05 December 2005

Spirit of comradeship to the bitter end

Daily Ireland

The last internee to be released 30 years ago today looks back on the brutal British regime

Jarlath Kearney

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Long Kesh internees in 1975 were digging an escape tunnel until the very day they were released, one of the North’s most prominent republicans revealed yesterday.
Veteran Belfast activist Martin Meehan told Daily Ireland that until internment officially ended on December 5, 1975, the 47 remaining internees were persisting with work on an escape tunnel which they hoped might be used by sentenced republican prisoners at a later date.
Mr Meehan, a former IRA commander and more recently Sinn Fein councillor, was Camp O/C of the Long Kesh internees during the latter part of internment. He became the final internee to be freed exactly 30 years ago today.
Mr Meehan also hit out at the SDLP’s recent decision in Westminster to support 28-day detention without trial, branding the move “total hypocrisy”.
He likened the British system of enforced, unlimited and arbitrary detention during internment with the modern actions of the American government in places like Guantanamo Bay.
Beginning on August 9, 1971, internment led to hundreds of mainly ordinary nationalists being held indefinitely and without charge on the arbitrary orders of political detectives from RUC Special Branch.
Despite recalling his eventual pleasure at being released, Mr Meehan explained that his moment of freedom three decades ago was also tinged with sadness.
“I remember P/O Larking coming in to the hut very early to speak to me. He was a civil man and even claimed ancestry back to Big Jim Larkin,” Mr Meehan said yesterday.
“He said quietly to me that internment was over and that the governor would tell us officially at 10 o’clock. I just let a big yell out of me. Initially some men wakened up thinking the hut was being raided, but when I told them we were going home, Larkin couldn’t get out of the hut quickly enough! When they realised I was serious, they were hugging each other and shaking hands – even men who had their differences and maybe hadn’t spoken in a year. It was one of the most poignant experiences I’ve ever had,” Mr Meehan said.
After forming up and marching once in drill formation around the Cage, Mr Meehan read a statement to the internees explaining that it was the duty of every republican present to report back to the republican movement. Men then began their release in batches of five, travelling by van from the Cages to the prison car park.
“Then there were just five of us left, including myself, Lawrence Mulholland from Bellaghy and Billy McAllister from Belfast.
“Me and Billy were the last two and I was called out in front of Billy.
“They said to me ‘you’ve made history, you’re the last detainee to get release’. And I said ‘what about Billy?’ And they said that he was going to be charged with trying to escape from Musgrave Park hospital about six months earlier – and they asked me to break the news to him.
“It was really difficult for me to tell him. I remember walking back into the Cage and looking around. There were papers and old clothes and bags lying all over the Cage where men had just packed up quickly and left.
“Billy was there with his bag all ready to go and I had to tell him the bad news that he wasn’t being released after all and that they were going to charge him with trying to escape. It was very emotional. I remember we embraced and I walked away, watching him there on his own, knowing that he must have been broken-hearted. I felt very, very sorry for him. He later told me that they just left him there on his own for hours,” Mr Meehan recalled.
However, despite the sad episode, Mr Meehan was still required to read a formal statement to the waiting media in the prison car park in his capacity as Camp O/C.
“As we were coming to the prison car park, Lawrence Mulholland had a big twenty-first birthday key that someone sent in to him as a souvenir on a card. When I went to read the statement in front of the media, I held the key up and shouted that the governor gave me the key to Long Kesh!” Mr Meehan said.
Like scores of other ex-internees, Mr Meehan recalled the comradeship in the Cages with great memories. However, he also noted the brutality and injustice of the system which the British government hoped would break the republican struggle.
“In those days of internment you were first taken away to the Crumlin Road prison and then moved by helicopter to Long Kesh. When you were in the Cages at Long Kesh, they used to hold these sham hearings where Special Branch sat behind screens to give uncorroborated evidence about you. The vast majority of the men did not participate in the so-called special courts,” Mr Meehan said.
“The people targeted were from right across the entire spectrum of the nationalist community – grandfathers in their 70s right down to young lads aged 14 or 15.
“No-one should ever forget that the British government was found guilty in the European Court of inhumane and degrading treatment for some of their actions during internment.
“The psychological and emotional damage that the brutality of internment inflicted on men and their families has been enormous and continues even to the present day. Yet despite the brutality and absolute repression of the regime, the ingenuity and creativity and resolve of the internees was an absolute inspiration,” Mr Meehan said.
While internees used their incarceration to become politically educated and consistently tried to keep each other’s morale high, Mr Meehan described the lack of a release date for internees as “soul-destroying”.
“During that entire period, the men and their families could only keep going with the support of the community. And people who always need to be properly recognised for their brilliant contribution were the bus drivers who ferried families up and down to Long Kesh, the Green Cross and the prisoners’ welfare.
“That experience which the nationalist community were forced to endure in the 1970s is the best possible reason why the SDLP should now hang their heads in shame at voting in favour of 28-day detention without trial, which they did last month in the House of Commons,” Mr Meehan said.
“For any political party claiming to represent the nationalist community voting in favour of 28-day detention and take us back to the days of internment is total hypocrisy and utterly insulting to the thousands of nationalists tortured and brutalised by such policies,” Mr Meehan said.

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