Thursday, September 11, 2008

I first met Saidie Patterson in 1950. She was a woman of great faith and an indefatigable fighter for women’s rights and justice in Northern Ireland, particularly for the textile workers. Born off the Shankhill Road, Belfast where she lived all her life, Saidie was the first woman chairperson of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. I once mentioned her name to Nobel Peace Prize winner Betty Williams when I was interviewing her for Oregon Public Broadcasting. She responded, ‘O, you mean our Saidie.’ For Saidie was regarded as the mother of the peace movement in Northern Ireland.And, as her biographer, David Bleakley, said at her funeral, ‘An Ireland full of Saidies would be an island at peace.’

Saidie would have rejoiced at the dramatic progress made toward that aim in recent years and should be honoured as one who helped it happen.

She was known for her ‘Saidieisms’. Some examples:

‘There’s no such thing as “orange” and “green” tears; we all weep together. We must decide which we prefer, to bury the hatchet or bury the dead.’ And, which I don’t think needs translating for American readers, ‘If the men would pass more pubs and fewer resolution, we’d be a good deal better off.’

She was invited in the 1940s by Ernest Bevin, a senior British trade union leader, to be the first female officer in the Transport and General Worker’s Union. ‘The job I am offering you is as big as a mountain,’ he said. ‘I can only promise you a spoon to dig it.’ She responded, ‘It’s amazing what a woman can do with a spoon.’

She told a Labour Party conference in Blackpool: ‘Ireland has become a model of division. People come from all over the world to see how we do it. Yet there is no country in Europe which has had to fight for bread and work as much as Ireland. If we spent as much time struggling for one another as we do in fighting over the past, what a people we would be, what an inspiration we could become for struggling humanity.’

As a founder and chair of Women Together she led a march of 50,000 women through the Protestant and Catholic areas of Belfast: ‘The last time I walked up the Shankill Road with Catholics was in the early 1930s when we were marching to the workhouse for bread and some of us were in bare feet. Today we walk up the Shankill not as Protestants or Catholics but as children of the King of Kings.’

When the Pope visited Ireland in 1979 Saidie was one of those who helped collect half a million Protestant signatures inviting him to visit the North. She was asked to speak at the vigil held in his honour at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. Describing the occasion later, she said, ‘I had a long talk with the good Lord. He told me what to say. I started by asking if everybody there that night was arrested for being a Christian would there be enough evidence to convict you and me. I told them it was one thing to pray during a crisis, but it is another thing to live so that it doesn’t happen again.’

Decorated by the Queen of England she was asked by The Queen how it was going with the women. ‘Well, Ma’am, once our women were just pairs of hands. Now ma’am they are royal souls like yourself.’

Saidie was given five international peace awards and donated the money to charities for children and arthritis sufferers. She was awarded the first World Methodist Peace Award for ‘her courageous work, her creativity in crossing hostile barriers to mediate between persons on both sides and her long-term efforts for the cause of peace’. At that very time word came that one of her family had been killed in an IRA ambush. ‘The news made my blood run cold,’ she said, ‘but I prayed that bitterness would not enter my heart. I was more determined than ever to continue the work for peace.’

She was quoted in the ‘Yorkshire Post’: ‘What keeps me going is the fact that more and more of our women, both Roman Catholic and Protestant are telling the men that it is better to sit around a table and talk than stand around a graveyard and cry. Those tears are not coloured in orange and green. They are tears of sorrow. I never believe in judging a man by the church he attends on Sunday or the colour of his skin, but by his character. It is not being a Roman Catholic or a Protestant which will create peace. It is being a Christian.’

She was also attacked. During one rally, when she was already in her seventies, she was beaten up and saved by some Catholic women but still had to spend months in hospital. ‘Isn’t it amazing,’ she observed, ‘how Protestants and Catholics share one another’s blood on the transfusion table.’ She wrote from the hospital, ‘My daily experience is that the Holy Spirit is uniting humanity through men and women who listen and obey. I believe Ireland will be used to take God’s answer to the world.’

Shortly before she died, Bleakley told her, ‘Saidie, it looks like you’re going.’ She replied, ‘Don’t worry, David. I’m just catching an earlier bus than you.’ 

A fuller story of Saidie appears in Michael Henderson’s All Her Paths Are Peace – Women Pioneers in Peacemaking