs and opened it and let them in.

This interview with filmmaker Margo Harkin refers to her work with Derry Film and Video Workshop (DFVW), and the DFVW’s interaction with state forces—including the police, army and intelligence agencies—in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It outlines the way in which arts organisations in the north of Ireland with an oppositional perspective were subjected to censorship1, harassment and the threat of violence, although they also managed the smooth regulation of their operations through state funding bodies and state agencies. This discussion deals particularly with police and army raids of the DFVW’s offices, which was one of the more direct forms of state intervention and harassment they experienced.

I can’t remember when they took things, but I suspect it was the first time that they took lots of tapes. Apart from trying to develop films, we had been capturing local history. Like, we were doing interviews with people who were old republicans, just to get their story on tape. We considered it a training exercise, also, where people would learn their skills. And we learned from that [raid], because we didn’t expect it. We learned that from then on we had to code things; and we developed this coding system where we made up titles for the films. I can’t remember what they were, but there were things like ‘Bundoran Holiday,’ you know, that kind of thing; just completely specious, made up names [for these sensitive interviews]. But the tapes were low-band U-matic, so we’re pretty sure they couldn’t have played them anyway, and we did get them back.

I do recall, on one occasion, we must have been raided by the army, and they would have come in white zipped-up suits, and all of that and then just ordinary squaddies. And I remember I had filing cabinets all down in a little back office which was quite damp, and this soldier taking a jimmy to it to force it open. And me saying, “For God’s sake, I’ve got a key. Let me open it and stop wrecking our filing cabinets.” But we could claim everything back. I mean, I don’t think they took things out of that. The squaddies may have thought they were just supposedly looking for bullets or something but their officers were scanning for intelligence information.

But I also remember following up with a civil service bureaucracy, you know, and being treated very well by the guy who did that. Because every day he was dealing with cases where people had been raided and then you could claim for damages if they destroyed anything; and us having to apply to get some of our filing cabinets replaced because they were wrecked by them.

Raids of homes and workplaces were common in some communities at the time, particularly in republican areas. Raids were sometimes the precursor to arrests but, more often, they were used as an opportunity to gather intelligence and as a tool of intimidation.2 Information would be recorded about those living or working in a given space, documents and possessions searched (through which process belongings were often destroyed) and maps made of layout and rooms.

And then the other occasion I remember, I was away. It was after I made [DFVW film] Hush-a-Bye Baby because I’d been invited to a lot of places afterward to show that; to a lot of festivals around the world and also locally. And I was invited up by the Lower Ormeau Community Association in Belfast to show the film and talk about it, and that was a great experience for me. I went up, and it was the height of the Troubles, and that was a very progressive community association, and we had a great evening. They were terrifically interested and asked great questions, and I really enjoyed it. And I thought this is what you’re doing this work for.

And I came back, and on the way, I got a Chinese takeaway, and at the time, my daughter was only a baby. And [my husband] Kevin was sitting on his armchair, as he always did, in front of the TV and he let me eat my meal and then he said, “Well, now you’ve finished your takeaway, I want to tell you that the police were here and they went through the entire house including the basement.” They had timed it to when I left. They used to tap our phones. I mean, that happened regularly; we knew that they were tapping our phones because you could hear them. Sometimes they were so clumsy about it.

He said they went through everything, and he let them in upstairs. And Kevin was very passive, whereas I used to challenge them at every go, which is presumably why they waited till I was away on this occasion. Cause I just made a fuss; I used to go up to John Hume’s house up the street and try and get him to come out. He would never come out (laughs). I would ring Sinn Féin and I would just create a fuss. Basically, you just challenge them because you didn’t accept it. Although I’d try to stop them breaking stuff—because they made our premises insecure if they broke down doors and whatever, and we had expensive equipment in there.

But I remember that one really shocked me, you know. That really shocked me that when I thought it was kind of dying down, they still did it and that they were so sneaky that they waited till I was away. I’m convinced of that. And I have evidence as well though at this stage, it’s only anecdotal. But I know they were tapping our calls.

Strong About it All 3, Helen Harris and Eileen Healy’s 2001 book on urban and rural women’s stories of the security forces in the north of Ireland, contains detailed descriptions of home raids. It outlines the ways in which this form of state violence is gendered, both because of its location in domestic space; and in the nature of the interactions, including sexualised harassment, that are common in a raid. The book gathers oral history testimonies which describe, for instance, humiliating invasions of privacy when personal effects are gone through, the sense that working class and rural women are “treated with far less respect during raids than professional or middle class” women, and how those “who could least afford it were the people who had property destroyed.” 

The descriptions in Strong About it All are strikingly similar to the testimonies gathered by Hassina Mechaï and Flora Hergon of those who experienced the widespread violent house-searches that occurred in Muslim homes in France, after the state of emergency was declared in the wake of the November 13, 2015 attacks in Paris and Saint-Denis. Interviewees describe “trauma, long-lasting fear of being surveyed, and paranoia in their own home. Their bodies have kept the sensorial experience of sudden violence for several weeks or even years…”

The stories of raids in the north of Ireland, naturally, focus on the stress, disruption and and sense of vulnerability that the ongoing threat of home raids and other forms of harassment engender but they also highlight the methods by which people asserted their dignity and resistance.

There was one incident whenever [DFVW film] Mother Ireland was banned under the Hurd Notices [the broadcasting ban] which had just been added to the British censorship legislation. I was in touch with the Campaign for Broadcasting Freedom, and they agreed to help us host a screening of that film in the Guildhall. We just got it together very rapidly, and we didn’t know if anybody would turn up. I remember the terrible butterflies in our stomach and anxiety thinking maybe five people will turn up. But actually, people came from all over the city and just drifted in quietly, and that was the day that the legislation had been introduced or shortly afterward. I was on the phone just before it, about organising it, and I started giving out about what had happened to us, about the censorship. And then I started talking to the person that I believed was listening in on our calls.

This was a common thing that people did. I remember Bernadette McAliskey—when she was addressing meetings—she used to always welcome everybody and also the MI5 people in the hall, you know (laughs), and everybody would look around thinking who is it? [because] they were clearly there. So I did something similar on the phone and I was giving out. I said, “…and you can fuck off you fucking bastards that are listening on the phone! You’re a shower…” and using all these expletives on the phone. That night Kevin and I were lying in bed and our phone rang. We had our personal line, obviously, and then upstairs, we had two lines for the office. It rang, and I had brothers in America, and I thought maybe something’s up, you know. That would occasionally happen. I answered the phone and it was just silence on the other end, but there was somebody there. Then the line either went dead or I hung up. And that happened a few times and then it dawned on me that something strange was going on, and it happened repeatedly and repeatedly. I realized it wasn’t a brother in America and we actually had to pull the phone out at the wall. As soon as we did that, the phone started ringing upstairs, which made me know it was the army. It started ringing, so I went up to that phone and the same thing happened and then they rang the other line upstairs. This went on for quite a while. I had to pull out all the lines and apparently, that same night two other people had similar things happen to them. It’s a pretty common tactic that they would harass you on the phone, you know. But I felt it was quite deliberate because I had vented a bit of anger on the phone to them… like, addressed it directly to them.

There were other things like I remember Geraldine [another member of the Workshop] telling me that one time she was speaking to her mother and after she hung up the phone rang and she heard the previous conversation with her mother being replayed on the phone. That was an extraordinary one, that one. You could hear them clicking in and out, and I mean, there was mass surveillance going on.

So, yes, the raiding was… I wouldn’t say it was all the time, but you felt extremely harassed when it happened; you really did. And anxious about preserving our work, you know, really anxious about that. Later on, even after I left the Workshop—I would make duplicates of things, and you would store them in a different location so that you could preserve your work that way.

I mean, we knew that they couldn’t possibly be viewing it. I’m sure they didn’t hire in the expertise or equipment. Maybe they did. Maybe in the files, I will discover that they did, but we always got the tapes back… though never straight away. Yeah, we did have an anxiety level about it. But we also accepted it. We just thought, well, shit, this is the circumstance that we’re working in. And you’re just always reminding yourself that this was about censorship; it was about harassment; that actually, we were not doing anything that was illegal. We were asserting our right to freedom of expression. We had a view that was critical of the government, and there’s no doubt about that. We made it very plain, but we were not doing anything illegal, you know. So they were intelligence-gathering, that’s what they were doing.

Sara Greavu: When I talk to people or have read about home raids I know that for some people, it was always sitting at the back of their minds. Like, they knew it was coming or they knew, it’ll probably happen tomorrow morning. So you’d clean the house, make sure everything is shipshape, to make sure that you’re unassailable. Did you find that you did that in the office?

MH: No, never ever, really never let it affect anything we were doing or anything we were saying. I probably was always relatively careful anyway in terms of how I wrote letters and stuff, although when I look back at them, I was fairly untrammelled in terms of expressing my views.

But I do remember a story that always stuck with me, which horrified me… a woman I knew—she’s dead now— a lovely woman and a member of Sinn Féin. I remember one time we were talking about raiding; and they were raided all the time because they were a big republican family. She was quite a quiet, introverted woman, but I got on really well with her and she was very clever. And I remember her telling me the story about being raided and taken down to Fort George5 in her nightwear, and the soldiers slagging her about her hairy legs. To me that was a horror (laughs)… an absolute horror. So I think maybe privately I might have done that. I might have made sure I kept my legs shaved because of the things that they used to intimidate you and humiliate you. Like, I just thought what a shower. It sounds ridiculous and it is funny; but actually, I can’t imagine going through that. Like, we laughed about it when she told it to me, but at the same time, I was horrified by it. But, no, I wasn’t ever taken to any of these holding centres. I mean, I was a filmmaker and outspoken but that was it.

1 Westend Park, the building in which DFVW was based, was both a home and a workplace for political and cultural organisations. Interactions between the state and cultural organisations are usually filtered through a number of governmental ministries and agencies that act as a conduit for state funding, administer the organisations’ activities and reveal how the arts are understood and valued within the ruling ideology.6 Currently, in Britain and Ireland, it’s unusual for cultural groups to experience direct censorship or military intervention.7 In the mid 1980s in Derry, though, violence and the threat of violence structured many political interactions. Emergency legislation gave sweeping powers to the military and police. The violence of the state was laid bare, alongside the illegal militant violence that is more often represented as central to the conflict in the north of Ireland. These powers were also used by the state to suppress political and cultural actors that were critical of it.

SG: I was wondering if you were aware of any other [Channel 4] Workshops having the same kind of things happening, the same kind of direct state repression?

MH: No, I wasn’t aware of other workshops having similar oppression. I’m not even sure that we shared that with them because they already, maybe, had a view of us that we were, you know, some crazy IRA republicans. We weren’t ostracised because, you know, we did meet them; but we were on a different landmass. So we didn’t have the same closeness that maybe some of the other workshops over there had. Like, even the Black Workshops… I don’t think they had the same problems. But I do remember that whenever we first set up (in the months before I joined) they had invited over a Black delegation from Brixton and I think they were probably experiencing that kind of behaviour, but they weren’t a Channel 4 Workshop. They were more of an activist group. Because when you see the footage, and I haven’t seen it for many years, they definitely had parallels in terms of their lives and how they were disenfranchised. And how they had very little control over their lives. [One other group], Amber Workshop, was in existence long before Channel 4 set up and was one of the workshops that led to the foundation of Channel 4 and the Workshop Movement. They were activists, as well, in the north of England, but they would have been very into trade union rights and working class politics. They were big socialists, so it’s possible they did [experience harassment], maybe in terms of their campaigns with various working class movements, but I wasn’t aware of it, and maybe, not even through their work.

Because they did quite poetic work. I remember they did one, Seacoal, I think it was called. People were so poor that they were going out in the night and taking coal off the beaches where it washed down from the mines. My memory is vague about this, but they definitely represented those kinds of working class interests. So I’m sure they were being watched and recorded, but I don’t think they were raided by the police. I really don’t. You’d need to ask them; I think they are still around.

SG: I feel like, even now, you sound very matter-of-fact about it. But it’s actually an enormous pressure to work under.

MH: But in a strange way, you see, I may sound matter-of-fact, but we were very committed ideologically. I mean, we were very, very bonded initially by our desire to represent women both in front and behind the camera. We were strong feminists, still trying to work out what that meant. And influenced by other feminist filmmakers like Pat Murphy, who remains a really good friend, and Vivienne Dick and people like that, but we were also very strong republicans and we absolutely knew that that was contrary to the mainstream narrative about the north. It just gave us this very strong glue, because actually, we didn’t really know each other that well, all of us who thrust ourselves together. We were held together by our ideological loyalty to this kind of resistance that we felt we were part of, you know; and we would have been involved individually in different things politically at the time.

We set up [the Workshop] in 1984, and the Hunger Strikes were 1980-81, and that completely radicalised me. You know, I would have probably not become so involved in politics had it not been for that experience. I mean, I was probably on the fringes of it, and I had a great struggle with the idea of violence, but in the end-up I did understand why people behaved the way they behaved—and witnessing what was done to people. Bloody Sunday completely radicalised me as well, but that was long before, 1972. That was the first big thing that completely changed me. But in terms of trying to understand what you could do and what you might feed into, where you might align with people, that probably happened through working through the Hunger Strikes because… lots of us went out in the streets at that time.

There was another incident where Gregory Campbell8 posted a picture in the Derry Journal… a photograph of [workshop member] Stephanie reading the roll of honour at the cemetery because she had two brothers who died in the conflict: one was run over by a British Army Land Rover, and the other joined the IRA [and died in an accident]. But [Gregory Campbell] said that we were basically the IRA. So we freaked out and thought, oh fuck, what’s he done? Has he smeared us? How public can we go with this, but [we were] furious at the Derry Journal for printing it.

So I remember saying to Kevin “I need to speak to Eamonn McCann9” as he was an experienced journalist… I was in such a state… I had arranged for Eamonn to come to my flat but Kevin said, “Don’t be bringing him here during Dallas.” We all liked to watch Dallas at that time but Kevin was in the Socialist Workers’ Movement with Eamonn back then and didn’t want him to think badly of him.

So I remember ringing down to Eamonn, and Goretti [his partner] answered the phone and I said, “Something’s come up, can Eamonn come later?” and Goretti said “Oh, that’s great, because Eamonn wants to watch Dallas.” I always remember. It was so funny…like, what kind of socialists were we? (laughs) But it all died down anyway, because he said, “Look, it’ll blow over, you’ll probably attract too much attention if you do anything about it.”

And so although, yes, as you say, it was probably massive in terms of the level of stress, in a way we kind of got an energy out of it, you know, we absolutely did. We fed off that energy. Couldn’t do it now (laughs). I absolutely could not do it now. But lived and breathed it and I particularly did since I lived in the building where we worked and I used to work crazy hours upstairs, to the extent that my poor husband used to beg me to come down, especially when we had a little baby, you know, it was scandalous now I think about it, how I behaved.

You know, [during this time] I dealt with the management of DFVW and all the admin and doing applications and corresponding with funders or whatever, which was massive… and, you know, ACE10 funding and the amount of applications we had to do. Through all this, under the ACE scheme, they were coming doing their government inspections, and we were getting on really well, but yet the police were still raiding us.

 

A page from the book ‘Strong About it All’ with stories from women about their experience of home raids.

 

Footnotes
1. “From 1988 to 1994 the British government banned the broadcast of the voices of representatives from Sinn Féin and several other Irish republican and loyalist groups on television and radio. The restrictions sought to prevent Sinn Féin from using the media for political advantage. Broadcasters quickly found a workaround to the ban, using actors to dub the voices of banned speakers. Famously, actor Stephen Rea, early in his career, regularly provided the voice for Gerry Adams.
2. In The Skelper and Me, activist Tony Doherty describes a raid of the offices of the Bloody Sunday Initiative in 1 Westend Park, in December 1992. Unmarked vans pull up outside the building and masked men in black clothing break down the door to their offices and order everyone to their knees. It’s only when he notices the Heckler & Koch 9mm machine guns they hold, standard issue for the Royal Ulster Constabulary, that he realises they are experiencing a police raid and not a loyalist execution. Tony Doherty, The Skelper and Me: A Memoir of Making History in Derry (Cork: Mercier Press, 2019).
3. Helen Harris and Eileen Healy, Strong about it all: rural and urban women’s experiences of the security forces in Northern Ireland (Derry: North West Women’s / Human Rights Project Publications, 2001)
4. Hassina Mechaï and Flora Hergon ‘“Make yourself at home!”: The French state of emergency and home searches in 2015-2017’, The Funambulist 29 States of Emergency, (May-June 2020).
5. A former British Army base in Derry, where people would have been taken to be questioned.
6. The Arts Council of Ireland / An Chomhairle Ealaíon is an Irish government agency under the Minister of Arts, Heritage & Gaeltacht. Currently in the north of Ireland, there is no minister with a specific brief for the arts, but the Arts Council of Northern Ireland is overseen by the Department for Communities, along with agencies that manage sport, housing, community relations and more. By contrast, in Bolivia, November 2020 saw the swearing in of indigenous activist Sabina Orellana, as Minister for Cultures, Decolonisation and Depatriarchalisation. All of these structures expose an ideology around the centrality of culture to a government’s agenda and priorities.
7. That said, there are notable exceptions. In November 2020, the production company, producer, and journalist who made the film No Stone Unturned—about the 1994 Loughinisland massacre—have just received £875,000 in damages from the Police Service of Northern Ireland for the unlawful raids of their homes and offices in 2018.
8. Gregory Campbell is a politician with the Democratic Unionist Party, founded by Ian Paisley in 1971. He is still active in politics and has been the Member of Parliament for East Londonderry since 2001.
9. Eamonn McCann is a radical journalist and socialist activist.
10. Action for Community Employment (ACE) was a works scheme for unemployed people that ran from 1981 to 1999 and was used by many community and cultural organisations to pay staff.

It’s not for you we did it is prepared by curator Sara Greavu and artist Ciara Phillips.

Poster 3, Are you being observed? Image description: Black and white photograph of a woman with a hairstyle reminiscent of the 1980s, lying in a single bed and smoking. She lies flat and her gaze is on the cigarette in her hand. The sheets are textured flannelette and the bedspread, wallpaper and curtains have clashing checked and floral patterns. A black text box near the bottom of the photo has the words “Are you being observed?” printed in green. Photographic image, Creative Commons BY-NC-SA, Camerawork Derry.
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