06 May 2006

'Bobby's dead'

Seeing Red

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'Bobby's Dead'
by Jack McKinney

[Our old friend [retired Philadelphia Daily News columnist] Jack McKinney has begun to release all his archival stuff on the 1981 H Block Hunger Strike.... This article from five years back really sets the tone. It has, if I may say so, a certain lyricism that is absent from his powerful reportage in 1981.Well, watching friends and comrades starve to death doesn't exactly evoke lyricism, rather rage and sorrow.....--Roger Collins]

I wrote [this] spontaneously one night in May, '96, after reflecting on the fact that a lot of younger people who didn't actually experience that protracted nightmare would find it difficult, in reading the inadequate existing literature, to get a sense of what it was like emotionally. As you'll see, I was also pissed --as I still am in retrospect-- at the cowardice shown by Yank news photogs generally, and the Phila Daily News cur particularly, when they got the 'action' they'd been clamoring for.
--Black Jack

A Cairde: There's few memories I'd like to share before calling it a night.

The evening of May 4, 1981, my mate Seamus and I were heading back up the road to Andytown when we saw a white-line vigil a short stretch beyond the Kennedy Way roundabout. White-line vigils were a common sight in West Belfast that Spring, just as a common sound was the plaintive tenor voice of Francie Brolly and his H-Block Song, wafting through open windows from record players in at least one house on every street in the district. No one was hoping anymore. Only wondering. When?

An APC overtook us and pulled alongside the single column of young people in the vigil. The Brit up front swung open the door and slung the greasy remains of a fish'n'chips take-out among them, shouting: "'ere! Run this up to yer boy Bobby!" You never got to read about the countless nightly provocations like this.

Sure, at least some of you are probably fantasizing right now about what you would have done. Maybe about how you would have scooped up the garbage and flung it right back in the face of the taunter.

If one of the vigil-keepers had surrendered to such an impulse, a 7.62 round would have thumped into its target, leaving globs of pink-stained grey matter mixed in with the remains of the fish'n'chips.

The lance corporal would have said the Yellow Card gave him the right to fire when confronted with lethal force and his fellow squaddies would have sworn they saw the others in the vigil passing off a weapon, hand by hand, till it disappeared in the angry crowd that seemed to gather from nowhere.

That you would have read about.

* * * * *

Downtown Radio had signed off with its usual, seductive "Chariots of Fire" tape and it was going on 2 a.m. when I heard Seamus's wife rapping softly on my bedroom door, whispering so as not to wake the kids.

"Jack. Bobby's dead."

No matter how long you'd been expecting to hear that, it still felt like a cannon ball tearing through the gut when the news actually came.

* * * * *

Already the bin lids were dinning through the estate. Protesting. Denouncing. Lamenting. Summoning. People were gathering on Andytown Road. Cursing. Crying. There was the harsh sound of glass shattering and the squeal of metal drums being dragged up from the Busy-B for barricades.

A crew of American press photographers had been staying at the little hotel that used to be right down from the Felon's Club. One of them liked to swagger around wearing a cowboy hat, demanding to know when the action was going to start. The others didn't have cowboy hats, but every last one of them had a safari jacket adorned with press tags in several different languages and scripts, which they thought gave them a license to swagger and make the same complaints about the lack of action.

I now banged on one's door and told him to roust his chums because the action they'd been so desperate for was already underway down at the foot of Clonard. He stuttered as he tried to paraphrase the bulletins he'd heard on the radio warning everyone to stay off the streets. Having taken this as sound advice, he and his colleagues had decided to "stay put until the British army has the situation under control."

* * * * *

Down at Sinn Fein Headquarters (the old one, before Connolly House) some staffers were trying to discourage the wee lads from making Kamikaze petrol-bomb-runs at a Brit roadblock on the bottom of the Springfield Rd. The message didn't sink in till one wee lad got hit with a sniper's bullet high on the inside of his thigh, near the groin.

This couldn't have really happened, of course, because none of the American photographers was there to snap a picture of the boy being carried off the road with his blood pumping out in gulping spurts. But a French TV crew wheeled in from Leeson St. and was starting to set up till Seamus and I persuaded them to put the victim in their maroon van and rush him over to Royal instead, because the high velocity bullet had destroyed the major artery in his thigh and even with his belt cinched above it, he'd be dead in a few more minutes.

The Frenchies didn't get a picture, either, but they had something ticking inside that doesn't seem to come with safari jackets and cowboy hats.

* * * * *

About an hour later, a call came in to SFHQ. Bobby Sands had finally been brought home and Jimmy Drumm had to speak to his parents about the Republican funeral arrangements.

But the Brits had Twinbrook sealed off from below. Could Seamus and I find another way to get Jimmy in? We could and did, taking back roads and a couple of fields to loop up and around Lisburn and come back down to Twinbrook from there.

Bobby didn't look anything like the broadfaced, beaming young man the world knew only from that picture taken years earlier in Long Kesh. His hair was neatly trimmed and parted on the left side, and he looked more like the young accountant he might have become. His cheekbones, always prominent, were now the most dominant feature of a face that remained handsome even in its shrunken state.

* * * * *

There was one moment so almost overwhelmingly poignant that I can still close my eyes and summon it in vivid detail. A ringlet of hair lay across Bobby's upper right forehead. His younger brother Sean, who idolized him stepped unobtrusively behind the casket and, reaching in, tenderly brushed back the stray locks.

John Sands, prematurely whitehaired at 57, tightened his arm around wife Rosaleen and sighed.

"We should have a photo of how he looks now. If only we had a photographer." Seamus and I exchanged glances. We had both been thinking the same thing.


Bobby Sands was defiantly elected to the British Parliment by the people of Fermanagh-South Tyrone while on hunger strike. The Speaker's announcement of his death in that body pointedly excluded the traditional condolences to the family on the death of a Member.

According to journalist David Beresford in his book Ten Men Dead: The story of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike, "a news agency photographer [later] offered the Sands family 75,000 for a picture of Bobby in his coffin. During his time in internment a group photograph had been taken of him and fellow prisoners, with a smuggled camera, and the blurred picture had become one of the most famous in the world. His family turned down the offer of a new one."


CIA Study: Michael Collins and Bloody Sunday


6 May 2006


Describes Irish Republican Army's intelligence service leader, Michael Collins', penetration of British intelligence and forces in Ireland, his organization and methods, including frequent assassinations leading up to November 21, 1920–Bloody Sunday.

CIA Studies in Intelligence, V13:1-69-78 (Winter 1969)

2 JULY 96


The intelligence war between the British and Irish Intelligence Services.

Martin C. Hartline
M. M. Kaulbach

Until Easter Week 1966, the statue of Lord Nelson stood peacefully on its column in Dublin Square. It was blown up on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rebellion, which the British had finally subdued on that very spot. Although the figurative decapitation of the hero of Trafalgar made the front page of The New York Times, the event was but a footnote to history, recalling one of the most newsworthy stories of the early 1900's, The Irish Revolt.

For nearly four hundred years prior to the Easter Rebellion of 1916, Irish nationalists had been fighting British colonialism without success. The most striking difference between the Easter Rebellion and the uprisings of the past was that this new Irish revolt occurred at a most unpropitious moment for the British. The war against Germany had strained and exhausted the economy of Great Britain. Resources to arrest the growing insurgency in Ireland were not available.

Despite the disruptive effects of World War I on Great Britain, it would have been unrealistic, even in the land of the leprechaun, for the Irish to expect to defeat by conventional military tactics the world's foremost military power. In fact, most of the leaders of the Irish nationalists felt that the opportunity for success rested squarely on their capability to exploit Great Britain's lack of will to continue a costly and domestically unpopular war. Their eventual success in doing so constitutes a classic example of the effectiveness of unconventional warfare in forcing a powerful adversary to the negotiating table.1 The Irish intelligence service was one of the architects of the victory.


1 On 5 December 1921 a treaty was signed granting Ireland, less the six counties of Ulster (Northern Ireland) Home Rule. Under Home Rule, although Ireland remained within the British Empire, the Irish were given primary responsibility for domestic affairs with Britain retaining control over defense and foreign affairs.

The Director of Intelligence of the Irish Republican Army during the last act of the drama was Michael Collins, already a legendary figure when he was appointed in the summer of 1919. He had been in the movement since early 1916, and had earned the cachet attached to deportation and imprisonment for a year in a British jail. By 1919, the Crown was offering £10,000 in rewards for Collins "dead or alive."

Despite this tempting offer and hard times in Ireland, very few dared to offer assistance which would aid the British in capturing him. The few, who were tempted met a quick end. The familiar IRA calling card found on the bodies of informers, "Convicted Spy Executed by Order of the IRA," proved to be a sufficient deterrent. Frequently, informers were tried in absentia. It is sufficient to recall Collins' remark regarding the accused to guess at the outcome of these trials: "For the future the rule should be guilty until proven innocent."

Collins has often been described by both friends and foes as a coldblooded character. His remarks after the bloody execution of a number of British intelligence officers and informants bring out this aspect of his character.

My one intention was the destruction of the undesirables who continued to make miserable the lives of ordinary decent citizens.

I have proof enough to assure myself of the atrocities which this gang of spies and informers have committed. Perjury and torture are words too easily known to them. If I had a second motive it was no more than a feeling such as I might have for a dangerous reptile.

Bv their destruction the very air is made sweeter. That should be the future's judgment on this particular event. For myself, my conscience is clear. There is no crime in detecting and destroying, in war-time, the spy and the informer. They have destroyed without trial. I have paid them back in their own coin.2


2 Rex Taylor, Michael Collins, London, 1958.

Although informers were dealt with ruthlessly, Collins came close to capture a number of times. On one occasion a Black and Tan3 a raiding party besieged a house where Collins was present. He calmly walked down the stairs, brushed the intruders aside, and bolted out the door before they knew what had happened.


3 The Black and Tans were not members of the British regular army but a new force recruited for service in Ireland. They were drawn heavily from the unemployed and received their name from their attire khaki coats, black trousers and caps.

Soon after this incident, Collins had a master builder named Batt O'Connor construct a secret room, with sleeping quarters, on the same premises. O'Connor succeeded so well that the next time the Black and Tans staged a raid, Collins was able to continue a meeting then in progress without interruption.

The Collins Organization

Collins surrounded himself with a small group of counterintelligence operatives-soon labelled the Inner Circle-who directed the nenetration of various British installations. Their network eventually extended from Ireland to America, England, and Egypt. It penetrated prisons, postal facilities, and government departments from the British headquarters in Dublin Castle to Whitehall itself. Sympathetic postal officials in London, Dublin and generally throughout all of Ireland, enabled the Irish service to intercept, and decode many of the oppositions' cipher messages.

Recognizing the need to compile information on their opposition, the Inner Circle very early in the struggle established a central records center, eventually called the Brain Center, within 200 yards of Dublin Castle. A lawyer's office provided the cover, and although its unusual clientele increased in number, this dual-purpose establishment went undetected.

Presumably the IIS established its "Brain Center" so dangerously close to Dublin Castle to hasten the dissemination of reports received from Broy, Kavanagh, Neligan and MacNamara, all trusted employees of the British, but agents of the IIS. This records center contained dossiers on personalities of security or operational interest including military leaders and government officials, as well as captured and stolen documents and extensive ciphering and deciphering material.

The British React

The British Intelligence Service (BIS) apparently lacked detailed information about the Inner Circle and the Brain Center, although it certainly felt their presence and Michael Collins' influence. In consequence, the BIS set out to capture Collins, hoping thereby to neutralize the Irish apparatus. One of the BIS' earliest efforts in this direction was turned into a propaganda extravaganza by the IIS. A convicted forger in a London prison, one F. Digby Hardy, mailed a letter to Lord French, Governor General of Ireland, offering his services as a spy. Lord French accepted the proposition. Hardy was to travel to Ireland and establish contact with the IIS.

Hardy's letter, however, had been intercepted and transmitted to IIS Headquarters, where Irish operatives began to amass a dossier of incriminating information concerning Hardy's past. Collins permitted Hardy to make contact with the IIS, and shortly there after arranged what Hardy had been led to believe was a conference with IIS officers. Those present were in fact American and British journalists anticipating the scoop that Hardy was shortly to provide.

During this meeting the leaders of the IIS confronted Hardy with his infamous past, his letter to Lord French, and his mission to penetrate the IIS. When Digby learned the true identity and purpose of his host, he made a full confession, hoping thereby to obtain leniency from his inquisitors. Because of Digby's cooperation, the IIS spared his life and gave him until the next morning to be out of Ireland. The story made international news headlines, and the BIS suffered a humiliating reversal before world opinion.

Not all British efforts were as transparent as the Hardy fiasco. An experienced BIS officer named Burn, alias Jameson, succeeded in penetrating the "Inner Circle" of the IIS and in winning for a short time the confidence of Michael Collins. Jameson had come to the attention of the IIS while feigning Bolshevism as a member of British Labor circles, all the while performing in the role of agentprovocateur. Jameson impressed Collins with schemes to obtain arms and money from the Soviet Government.

An unsubstantiated report from Dublin Castle, and the near capture of Collins while engaged in a clandestine meeting with Jameson, provoked suspicions and the IIS prepared a plan to test Jameson's loyalties. With deliberate carelessness Collins permitted Jameson to see parts of a bogus document which referred to important papers held in the home of a pro-British ex-mayor of Dublin. Jameson in turn relayed this information to Dublin Castle and soon afterward the Black and Tans raided the ex-mayor's home. Predictably, perhaps, shortly after the raid Jameson's body riddled with bullets was found bearing the familiar IRA execution card.

In their penetration efforts IIS operatives were considerably more successful than the British. Early in the conflict, the IIS recruited and ran-in-place four Dublin Castle officials: Ned Broy, James MacNamara, Joe Kavanagh, and Dave Neligan. During their weekly debriefings, these agents passed valuable information to Collins at a Dublin safehouse owned by Tom Gay, an inconspicuous librarian. One of these agents, Ned Broy, who had access to the headquarters of the Dublin Detective Force, arranged to be on duty alone one night during which Collins was able to make a midnight visit and spend several hours of the early morning there reading secret documents and gathering valuable information.

Although Broy, Kavanagh, Neligan and MacNamara provided Collins with extremely useful information, the most valuable of all Collins' penetrations was the mysterious Lt. G., a member of British military intelligence and one of Collins' chief agents and confidants. Not only was Lt. G. able to pass information concerning troop movements, order of battle and military plans that enabled the IRA to ambush British troops and supply convoys, but he also provided Collins with advance warning of British plans to raid suspected IIS installations.

In Collins' personal notebook-diary, there appear seventeen notes initialed "G," of which the following is but one example:

"Don't overdo. The road to Parnell Square is too well trod. Fifteen men, including you, went there (to Vaughn's Hotel) last night between 9 and 11 p.m."4


4 Rex Taylor, Michael Collins, London, 1958.

Little else is known of Lt. G. but his case demonstrated the abilities of the IIS to recruit and run-in-place an unusually valuable and well-placed British military intelligence officer.

The Cairo Group

Despite the efforts of Dublin Castle to stymie the IIS, the British position in Ireland in 1919 had so deteriorated that the British authorities in Whitehall decided that radical measures were required. Heretofore the British had been concentrating on controlling the general public and only sporadically fighting the IIS. But Irish successes had nevertheless mounted. A major assault was in order. Accordingly, certain of the most experienced British deep-cover CI officers were called to Ireland and directed to seek out and assassinate the Inner Circle of the IIS.

At the time of the Irish Revolt most of these operatives were stationed in Cairo. One by one, they arrived in Ireland, travelling under aliases and using commercial cover, several taking jobs as shop assistants or garage bands to avoid suspicion.

The so-called Cairo Group was directed by two men, Peter Aimes and George Bennet. These individuals maintained liaison with three veterans of the campaign, Lt. Angliss, alias McMahon, who had been recalled from Russia to organize intelligence in South Dublin, an Irishman by the name of Peel, and D. L. McLean, the chief of intelligence at Dublin Castle. Besides being more experienced intelligence operatives than those earlier working in Ireland, the members of the Cairo Group increased the threat to the Irish because they immediately reorganized the British intelligence effort, which until their arrival had been decentralized and uncoordinated. They moved quickly to correct weaknesses. Their accomplishments led ultimately to the events of "Bloody Sunday."

Although the IIS was aware that changes were taking place on the British side, it was some time before it ascertained the identities of the Cairo Group. Their first break came following the execution of John Lynch, an Irish Treasury Official, by the Group. After this episode, Lt. Angliss, drunk and despondent, divulged his participation in the execution to a girl who inadvertently passed this information to an IIS informant. The remaining members of the group were identified after an unwitting landlady revealed to another IIS informant that several of her British guests regularly went out very late in the evening. At the time Dublin was under a very strict curfew, and only authorized personnel were allowed on the streets. The individuals in question were taken under observation by the surveillance and enforcement arm of the IIS -- called the Twelve Apostles5 -- which determined that they were in contact with previously identified members of the Cairo Group. To the Twelve Apostles, this meant that they were instrumentally involved with the Cairo Group.


5 The Twelve Apostles were responsible for surveillance and executions. Because they operated in friendly circumstances and enjoyed popular support, they were efficient and effective.

In addition to the information provided by these sources, a comparatively low-level technical operation revealed the identity of another key participant in the Cairo Group. Shortly after the new British team arrived in Ireland, Michael Collins had received a typewritten death notice reading:

"An eye for an eye A tooth for a tooth Therefore a life for a life."6


6 Jacqueline Van Voris, Constance de Markievicz in the Cause of Ireland, Amherst, Mass., 1967.

Collins ignored the message but filed the letter, as he did all correspondence bearing upon his intelligence and related activities. Soon afterward, the IIS intercepted the following letter from Capt. YZ addressed to Capt. X, War Office, Whitehall, England:

Dear X,

Have duly reported and found things in a fearful mess, but think will be able to make a good show. Have been given a free hand to carry on and everyone has been charming re our little stunt. I see no prospect until I have got things on a firmer basis, but still hope and believe there are possibilities . . 7


7 Piaras Beaslai, Michael Collins, Soldier and Statesman, Dublin, 1937.

The IIS hurriedly recruited a typewriter expert, who determined that the typeface of the Captain YZ letter matched that of the death notice sent earlier to Michael Collins. Captain YZ was therefore linked to the Cairo Group and thereafter was the object of special investigation. In the end, by intercepting correspondence, examining contents of wastebaskets, tracing laundry markings, duplicating hotel room keys, and similar efforts, all members of the Cairo Group were identified and placed under surveillance.

Before all this had been accomplished, however, the Cairo Group had begun to close in. Three IIS senior officers, Frank Thornton, one of the Twelve Apostles and the man responsible for maintaining the surveillance of the Cairo Group, Liam Tobin, the senior officer in charge of the IIS "Brain Center," and Tom Cullen, his assistant, were arrested. Unable to break the cover stories of Thornton, Tobin, and Cullen, the British interrogators released them. Tobin and Cullen were detained only a few hours. Thornton, however, underwent a gruelling interrogation for ten days.

These arrests understandably alarmed the IIS. Shortly after Thornton's release, Collins received information that the Cairo Group was planning more arrests. Fearful that additional interrogations would be successful and reveal IIS personnel and installations, Collins met with his staff and formulated the plans for "Bloody Sunday."

On 17 November Collins had written to Dick McKee, Commander of the Dublin Brigade:

Dick . . . have established addresses of the particular ones. Arrangements should now be made about the matter. Lt. G. is aware of things. He suggested the 21st. A most suitable date and day I think. "M" 8


8 Rex Taylor, Michael Collins, London, 1958.

Early Sunday morning, November 21, 1920, while most of Dublin slept, eight groups of IIS officers including the Twelve Apostles went into action. They executed eleven British intelligence officers. As many more marked for extinction escaped. McMahon and McLean were among those executed. Of the leaders of the Cairo Group, only Peel escaped. Most of the others who escaped had not been direct participants in the British plan.

The British reaction to "Bloody Sunday" was quick. Carloads of Auxiliaries9 were almost immediately dispatched to Croke Park, Dublin where a large crowd had assembled to watch a football game. Accounts of what followed are conflicting, but one of the most widely reported stated that the Auxiliaries fired into the crowd, killing fourteen and wounding many others. Despite the confusion, Dick McKee and Peadar Clancy, who both had participated in the liquidation of Bloody Sunday, along with an innocent visitor to Dublin were arrested and taken to Dublin Castle, where shortly thereafter they were executed.


9 In addition to the Black and Tans the Auxiliaries were recruited in England to serve in Ireland with the police. The men were ex-officers of the army, qualified for no pension, and were not under military discipline.

Bloody Sunday remains a day of infamy in British history: and the day after remains equally infamous in Irish history. But once the violence of the two days is dismissed, it seems clear that the British plan to destroy the Irish service failed. By acting first the IIS had delivered the coup de main to the British intelligence network in Dublin.

Cathal Brugha, then Irish minister of defense and chief of staff, later assessed the outcome as follows, in words which were perhaps applicable to the conflict between the intelligence services:

"We proved for all time that no nation however great, can either govern or destroy a little country if the will of the little country be set. We proved it by The Invisible Army.' "10


10 Shaw Desmond, The Drama of Sinn Fein, London. 1923.



Barry, Tom B. Guerrilla Days in Ireland. New York: The Devin-Adair Co., 1956.

Beaslai, Piaras. Michael Collins, Soldier and Statesman. Dublin: The Talbot Press Ltd., 1937.

Beaslai, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland. Dublin: The Talbot Press Ltd., 1927.

Bennett, Richard Lawrence. The Black and Tans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1960.

Brady, Edward Mark. Ireland's Secret Service in England. Dublin: The Talbot Press Ltd.

Carty, James. Ireland from the Great Famine to the Treaty. Dublin: C. J. F allon Ltd., 1951.

Collins, Michael. The Path to Freedom. Dublin: The Talbot Press Ltd., 1922.

Coogan, Timothy Patrick. Ireland Since the Rising. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966.

Denieffe, Joseph. A Personal Narrative of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood. Cambridge: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1906.

Desmond, Shaw. The Drama of Sinn Fein. London: W. Collins Sons & Company Ltd., 1923.

Gleason, James Joseph. Bloody Sunday. London: Peter Davies Ltd., 1962.

Gwynn, Denis Rolleston. The Life of John Redmond. London: G. G. Karrap and Co., 1932.

Lieberson, Goddard. The Irish Uprising 1916-1922. New York: Hinkhouse Inc., 1964.

Lyons, Francis S. L. The Fall of Parnell. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1960.

Maeardle, Dorothy. The Irish Republic. Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1951.

O'Callaghan, Sean. The Easter Lily: The Story of the IRA. New York: Roy Publishers, 1938.

O'Leary, John. Recollections of Fenians and Fenianism. London: D. Appleton and Co., 1896.

Phillips, Walter Alison. The Revolution in Ireland, 1906-1923. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1927.

Pollard, H. B. C. The Secret Societies of Ireland. London: Philip Allan and Co., 1922.

Tansill, Charles Callan. America and the Fight for Irish Freedom. New York: The Devin-Adair Co., 1957.

Taylor, Rex. Michael Collins. London: Hutchinson and Co. Ltd., 1958.

Van Voris, Jacqueline. Constance de Markievicz in the Cause of Ireland. Amherst, Mass.: The University of Mass. Press, 1967.

Williams, Desmond. The Irish Struggle. London: Routledge and Kegan, 1966.


Dilnot, F. "Ireland Under Sinn Fein." Outlook, January 1919.

Harding, John W. "Ireland's Reign of Terror and Why." Current History, September 1920.

Macdonald, W. "Underground Ireland." Nation, June 1960.

MacNeill, J. G. S. "Agent Provocateur in Ireland." Contemporary, November 1918.

Marriott, J. A. R. "Heel of Achilles." Nineteenth Century, June 1920.

Plunkett, H. "Irish Question." Living Age, March 1919.

Turner, E. R. "Sinn Fein and Ireland." World's Work, November 1920.

Contemporary Reports

"The Crises in the British Empire: India, Egypt, Ireland." Current Opinion, June 1919.

"Defence of the Irish Executions." Nation, August 1916.

"England's Iron Hand on Ireland." Literary Digest, September 1919.

"Insurrection in Dublin." New Republic, November 1916.

"Ireland From a Scotland Yard Notebook." Atlantic, June 1922.

"Irish Executions." Nation, June 1916.

"Michael Collins, Most Terrifying of all Sinn Feiners." Current Opinion, December 1921.

"Those Irish Executions." Literary Digest, May 1916.

1981: a struggle to the death

Belfast Telegraph

**From yesterday

IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands died 25 years ago today. BRIAN ROWAN talks to leading republicans and a loyalist about the legacy of Sands, the protest and the H-Blocks

by Brian Rowan
05 May 2006

It was a battle that was about so much more than a prison regime.

For republicans this was the moment in 1981 when their struggle - and the legitimacy they attach to it - either lived or died.

The men at the coalface of the Maze hunger strike will tell you today that back then, they destroyed and buried Margaret Thatcher's "criminalisation policy", but they also buried ten republicans.

"That whole summer almost blurs at times into one long funeral procession."

This is Seanna Walsh speaking – the man who last July read the IRA statement formally ending its armed campaign, and a man who 25 years ago was a key figure alongside Brendan McFarlane in the IRA jail leadership.

The two men are still hugely influential figures in the republican leadership.

Walsh was also Bobby Sands' closest friend. Today marks the 25th anniversary of his death – a death that came after he had refused food for 66 days.

In 1981, there were many more deaths and many more funerals as victims of the IRA were buried, and during those turbulent months both inside and outside the hunger strike, this place lost its way of normal life.

Did republicans really win the battle of 1981 as they claim – a battle that has it roots several years earlier in the scrapping of special category status for prisoners and the introduction of what was seen as a "criminalisation policy".

The hunger strike grew out of the blanket and dirty protests inside the jail.

"The British designed the battleground," Seanna Walsh told this newspaper. "They decided that the prisoners were the soft underbelly of the republican struggle and that they were going to criminalise the prisoners and therefore criminalise the republican struggle.

"If it had simply been about prison conditions, we could have put a strategy together to win prison conditions without the hunger strike, without putting it onto the big stage.

"But the big stage was because the British had put it there and we had to step up to the mark."

Others from outside the republican family looking in on this developing crisis questioned the decisions and the policy of the government.

The loyalist David Ervine argues that "the British did themselves untold international damage".

"I would argue that that criminalisation process,which actually started with a Labour Government and was then carried on with some venom by Margaret Thatcher, was a destructive process," the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party told the Belfast Telegraph.

Ervine – a former prisoner – was released from the Maze in May 1980, one year before the hunger strike and Sands' death.

"The one thing that the loyalists had in common (with republicans) was the sense that the conflict in Northern Ireland was politically inspired and therefore people who were involved in the conflict were political prisoners," Ervine said.

"We went from the smallest prison population in Europe per capita to the highest prison population in Europe per capita within three years.

"Something happened to us as a people … I think those who advocated political status are seriously vindicated because we are asking now to clear the path for ex-prisoners in government."

Brendan McFarlane, who was serving a life sentence, describes the hunger strike year of 1981 as a "watershed in terms of the politics on this island".

"It was the watershed that the political pundits said it was and it developed and it expanded politics within republican structures," he said.

But he also described it as the worst year of his life as he watched the hunger strikers die one after another.

As families began to intervene to end the strike, McFarlane, Walsh and others in the IRA jail leadership realised and accepted that the protest had become "absolutely untenable".

The republican fight was with the Thatcher Government and not the relatives of the men who were dying.

When McFarlane and Walsh spoke to this newspaper yesterday, they emphasised the point that when the hunger strike ended in October 1981 there was no deal with the British.

Yes, soon afterwards, a concession was made on the clothes that prisoners could wear, but it took another year to win the demand for segregation – for IRA prisoners to have their own wings.

"And then what happened was that in 1983 we had created the conditions to allow for the complete takeover of H (Block) 7 and the emptying of H7."

This is Seanna Walsh describing how republicans used those changing conditions within the jail to plan the mass IRA escape of September 1983.

McFarlane was one of those who escaped. He was later recaptured and returned to the Maze and by the late 1980s, he says the prisoners were enjoying conditions "far in excess" of those being demanded in the hunger strike period.

Twenty-five years on from that period, a claim persists that there was a deal on offer from the British in the summer of 1981 – a deal known to McFarlane and the republican leadership - that could have saved the lives of some of the hunger strikers.

The suggestion first emerged in a book by the former IRA prisoner Richard O'Rawe – a suggestion some believe was corroborated in more recent comments by Denis Bradley, the recently retired Vice Chairman of the Policing Board.

When I raised this issue with Brendan McFarlane yesterday, there was more than a hint of anger in his response.

"There was absolutely no deal whatsoever," he insisted – no deal in October 1981, no deal in the summer of that year.

The O'Rawe book, he claimed, was an attempt to "do down Gerry Adams".

"I think it's despicable and absolutely reprehensible that he should even attempt to do anything of the sort," McFarlane said.

He said Denis Bradley's more recent comments "should just be dismissed".

"He certainly couldn't be in any sort of a position where he would have any knowledge of anything at all happening inside the prison or from outside the prison which was directly involved with the hunger strike period," McFarlane insisted.

"He wasn't there inside, and he certainly wasn't there outside, and I cannot understand why this is being used as a corroboration of what Richard (O'Rawe) has written."

So the detail of a battle, now twenty-five years old, is still being argued over.

It is discussed by republicans in the context of its contribution to a bigger "war", and like everything here, it is discussed in terms of victory and defeat.

"You are talking about who would succeed in maintaining struggle, in winning through in struggle, or who would be defeated. It could have dealt an exceptionally hard blow to republicanism, to the republican struggle, if the challenge hadn't been met … prisoners took up that challenge."

Brendan McFarlane believes the battle for political status was won in 1981 and confirmed many years later in the prisoner releases that flowed from the Good Friday Agreement.

Bobby Sands - commemorations

Daily Ireland

**From yesterday

Twenty-five years ago today Bobby Sands MP died on hunger strike in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh jail - He made the ultimate sacrifice in the battle for Irish freedom while incarcerated in prison, becoming an icon to people fighting for justice around the world - A quarter of a century later, his memory is alive and his legacy continues ‘in the laughter of our children’


Image Hosted by ImageShack.usWith the 25th anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands upon us, Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams is calling on republicans across the city to attend the events organised to mark Bobby’s death on hunger strike.
“The fifth of May is a very significant date in West Belfast,” said Mr Adams.
“Twenty-five years ago, Bobby Sands took on the British government and their attempts to criminalise him. Bobby died on hunger strike on this day and, for many, this still will be a very emotional time.”
Below is a list of the events taking place in various areas over the next few days to commemorate the hunger strike.

Friday, May 5
2–7.30pm: Roddy McCorley’s Social Club
Hunger strike exhibition in Tom Williams Room
5–6pm: Black flag vigil on the Falls Road, Springfield Road, Andersonstown Road and Stewartstown Road.
The gathering points at 5pm are as follows:
• Falls Road Sinn Féin Centre, Sevastopol Street
• Beechmount Avenue/Falls Road
• Whiterock Road/Falls Road junc
• Top of the Monagh Road
• Connolly House, Andersonstown Road
• Mairead Farrell Sinn Féin Office at the Dairy Farm Centre
8.30pm: Devenish Complex
24th annual Bobby Sands lecture delivered by Robert McBride, followed by music from Frances Black and The Scór.

Saturday, May 6
1pm: Balmoral Hotel
Talkback focusing on legacy of the hunger strikes. Panelists will include John Finucane, Chris McGimpsey, Toiréasa Ní Fhearaíosa and Alan McBride who lost relatives in the Shankill bomb of 1993.
4pm: GAA pitches of St Paul’s, Sarsfields and Rossa
Finals of an underage GAA blitz.
5.30pm: Julie Livingstone Memorial, Lenadoon Avenue/Stewartstown Road junction
Wreath-laying ceremony, rally and march, via Lenadoon Avenue, to Roddy McCorley’s Social Club.
6.30pm: Roddy McCorley’s Social Club
Family and friends of the hunger strikers to lay wreaths at trees dedicated to the 12 hunger strikers in the club’s grounds, followed by an oration by Gerry Adams. Entertainment inside club.
8pm: Andersonstown Social Club (PD)
Republican activists from the 1980/1981 period talk about their experiences.

Sunday, May 7
1pm: Dairy Farm Complex, Stewartstown Road.
March from complex to Twinbrook where Robert McBride will unveil a sculpture dedicated to the hunger strikers. Unveiling of a mural to hunger strikers will also take place.
2pm: Roddy McCorley’s Social Club
Discussion entitled The Hunger Strike Period in Lenadoon followed by poetry, readings and songs by the Roddy McCorley’s Writers’ Group.
3pm: Twinbrook Pitches
Cumann na Fuiseoige take on Dungiven’s Kevin Lynch Club in their inaugural hurling match.
8pm: Andersonstown Social Club (PD)
Event with prominent speakers and entertainment.

The North Antrim 1981 Committee has also organised a series of events.
Saturday, May 6: Division 2 hurling tournament starting at council pitches, Ballycastle at 3pm. A hunger-strike exhibition will take place in the Antrim Arms between 11am – 7.30pm. This will be followed by an Irish night in the Antrim Arms.
Sunday, May 7: Division 1 hurling tournament starting at 11am. Hunger-strike exhibition will resume at the Antrim Arms between 11am – 7.30pm. A commemoration parade will take place at 3pm in Ballycastle and will be followed by an open air concert in the Diamond.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usA hunger-strike exhibition will visit the following venues this summer. For more information call 028 90223000.

Click photo to download .pdf of Daily Ireland's front page for this day

May 5: 12 noon to 4pm Belfast
May 5: 6pm to 10pm Belfast
May 6&7: Ballycastle Antrim Arms
May 9,10&11: Cultúrlann, Belfast
May 12: Buncrana, Co Donegal
May 13: St John’s GAA Belfast
May 14: Clougher, Co Tyrone
May 18: Navan, Co Meath
May 20: South Armagh
May 21 – 26: Derry
May 27&28: Enniskillen
June 2,3&4: Dundalk, Co Louth
June 5 – 10: North Belfast
June 11,12,13&14: England
June 16,17&18: South Derry
June 23&24: Monaghon youth camp
July 7 – 9: Cork
July 13&14: Coalisland, Gallbally
July 15: Dublin South Central
July 16: Ballyconnell, Co Cavan
July 22: Carnlough, Co Antrim
July 23: Mount Charles, Co Donegal
July 24 – 28: Dungiven, Co Derry
July 30: Gortahork, Co Donegal
July 31 – Aug 4: Armagh City
Aug 5&6: Waterford
Aug 7 –10: Upper Springfield SF, Belfast
Aug 11: POW Day, Felons, Belfast
Aug 12: Belfast
Aug 13: National H-block rally
Aug 18 – 20: Tipperary
Aug 25: Gweedore, Co Donegal
Aug 26&27: Dunloy, Co Antrim
Sept 2: Bellaghy, Co Derry
Sept 5 – 11: Paris
Sept 16: Aughram, Co Wicklow
Sept 17: Co Laois Mountmellick
Sept 23: Killkenny
Sept 24 –30: England
Oct: 1 – 3: Scotland
Oct 27 – 30: Castleblaney, Co Monaghan

State-sponsored murder drive endorsed at the highest levels


(Martin McGuinness, Irish News)

Collusion between British state forces and unionist death squads has been a consistent feature of the six-county state since its creation. State forces have shared information, weapons and membership with unionist paramilitaries.

Ian Paisley loyalists within these state forces regularly supplied him with information.

This week's revelations concerning the involvement of the UDR in collusion vindicates the position adopted by Sinn Féin for decades.

For 30 years allegations of collusion were dismissed as republican propaganda.

As the lid has begun to lift on Britain's dirty war the Sinn Féin analysis has proven to be correct.

In the 1980s the British, under Thatcher, adopted a policy of resourcing and directing unionist death squads as a proxy for prosecuting Britain's war in Ireland.

British intelligence services recruited or infiltrated agents into the leaderships of the unionist paramilitaries to give them control of the loyalist death squads and ensure that their targeting, to quote a British intelligence report at the time, was "more professional".

In December 1987 over 300 weapons were brought into the north of Ireland, with the full participation and knowledge of British Intelligence.

British intelligence updated and organised loyalist intelligence documents to ensure that the loyalists would, in the words of the British army officer Colonel Gordon Kerr, "concentrate their targeting on known Provisional IRA activists".

Evidence continues to emerge confirming that the most of the key leaders of both the UVF and the UDA/UFF were British agents.

Hundreds of people were killed, and many more injured and maimed, in a campaign of state-sponsored murder.

The murder campaign against republicans and nationalists was not the result of rogue agents or individuals who overstepped their responsibilities. It was a policy endorsed at the highest level of the British political system.

These agents were not, as has been claimed, gathering intelligence on loyalist paramilitaries. These agents were directing the actions of the loyalist death squads as part of Britain's war against the republican struggle.

The reason that the British state has proven so reluctant to allow an independent investigation into collusion and the actions of their agents is precisely because they have so much to hide.

The truth about collusion and the policy of state murder will eventually be exposed and it will demonstrate clearly the real role of the British state and its agents over the last 30 years.

May 6, 2006

This article appeared first in the May 4, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

Adams makes appeal to Tohill kidnappers


06 May 2006 15:48

The Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams has said that four men who failed to appear for sentencing at a Belfast court yesterday should have turned up and he appealed to them to do so now.

The four men, Gerard McCrory, Liam Rainey, Thomas Tolan and Harry Fitzsimons, all from Belfast, were due for sentencing for their roles in the attempted kidnapping of the dissident republican, Bobby Tohill, in 2004.

The court issued bench warrents for four men. Two years ago the Independent Monitoring Commission suggested the assault and kidnapping were undertaken by the IRA.

They were arrested in February 2004, after a group of men entered a Belfast city centre bar, assaulted dissident Republican, Bobby Tohill, and took him away in van.

Shortly after the PSNI intercepted a vehicle, discovered an injured Mr Tohill inside and arrested a number of men.

It emerged the PSNI had CCTV footage to assist with the prosecution.

Subsequently four men pleaded guilty to their role in the crime. They were out on bail but due in court yesterday for sentencing.

When they failed to turn up a bench warrant was issued for their immediate arrests.

Adams in plea to unionists over summer marching season


06/05/2006 - 14:36:23

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams today made a plea to the Rev Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party to play a leading role in ensuring the North summer marching season was peaceful.

He made the call as the party leadership met in Dublin to discuss their strategy for the return of the Northern Ireland Assembly on May 15.

Members have been recalled to see if they can elect a First and Deputy First Minister and agree the establishment of a new power-sharing Executive.

Tony Blair has given them a six week period to agree, followed by a second post-summer session which he says must end by November 24.

No agreement is expected before the summer and many believe there is little chance of agreement by the final deadline.

Speaking after the strategy meeting Mr Adams said: “Sinn Féin will be in the Assembly on May 15 to try to bring about the return of the power sharing government.

“This is the business that the Assembly members were elected to do. The electorate has been waiting for almost three years for this to happen.”

He said everyone knew the coming months would be difficult.

“We are also facing into another marching season. This situation will only be made worse if the political vacuum continues. I want to urge the DUP to play a leading role in ensuring that the marching season is peaceful.”

Hunger strike commemorations continue


06/05/2006 - 13:43:34

Commemorations to mark the 25th anniversary of the IRA hunger strike are continuing across the North today.

Family and friends of the 10 men who died in the Maze Prison will lay a wreath in the grounds of Roddy McCorley’s Social Club in west Belfast.

Afterwards Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams will pay tribute to the republican prisoners who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Events were held on both sides of the Irish border yesterday to remember IRA icon Bobby Sands who died after 66 days without food on May 5, 1981.

The legacy of the hunger strikers will toda also be the focus of a panel discussion at the Balmoral Hotel.

The debate will feature John Finucane, whose solicitor father Pat was killed by loyalists, Ulster Unionist Chris McGimpsey and Alan McBride, whose wife and father-in-law were killed in the Shankill bombing.

Tonight republican activists from the 1980/81 period will talk about their experiences at the Andersonstown Social Club.

Mr Adams yesterday said Sinn Fein’s current electoral strength was in no small measure helped by the hunger strikers.

The West Belfast MP laid a wreath to Bobby Sands, who won a House of Commons seat in Fermanagh and South Tyrone a month before his death, at a republican memorial at Hackballscross, Co Louth.

Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness also hailed the legacy of Bobby Sands as he attended a private ceremony in the hospital wing of the Maze Prison.

He was joined by Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane, the IRA’s OC (Officer Commanding) in the Maze Prison at the time of the hunger strike, for an occasion the Mid Ulster MP described as sad and poignant.

Mr McFarlane defended the hunger strikers and praised their achievements.

He said: “The republican struggle is not a criminal conspiracy.

“I also feel that it is important that a new generation hear the story of th prison protest and understand the circumstances which brought about that terrible summer of 1981 and the deaths of 10 courageous republican volunteers in this prison.”

He also criticised then prime minister Magaret Thatcher, claiming her international reputation was forever tarnished, adding: “Bobby Sands and his comrades are remembered as icons of the freedom struggle in Ireland and indeed across the world.

“I think that that says much about the legacy of 1981.”

North: Bomb hoaxer fails to halt prison service celebration


06/05/2006 - 13:49:54

A security alert today failed to disrupt celebrations granting the Freedom of the City of Lisburn to the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

At least ten homes in the centre of the Co Antrim city were evacuated while army bomb disposal experts examined a suspect object in a city centre road following a telephone warning.

Police decided to allow the ceremony to go ahead nearby as the security alert continued and after a controlled explosion the alert was declared a hoax.

Condemning those responsible, local police district commander, Chief Superintendent Ken Hennings, said: “It is despicable that there are those still willing to cause disruption and upheaval.

“I have no doubt that those responsible were intent on disrupting the ceremony taking place in the Civic Centre – thankfully were able to allow the ceremony to continue throughout the alert.”

Speaking at the ceremony the Director General of the Prison Service, Robin Masefield, said he was privileged to accept the honour on behalf of the service.

The honour bestowed by the city was “immensely appreciated”, he said.

The professionalism and dedication of prison staff displayed on behalf of the public during some of the North’s darkest days could not be questioned, he said.

The Lisburn area has been home to two of Northern Ireland’s main prisons – the infamous Maze Prison which closed in 2000 and Maghaberry which opened in 1987 and remains as the main jail in the province.

Mr Masefield recalled that between 1974 and 1993 29 prison staff – eight working at the Maze – had been murdered and many more injured on and off duty or had their homes attacked.

“Countless others had their lives uprooted, while they and their families were forced to relocate due to the terrorist threat.

It is on occasions such as this that we particularly remember these colleagues.”

Speaking at a ceremony in the council council offices he added: “While the attention of the world was often on the prisoners, many of our staff had to endure a daily routine of fear and intimidation.”

Sands relatives in 25th anniversary snub to Sinn Fein

Belfast Telegraph

**From yesterday

By Claire Regan
05 May 2006

The family of Bobby Sands - long allied with dissident republicans - will today not be participating in Sinn Fein plans to mark the 25th anniversary of the IRA man's death.

The hunger striker's relatives are reported to have decided on a private commemoration in favour of any of the 'official' events to mark what is one of the biggest days in the republican calendar.

Members of the Sands family are known to disagree with the path Sinn Fein have taken in recent years in efforts to establish peace.

Sands' sister, Bernadette Sands-McKevitt, is married to Real IRA leader Michael McKevitt who has been jailed for directing dissident terrorism.

It was on this day in 1981 that Sands, a 27-year-old Maze prisoner, died after 66 days on hunger strike as part of a campaign to win political status within the jail. He was the first of ten to die.

Sinn Fein MPs Martin McGuinness and Michelle Gildernew will join republicans, friends and colleagues of Sands in the former Maze Prison for a short ceremony in the hospital wing where he died.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, who was interned with Sands in the '70s, will today visit a hunger strike memorial at Hackballscross, Co Louth, before addressing a commemorative event in Navan, Co Meath.

Mr McGuinness and Sinn Fein Assemblyman Raymond McCartney, a former hunger striker, will take part in a parade and address a rally in Derry. There will also be vigils throughout Dublin and events are also being planned in Ballincolig, Co Cork and Kilcoo in Co Down.

IRA was offered deal, says Bradley

Sunday Times

Kate Butler and Liam Clarke
April 30, 2006

THE claim that the IRA was offered a deal by the British government that could have saved the lives of at least six of the 1981 hunger strikers has been supported by Denis Bradley, the former deputy chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

In an RTE documentary to be broadcast this week, Bradley, who later acted as an intermediary between the IRA and the British, says the deal offered by Margaret Thatcher’s government was similar to the one that was eventually accepted.

Bradley said his information came from people involved directly. “The memory, and there is some dispute about this, is that there was a phone call on a particular night direct to Maggie Thatcher as she was on her way to a conference in Portugal,” he says in the programme.

“What she was offering that night was basically what the hunger strikers settled for. There are some disputes around that, and I wasn’t there and I can’t be authoritative. But the story I heard is that the representative of the republican movement who was in the room was offered the settlement basically on the grounds of what was ultimately settled for.”

The British government representative recommended that republicans “should take this offer”, but Bradley says it was left to the prisoners in the Maze to decide. “It didn’t happen, and it went on. I think at that stage about three people were dead on the hunger strike, and it went on to become more.”

Bradley’s comments support claims made last year in a book by Richard O’Rawe, the IRA spokesman in the Maze prison at the time. O’Rawe said he and Brendan “Bik” McFarlane, the IRA prisoner’s commanding officer, accepted concessions offered by the Foreign Office on July 5, 1981, before Joe McDonnell, the fifth prisoner, died.

He says four key demands were conceded by the government, including prisoners’ right to wear their own clothes; segregation from loyalists; more visits; and education courses. Only free association for IRA prisoners was refused. But the IRA army council would not accept the deal.

According to O’Rawe’s book: “I said: ‘Bik, there’s enough there’, and his response was, ‘I agree with you, I’ll write to the outside and let them know’.”

McFarlane has denied this. “I would certainly, on no occasion, tell Richard O’Rawe, or anyone else, that a deal was there,” said McFarlane. “In his book he quotes me agreeing with him that this is a good deal, and that I would write to the (IRA) army council and tell them we’re accepting it. It never happened.”

Yesterday O’Rawe said Bradley had vindicated his position. “One of the points that I was denigrated on was the fact that I said that the offer came from the horse’s mouth, ie Maggie Thatcher. Bradley has now confirmed that,” he said.

“It was an offer. McFarlane had been adamant that there was no offer whatsoever. Bradley has now said that there was. Gerry Adams has yet to say. Who rejected this offer and by what authority did they do so?” O’Rawe suspects that Adams himself may be the republican to whom the offer was made. “It is time Adams got off the fence and came out and told us what happened here,” he said.

But Danny Morrison, a former Sinn Fein spin doctor, has also disputed O’Rawe’s claim. “If there was this sensational offer that the republican leadership had influenced the hunger strikers against, one would have thought that someone from the Northern Ireland Office would have used that against Sinn Fein,” he said. “Anyone who could read the papers knew that an offer was there, but no deal.”

John Nixon, a former INLA hunger striker, has told the RTE documentary that after the death of Bobby Sands on May 5 there was talk of calling off the protest. “People were saying, ‘let’s call it off, we have made our point’,” he said.

Denis Faul, the former chaplain to the Maze prison, has criticised Sinn Fein’s use of the protest to promote itself. “Sinn Fein were doing very well,” he said. “They were having a ball when men were dying in jail.”

Garret FitzGerald, who was taoiseach during the hunger strikes, says the combination of the intransigence of the IRA and their desire to get more than the prisoners would have been willing to settle for, and the British concern to deal with them, led to the hunger strike going on. I was in despair about it, the stupidity of both sides.”

Additional reporting: Nicola Tallant

Inquiry rejected into MI5's Omagh lapse

Belfast Telegraph

By Chris Thornton
05 May 2006

The Government has rejected demands for an inquiry into MI5's failure to pass on an Omagh bomb warning to police.

Security Minister Shaun Woodward told SDLP leader Mark Durkan that the Government does not believe there is a case for further investigation into the lapse - which only emerged over seven years after the massacre.

In a written parliamentary statement, Mr Woodward also again rejected pleas from Omagh relatives for personal explanation from the head of MI5, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller.

Mr Durkan accused the Minister of dodging the issue - and a spokesman for some Omagh relatives said they will continue to pursue a cross-border public inquiry.

"A lot of people hope that we will move on, in their words," said Michael Gallagher, whose son was among 29 killed in the bombing. "They need to know we will not forget, nor will we allow others to forget."

Mr Durkan said: "This just makes the assurances that no stone would be left unturned - given to the families in the aftermath of the atrocity - ring very hollow.

"The fact is more and more questions have arisen that should concern not just the families but the wider public interest."

Mr Woodward rejected the calls for an inquiry after Mr Durkan asked him about the PSNI's recent discovery of the MI5 failure.

Detectives found records in America showing that FBI agent David Rupert - who had penetrated the Real IRA - had warned MI5 about a plot to bomb Omagh in April 1998, four months before the attack that killed 29 people, along with unborn twins, and injured 200.

But MI5 did not pass the warning along to the RUC, even though the police were supposed to be the lead intelligence agency in Northern Ireland.

Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde has told the Policing Board the warning would not have helped detectives investigating the attack.

But Omagh relatives have questioned whether police would have reacted differently on the day of the attack if they had known Omagh had already been chosen as a dissident target.

Republicans mark Sands' death


Sinn Fein's current electoral strength was in no small measure helped by 10 republican hunger strikers who died in the Maze Prison 25 years ago, Gerry Adams acknowledged today.

By:Press Association
FRIDAY 05/05/2006 13:43:26

As republicans across Ireland marked the 25th anniversary of the first hunger striker to die Bobby Sands, Mr Adams described the 10 prisoners as role models for his movement.

The West Belfast MP laid a wreath to Bobby Sands, who won a House of Commons seat in Fermanagh and South Tyrone while on hunger strike, at a republican memorial at Hackballscross, Co Louth on the southern side of the Irish border.

But he also remembered around 50 other people who died during the hunger strikes, including three children struck by plastic bullets.

The Sinn Fein president recalled: "The determination of the men in the H Blocks and the women prisoners in Armagh ultimately defeated the British government`s criminalisation strategy.

"The enduring legacy of the hunger strikers is to be found all around us. Like the Easter Rising 65 years earlier it is a watershed in modern Irish history.

"The political growth of Sinn Féin and of Irish republicanism is in no small measure a result of their courage."

Mr Adams argued the peace process and changes in Irish society were a legacy of the 1981 hunger strikes.

"That process of change continues. It is taking place every single day," he said.

"For many, the 25th anniversary of the deaths of the H Block hunger strikers will be a personal as well as a political time of remembrance.

"But for everyone interested in freedom and justice and peace in Ireland it is a time to reflect on the lessons of the past and to commit to continuing the struggle to achieve a free, democratic and united Ireland.

"And I believe that we will succeed in doing that - not least because of the example set by Bobby Sands and his comrades."

Seven IRA prisoners and three from the Irish National Liberation Army died during the 1981 hunger strike whose aim was to force Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher`s Government to recognise them as political prisoners.

Bobby Sands was the first to refuse food in March 1981 and the first to starve to death after 66 days.

He was followed by Francis Hughes, Patsy O`Hara, Raymond McCreesh, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Tom McElwee and Michael Devine.

The hunger strike ended in October after a number of families sanctioned medical intervention to save prisoners` lives.

Sinn Fein`s Martin McGuinness said today the hunger strikers continue to inspire new generations of Irish Republicans but their nemesis, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, is not even admired by the current Conservative leader.

The party`s chief negotiator hailed the legacy of Bobby Sands ahead of a private ceremony in the hospital wing of the Maze Prison, where the IRA icon died 25 years ago today.

Mr McGuinness was joined by former IRA OC (Officer Commanding) Brendan "Bik" McFarlane, ex-Sinn Fein publicity chief Danny Morrison and MP Michelle Gildernew at the jail outside Lisburn, Co Antrim.

Standing outside the main gate, the mid-Ulster MP said: "This place behind me was designed by Margaret Thatcher for her criminalisation policy to be the breakers yard of Irish republicanism.

"And the reality is that the hunger strikers by the sacrifices of their lives effectively broke the criminalisation policy of the British government.

As he prepared to re-enter the Maze, Mr McFarlane recalled painful memories of the summer of 1981.

He said: "For us in the prison it was a hard, brutal five years which terminated with the loss of 10 very brave republicans who gave their lives to ensure that the republican struggle would not be criminalised.

"It was difficult for us, it was very, very hard indeed.

"In personal terms it was probably the worst year of my life, 1981, because of the loss of so many close friends and comrades."

Mr McFarlane said he learned of Sands` death on the 2am news on May 5, 1981, which he listened to on a smuggled radio.

He said: "I was devastated.

"Even though myself and everybody else were in no doubt over the previous week or so that this was the situation and that Bobby Sands was going to die. we were devastated and we were devastated by the loss of each of the hunger strikers after that."

But Mr McFarlane said the experiences of republican prisoners paled into insignificance when compared with the ordeals of the hunger strikers and their families.

Mr McFarlane also dismissed recent claims that the hunger strikers were exploited by the republican leadership and that lives could have been saved by ending the protest earlier.

He said: "It is reprehensible and despicable, the nature of the allegations that were made.

"What needs to be borne out and what needs to be looked at very closely is that the leadership of the republican struggle were totally opposed to the hunger strike action from the outset of the first hunger strike, and when we broached the idea of the second hunger strike they were vehemently opposed to hunger strike action.

"After the hunger strike had been embarked upon, we received full support from people on the outside, from the (IRA), Army Council and the political leadership of the political struggle."

05 May 2006

Comrade remembers Bobby


On the 25th anniversary of Bobby Sands’ death his close friend, Séanna Walsh, shares some of the memories of the time he spent with the man who has gone down in history as one of the central icons of Irish republicanism

By Damian McCarney

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usTwenty-five years after his death on hunger strike, Bobby Sands is regarded as an icon of Irish republicanism, often spoken about in the same breath as figures like Ché Guevara. However, for Séanna Walsh, he was simply his friend and comrade.

Photo: Séanna Walsh

In many ways Séanna’s life mirrored Bobby Sands’, having been brought up in a working-class area during the height of the conflict, being a committed republican and sacrificing years of his life in prison.
Both will also be remembered for their roles in landmark events in the North’s history with Bobby’s death on hunger strike, and Séanna’s reading of the announcement of the formal conclusion of the IRA’s armed campaign last July.
The two friends first met when Séanna entered Long Kesh as a 16-year-old Fian in January 1973, facing armed robbery charges.
Bobby had been in prison since the previous October, awaiting trial for possession of weapons, and was two years Séanna’s senior. On first impressions, Séanna could be forgiven for not recognising that Bobby would have such a lasting impact on him, and indeed the history of Ireland.
“I remember the way that he came dandering up to me, a sort of swagger – the classic cocky Belfast walk. He stuck his hand out and introduced himself, and said, ‘What are you in for?’ He was your cocky, ordinary Belfast teenager, with a spikey Rod Stewart-style haircut, and into soccer,” smiled Séanna, who originally hails from the Short Strand.
After a few weeks the teenagers were transferred along with other remand prisoners to Crumlin Road Jail and when their cases were heard in mid-1973 both men received five-year sentences and they ended up back in Long Kesh.
During this period, IRA prisoners enjoyed political status which was begrudgingly conceded by William Whitelaw after the 1972 hunger strike led by, among others, Billy McKee.
Consequently they were not required to wear prison garb, nor carry out prison work, leaving them free to learn the Irish language, and to immerse themselves in political theory.
“Your day was your own. In Cage 17 there was an extensive library and everyone was encouraged to read all the books. We were very keen readers of different political philosophers,” said Séanna.
Before their release in 1976, the two young pals were among the prisoners who watched the H-Blocks being built from a vantage point on the rooftops in the prison camp, and joked about who would be the first one back inside. Although there were lighter moments, the pair remained focused on furthering the republican cause, and prepared to take the conflict to the British on their release.
“We trained our minds and bodies, looking forward to getting back on the streets and to continue where we left off. We were very eager,” said Séanna.
Séanna was released in May 1976, only a matter of weeks after Bobby. During his imprisonment Séanna’s family had moved from their Short Strand home to the new development of Twinbrook, where Bobby’s family had fled having been intimidated from their Rathcoole home by loyalists. Bobby was in charge of the Twinbrook IRA, and he convinced Séanna to transfer to his unit to help transform the Twinbrook unit into an effective machine – on all fronts.
“During one yarn we had, he said he didn’t see the struggle as just a military conflict. He organised community political groups in the area, he ensured that there were republicans in the local tenants’ associations, he organised a Sinn Féin cumann, organised the Fianna and an auxiliary defence force. He organised the publishing of a local newsletter for Twinbrook and social events to give a focus for republicans in the area. All the strategising and all the theory that he had read about and studied in prison were quickly being put into practice,” said Séanna.
Bobby believed that by creating such an extensive infrastructure, it would become impossible for the British to remove the republican ideal from the area.
Caught in possession of a rifle, Séanna was arrested in the summer of 1976 and held on remand in Crumlin Road jail. Bobby joined him in October the same year, receiving a 14-year sentence for possession of a revolver.
The pair eventually ended up in the newly-built H-Blocks, which was by that stage straining under the repressive policy of criminalisation. The blanket protest had been born a matter of months earlier with Kieran Nugent’s brave stance against the removal of political status, and his refusal to accept a prison uniform unless it was nailed to his back.
Those who joined the protest were subjected to the most inhuman physical and psychological torture, and there seemed no end in sight as the British remained intransigent, dismissing their demands.
In a bid to highlight their plight to the public, the first hunger strikes commenced in 1980, and during this period Bobby became OC with Séanna acting as his deputy. Bad faith on the part of the British government led to a brokered deal falling through soon after the prisoners came off the strike.
In calling the second hunger strike in 1981, Bobby went over the heads of the IRA leadership outside the prison who vehemently opposed the idea. When he made it clear that he was going ahead, and that he would lead by example, the leadership then instructed that Séanna should become the OC. However, Bobby again overruled their decision.
“He asked Brendan McFarlane [to become OC] as our relationship was too close. He was concerned that I would allow it to damage my judgement. He was probably right, I would have let that emotional bond influence me at that stage of Bobby’s life,” admitted Séanna.
“After 14 or 15 days he wrote a wee note to me saying that he had prepared his family to have faith and confidence, that it [his hunger strike] would break the British. But he also wrote ‘at the end of the day, I don’t think that the British will move until they get their pound of flesh’,” said Séanna.
When the Member of Parliament for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Frank Maguire, died in March 1981 the door was open for an audacious bid to have Bobby Sands elected as MP to put further pressure on the British. With the SDLP, Bernadette Devlin and Frank Maguire’s brother standing aside, it became a straight fight against the Ulster Unionist candidate, Harry West.
By the time of the election, prisoners had smuggled a small radio into the H-Blocks, enabling them to hear news on the outside and also find out the election results.
Being held in cells separately or in twos, the breaking news was passed to each prisoner by whispering through holes where pipes came into the cells.
“We had wired people off not to give any indication that they knew as it would mean that we had access to a radio to find out the news. So we had said not to make any big deal of it.
“The knock [to let neighbouring cells know there was a message to be passed that Bobby had been elected] went all the way down through the cells and the next thing, someone went up to the door and let out a big yell.
“After that the whole wing exploded with cheers, and people began banging the doors with their piss pots,” smiling at the memory of the momentous event.
“At that time there was an orderly out mopping the floors and the warders came in and hit him a slap saying, ‘You, were speaking to the prisoners!’
“He was innocent and they beat the crap out of him,” continued Séanna.
The sense of elation shared by the prisoners after the electoral success was short-lived for Séanna, however.
“It was a very, very heavy time. Once he was elected we were all on a high, and thought maybe, just maybe, it would bring an end to this.
“Surely the British can’t allow an MP to die. It would be crazy in terms of propaganda.
“Over the following days, though, I came back to what Bobby had said in his note.
“He believed he would be the pound of flesh paid before the British gave anything. They would allow him to die, and maybe others.”
After 66 agonising days on hunger strike, Bobby Sands died on May 5 1981.
“Even before his death there was a blanket of sadness and an atmosphere of despair had settled on the wings.
“There was no slagging, joking or any craic. We all retreated into our own thoughts and our concerns, not only for Bobby but for the other three lads who were on hunger strike.
“Whenever I got the news that he had died I didn’t cry. I didn’t allow myself to cry. It wasn’t until 1984, when I went to visit Bobby’s grave, that I allowed myself to cry there.
“My thoughts were for his family and his son who would never get to grow up with him.”
Twenty-five years after his death Bobby Sands has become an iconic figure. Countries across the world have streets named in his honour and using the modern barometer of fame, a Google search of ‘Bobby Sands’ brings up a vast ocean of hits. Séanna believes that his friend would have found this attention overwhelming.
“He was a self-effacing guy who would take reddeners very easily. The idea that he would be a republican icon would be mind-blowing to him. That he is recognised as an icon along the lines of Ché Guevara would have tickled him no end, I’m sure.”
For Séanna the memory of the events of 1981 are still very painful, but he believes that the selfless acts of the hunger strikers have not been in vain. In addition to giving republicans confidence to pursue electoral politics, Séanna believes that Bobby Sands and the hunger strikers’ legacy lies in their success in defeating the policy of criminalisation.
“Their strategy was based on a lie that the freedom fighters were simply common criminals and deserved no other status. In prisons they treated us as criminals as if we were part of some criminal conspiracy in Ireland, but they ended up criminalising themselves in the eyes of people throughout the world.”

Journalist:: Damien McCarney

Unionist silence the most shameful part of the story


(Susan McKay, Irish News)

Their silence is deafening. Can you imagine the pitch of self-righteous frenzy that unionist politicians would by now have reached had it been revealed that the main source of the IRA's weapons in the early days of the Troubles had been the Irish army?

That innocent Protestant civilians had been gunned down in the streets by terrorists using those weapons? That elements of the Garda were close to the IRA and were giving information to Gerry Adams? That the Irish government knew, and suppressed the information?

Yes, you can imagine it. The silence which has greeted the revelations carried in The Irish News this week about collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries is perhaps the most shameful aspect of the whole sordid story.

As I write, unionist politicians have responded minimally and only to try to deny that the information is true and accurate.

Lord Denning infamously said that the prospect that the Birmingham Six might be innocent presented such an "appalling vista" that it must be rejected. This is another appalling vista – and it must be faced.

The sources of the documents published in this paper this week, and painstakingly analysed by Steven McCaffery, simply cannot be plausibly rubbished. This is evidence from the heart of the British establishment.

It was uncovered by researchers at the Pat Finucane Centre and Justice for the Forgotten.

The Irish News has published documents which show that in 1973 British military intelligence knew that up to 15% of UDR soldiers were also involved with loyalist paramilitary groups. That the UDR was the "best single source of weapons" for those groups. That the weapons were being used in sectarian murder attacks on catholic civilians. That in 1975 Labour secretary of state Merlyn Reese briefed Tory leader Margaret Thatcher that there were elements in the RUC who were "very close" to the UVF, and were prepared "to hand over information, for example, to Mr Paisley".

This reference to the DUP leader is particularly interesting in the light of the false allegations he has made in the House of Commons regarding those he claims were responsible for the Kingsmills Massacre.

Paisley claimed his information came from security sources but the RUC denied and repudiated it.

Much of the so-called information passed to loyalists over the years was based on rumour, fuelled by passionate sectarianism. Many innocent people have died as a result.

The UDR was formed out of the notorious B Specials and brazenly carried on the tradition of that unionist militia. Remember that dual membership of the UDR and the UDA was for a considerable time perfectly legal. The 'Subversion in the UDR' document reveals that the main anxiety on the part of the British was that the loyalty of a large element of the UDR was to Ulster and not to Britain, and the implications of that.

Although loyalist paramilitaries boasted that they were the "gloves off" branch of the security forces, allegations about collusion have always been met with denial from 'respectable' unionists. Far from accepting that it was institutionalised in the local security forces, unionists have even rejected the idea that there were "bad apples".

The UUP's former security spokesman, Ken, now Lord, Maginnis, claimed that in his time in the UDR (during the 1970s) he had only come across a small number of "bruised" apples.

This is hardly in keeping with the comment in the 1973 British intelligence report that if you removed the undesirables you would be left with a "very small regiment indeed".

John Stalker tried to investigate collusion and was thwarted.

John Stevens was obstructed over 14 years but found that it existed during the 1980s, including "the extreme of agents being involved in murder".

Mr Justice Henry Barron's investigation into the Dublin and Monaghan bombs revealed a chilling network of loyalists, policemen and UDR soldiers who murdered with apparent impunity while the British and Irish authorities were preoccupied with the "real" enemy, the IRA.

Barron was refused access to British intelligence documents he needed.

Judge Peter Cory protested vehemently when the British rushed through legislation making it impossible for the sort of inquiry he had called for to be carried out into the murder of Pat Finucane. The Saville Inquiry was obstructed and evidence willfully destroyed.

A Tyrone coroner was refused access to documents he needed to carry out inquests into controversial murders in the 1990s.

We now know a bit more about what they have got to hide.

May 5, 2006

This article appeared first in the May 4, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

Shock truth of bar killings


(Steven McCaffery, Irish News)

Thirty years ago a gun and bomb attack on a south Armagh pub killed three people. Now a bereaved relative is establishing the truth of what happened. What he has learned may force a rethink of the history of the Troubles

Trevor Brecknell got to see his new daughter before he died. It is one of the few things his killers could not take from him.

After visiting his wife and two-day-old baby in hospital, he drove to Donnelly's bar in Silverbridge.

It was the evening of December 19 1975. Nearly Christmas. Trevor, 32 and now a father-of-three, was surrounded by friends and relatives, and a sing-song was under way.

Within minutes he was among three dead. Six people were injured, including Trevor's brother-in-law who was shot five times, and his sister-in-law, who survived being shot in the head.

The loyalist gang killed 24-year-old Patsy Donnelly first – shooting him as he pulled up to the petrol pumps.

One survivor recalls what happened next.

"I heard a banging outside then the door was kicked in. Shots were fired into the bar.

"Trevor and I were sitting opposite the door. It had a heavy spring on it and it slammed back in the gunman's face. He broke the glass panel with his gun and began firing through the broken glass.

"Trevor just slumped forward beside me without saying a word. I got shot twice and fell to the floor. Everyone else was huddled in the corner, with the man still shooting."

Michael Donnelly (14), the bar owner's son, died when the gang threw in the bomb shouting: "Happy Christmas you fenian bastards."

Another witness later said he recalled "hearing a blurred figure laughing" as he fell to the ground.

In recent years Trevor Brecknell's eldest son, Alan, has pieced together what happened that night and has learned that security force members were among the gang.

"There was always an allegation of security force involvement," he says.

"I grew up believing it was as little as making sure that the roads were kept clear. In more recent years it has been confirmed to us by the police that there was a member of the UDR, a reserve RUC officer and loyalists from Portadown involved in the attack. The UDR member was subsequently killed by the IRA in 1976 and it's been alleged he was involved in a number of other incidents including the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. His name was Robert McConnell."

It was not until the more positive atmosphere that followed the ceasefires of the mid-1990s that the families bereaved at Donnelly's bar felt it was safe to begin to dig deeper into the events.

During a business trip to Derry, Alan knocked on the door of the Pat Finucane centre – the human rights group named after the solicitor killed in a conspiracy between the state and loyalist paramilitaries, the full truth of which is still emerging.

They helped gather statements from those connected to the tragedy at Donnellys and issued an appeal for the RUC officer who led the original investigation to come forward. He agreed to meet them.

"His opening comments to us were, 'I have no doubt that there was collusion between members of the UDR, RUC and loyalist paramilitaries on the attack on Donnelly's bar'.

"While we maybe knew it in the back of our own heads, it was still shocking to hear from an official source," Alan says.

The relatives did not have the names of those believed to have been responsible but they lobbied the authorities and took court action to force more information into the open.

Alan eventually became a researcher for the Pat Finucane Centre, forging close ties with Justice for the Forgotten, representing those bereaved in the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings in which 33 died.

The two groups sent a team to scour the mass of paperwork in the public records office in London each time new government files were released under the 30-year rule.

UDR members have been linked to the Dublin-Monaghan bombings and the Donnelly's bar attack, so when one of the team discovered a document entitled 'Subversion in the UDR', they all took notice.

"This is the most significant thing we have found at any stage.

"It was quite alarming to find that the British government at the highest level knew, as they put it themselves, that there was 'subversion within the UDR'," Alan says.

"They knew that it went as far as getting guns for loyalists and involvement in murder."

Alan now knows that more than two years before his father's death British authorities were aware that large numbers of UDR members were connected to loyalist paramilitary groups, and were the "only source of modern weapons" for loyalists. The government, nevertheless, expanded the regiment's role.

He is shocked, but says it is also a positive step on his journey.

"It is official; it settles that part of the story now. No-one can say it's the rantings of Alan Brecknell or whoever. It's official."

The files he helped discover have now been passed to the police Historic Enquiries Team to help shed light on other cases.

Trevor Brecknell was from Birmingham but none of his English relatives attended his funeral.

His parents were told Trevor was killed by the IRA and it would not be safe for them to cross the Irish Sea. The RUC is blamed for the false information.

"That to me is unforgivable," said Alan suddenly struggling to hold back tears. "Granny Brecknell died not knowing what really happened to her son."

May 3, 2006

This article appeared first in the May 2, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

Remembering 1981: Former Hunger Striker Laurence McKeown's story

An Phoblacht

"He's My Son"

25 years ago this week Bobby Sands died after 66 days on Hunger Strike. Laurence McKeown also took part in the 1981 Hunger Strike, going for 70 days without food. Here, he talks to An Phoblacht's ELLA O'DWYER about his own background, jail experience, his impressions of Bobby Sands and the affects of a prolonged encounter with death at such an early age.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us"I was born in the village of Randalstown, County Antrim, a rural place where, typical of the times, there was no water or electricity. Ours was a relatively non-political household. My parents were quiet, unassuming people who lived in a mixed community of Protestants and Catholics, all knowing each other on first name terms".

Photo: Laurence McKeown talking to An Phoblacht's Ella O'Dwyer

In 1969 Laurence was 12 years old: " Bernadette Devlin, John Hume etc. were on TV regularly and, like many people of his generation, my father was fired up by the Civil Rights campaign. It touched a nerve. It was a time of heavy discrimination, most obviously in terms of housing. My father and a Protestant neighbour he worked with had submitted identical building plans to the local council. My father's was knocked back and the Protestant's accepted."

Around this time, young Protestants with whom Laurence grew up were joining the Ulster Defence Regiment. "At about 15 or 16, myself and my mates would be stopped by these same recruits who in, the reality of rural Antrim, were neighbours.

"In the beginning they were embarrassed at asking us what our names were and where we were going . They knew our names; they had grown up beside us. They knew exactly who we were. A pattern emerged where these former acquaintances were ordering us out of cars and lining us up against walls. It wasn't about religion. It was about one side being armed while the other wasn't". This was a turning point for Laurence and, at the age of 16, he became actively involved in republicanism.

"I was arrested on 2 August 1976 and taken to Castelreigh holding centre. This was at a time when Ulsterisation, criminalistaion and normalisation was the policy under a Labour government; a time when powers of arrest and detention were extended and the non-jury Diplock courts were introduced.

"When it came to interrogation, the police had a free hand and people could be sentenced to life on the basis of statements, oral or signed. I was ill-prepared for what faced me in Castlereigh."

The physical and psychological torture endured by those who passed through Castlereagh is well documented. " The uncertainty, the unknown, the waiting" and the inevitable brutality. Whether through physical or psychological pressure, the interrogating team aimed to get results. After three days In Castlereagh McKeown was charged with attempted murder of an RUC man and causing explosions. He was then taken to Crumlin Road Jail in Belfast and subsequently to the H-Blocks at Long Kesh. He was sentenced in a non-jury Diplock court to life imprisonment. At this time other republicans were on the same path, many of whom would subsequently end up on hunger strike, people such Bobby Sands, Tom McElwee, Joe Mc Donnell and Kieran Doherty.

I asked him how he felt. Recalling the atmosphere of the non-jury court, he said: "The worst of it was that my mother was there. The judge asked if anyone present had something to say in favour of the defendant. I heard this woman's voice, my mother's saying: "He's my son". It was 1978 before he saw her again.

McKeown's arrival at the H-Blocks at the age of 19 was as confusing and torturous as the interrogation period, again the encounter with "uncertainty, the unknown" and an inevitable period of waiting. Following in the steps of Kieran Nugent, he became a blanket man. "Kieran was probably a good man to start the protest. He was, that sort of ...not a hard man, not macho, but solid".

Instead of being delivered to the protesting block at H5, McKeown was taken to another block simply because, as he later discovered, the protesting block H5 was full up- full of blanket men. More and more people were joining the protest. This was a "lonely time" as the lone protesting prisoner in H2.

He was taken down to the circle and ordered to take off his clothes. He stripped to his underpants when a screw shouted, "I told you to fucking take off the heap".

"The first days were the loneliest, I was naked and confused as to why I wasn't with the other protesting prisoners in H5"- again the uncertainty, the unknown and the waiting. "Waiting on a beating was worse. There's a kind of relief when it's over".

Bibles are a compulsorily feature of all British prisons. On arriving in his H Block cell Laurence spotted the inevitable Bible the bedside locker. "I opened the book in a haphazard way and found myself reading from something called the Book of Sirach. The line I was looking at simply stated that 'gold must be tested at the heat of the furnace'. I took some inspiration from the quote".

As it happened this interview took place in the small garden at the front of Laurence McKeown's home. In a strange twist of events just as we spoke, a team of Bible enthusiast neighbours called by to talk about the good book. As their offer was declined, Laurence McKeown had a flash back to a scene in the Blocks. The phantom of the 'prison visitor' had come to mind. Prison visitors, quite like the Bible loving neighbours, work in teams of usually well intentioned, ungrounded people with little grasp on reality and too much time on their hands. He described how prison visitors had visited a blanketman's cell one day: A woman came into the cell which was "riddled with shit, rotten food and maggots". This messenger of God didn't ask him how he was coping, how his family fared or how he could possibly survive in such horrific circumstances. 'Where is your Bible' she demanded, to which the young man replied: 'I fucked it out the window'.

In later years, the Church was to feature in the Hunger Strike, forming a pressure group aimed directly at the families of the hunger strikers.

It was clear that Laurence McKeown's prolonged engagement with death during the Hunger Strike was part of a journey through self awareness that began well before the Hunger Strike, through the conveyor belt of Castlereagh, the Crum and the Blocks. The blanket protest was a levelling and grounding period amongst protesting prisoners. By March 1978 there were a couple of hundred on the protest. Strip searches, abuse and beatings were the order of the day. "We were getting bad beatings, they thought to beat us off the protest. People were being allowed only two showers a week and were being stopped going out to the toilet". The prisoners decided to withdraw co-operation even further. The system retaliated with brutality and in a very short time things had spiralled into the 'no wash' protest. "Shit on the walls, rotting food and maggots occupied the corners of the cells". Yet, typical of the political prisoner, even in these dark circumstances they were actively challenging the system. By 1979 there were many protesting blocks.

The first time McKeown saw Bobby Sands was in H6. I asked him what he was like. " It was the first time I seen him. I might have seen him once or twice before. We'd been through a rough period. But that was a brilliant period in H6, Jackie (Mc Mullan) was there, Bobby Sands etc. People expect leadership people of such calibre to be somehow spectacular and exceptionally charismatic. I remember thinking he was charismatic, creative and all, but Bobby was also one of the Boys, one of us.

"Bobby understood the historical importance of the period. There were political lectures reflecting on various IRA campaigns, splits, the Civil rights movement etc. It was a major period of politicisation. We learned to think, question and reflect through discussion."

The Blanketmen and then the Hunger Strikers demanded the dignity and treatment due to political prisoners. This, as encompassed in the Five Demands, was crucial to the revolutionary process in Ireland. To criminalise the prisoners was to criminalise the conflict, to acknowledge political status was to admit that it was a war.

By the 1980's republican prisoners believed that a hunger strike was inevitable. "The idea of a hunger strike was always there in the background. In 1979, with the visit of Pope John Paul, the idea of hunger striking was under consideration". The reckoning was that the Church would have to deal with the hypocrisy of allowing such a scene of brutality and injustice to go on. Brendan 'the Dark' Hughes and Bobby had discussed the idea and raised it with the Movement outside. At that time the proposition was declined for the logical reason that there was not yet enough mobilisation outside. It needed more time. Soon the National H-Block Committee was set up and the time arrived in the early 1980s."

In the aftermath of the end of the 1980 Hunger Strike, when the British failed to deliver the Five Demands, people like Bobby Sands understood that the next time around, people would die.

Asked how he felt at the end of the first hunger strike and the start of the next, McKeown spoke again of a sense of relief. They were again doing something. The prisoners had become accustomed to biding their time, forever waiting for something to happen. Sitting with the "uncertainty, the unknown and the waiting. We had been in the eye of the storm, yet there was a kind of calm during that time". There had been a measure of hope when Bobby was elected MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone. That was swiftly deflated as Thatcher legislated against the possibility of any other political prisoners standing for election."

On 1 March 1981 Bobby Sands began a hunger strike to death, a commitment that he and others like McKeown had already made during the 1980 strike. Bobby Sands was dead almost 24 hours before word got to McKeown's landing. "Fr Toner came into the Dark's cell that morning. The Dark came to the door and shouted 'Bobby is dead'. It wasn't an angry time. It was more a question of who would take over after Bobby. Many of the screws were tamed down, I think even they realised they were living through the middle of something. The wing was quiet, the atmosphere sombre, even amongst the screws."

While Joe McDonnell lasted 61 days, others survived for a lesser time. "Mickey Devine went on strike a week before me". Devine was the last of the 'ten men' to die. It seemed like Laurence McKeown's time was up.

In the prison hospital he recalls the differing natures of the prison hospital staff. "While one might steal your hospital allowance of fags, other medical staff, though very clinical, were not brutal. Some of these went on to meet gruesome ends, committing suicide or being killed in driving accidents through excessive drinking. After 70 days, that same brave woman who stood in the Diplock court at her son's sentence, took him off the Hunger Strike. He remembers as he drifted into a coma her saying: "You did what you had to do and I have to do what I have to do". The family had come under that 'pressure group'- the church, some neighbourly and well intentioned and most ill-advised. Happily Laurence McKeown and his mother had two years of prison visits before his mother died. The same shy woman who had the courage to shout "he's my son"

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