Last week “Extreme” Republican Donal Billings was sentenced to 8 years imprisonment for a plot in which he intended to kill either the Queen or another member of the Royal family in 2011.
Former Loyalist prisoner Ronnie-Flint-McCullough remembers meeting Billings for the first time 44 years ago in Long Kesh prison camp.
One lazy sunny afternoon in 1972, after returning from our remand appearance, to compound 7, we stood motionless to see one of the most curious republican remand prisoners (Donal Billings) standing in the middle of our compound.
Under normal circumstances, republicans would not be deliberately placed in a loyalist cage. It seemed more than unusual.
As he stood, alone and in a defiant posture, fists gripped tight together, with a black plastic bag at his feet, we wondered.
It soon emerged that the republican had defied the screws and had suffered physical assault from them. He was bloodied and bruised yet defiant, as he stood motionless, glaring towards us.
Some loyalists proposed that we should attack him because he was an alleged member of the Saor Eire movement, which was a hard-line southern-based republican group.
He was a known republican extremist whose distinct ginger hair and beard was well known amongst us. Whilst on remand in Compound 8 he was inclined to walk around the perimeter of the cage on his own. It seemed that he did not mix readily with the other republicans in the compound.
We discussed the situation and found that a visit from an external humanitarian group similar to Amnesty International were due to visit the camp and inquire on conditions. It became clear that the screws were hoping that, should we attack him, we would be the perceived as the perpetrators of the assault, which caused him earlier injury.
In so doing the screws could state that his visible injuries were received at the hands of loyalists thereby clearing them of their involvement.
I approached him and told him he had nothing to fear from loyalists given the circumstances.
He seemed perplexed, yet tense and prepared to defend himself. We walked away.
Once the screws realised that we would not attack him they waited for a while before removing him to his proper compound.
Later that evening he beckoned me to the wire from compound 8 and stated, “That’s one favour I owe you boys!”
Sure enough, less than a month later, a lone loyalist was being driven back from the visiting area in the back of a van containing no less than eight republicans including the notorious Ballymurphy provisional leader, Jim Bryson. At that time there was no policy of non-aggression between the loyalists and republicans.
It was a tense moment when several of the republicans moved towards the loyalist. Suddenly a ginger-haired republican stood between them and made it clear, “I owe these fella’s a favour, so stand back!” Donal Billings honoured his earlier promise.
The above account is an extract from the memoires of Ronnie McCullough whilst serving ten years in Long Kesh.