Made for Life.
The room is square and stuffy. The paint threatens to fall in big powdery blue flakes. The lino floor is scrubbed clean but still exudes a dirty look. There are no windows. Only one steel door secured from the outside. There are 10 of us here. There is a strange mix of despair and fanatical hope. Me, I am resigned to my fate. Perversely we are all dressed well. I wear a tie for the first time in years. At least if Im going to be hammered I’ll look well. My emotions flip flop. I don’t care, then I really do care. But I already know what is going to happen. A deal has been arranged. Plead guilty and you’ll get of lightly. Just ’ life’ my solicitor said. Sounds easy. You wait your remand time until this day. Glad to get it over with yet afraid to get it over with. The death of my free life. But then again I did kill someone, in fact a few people. I joined the organisation to be a soldier. To fight, kill and die if need be. It has led me here Court Number 1, Crumlin Road Courthouse. Or Belfast City Commission if you want to be picky. People walk in and out of the room. One man comes back from the reserve court crying. The man (I don’t know him) has got 2 years prison and he’s gurning. I feel like going over and slapping him. But he’s a crim. Some of my friends have got 35 years minimum. Different standard. Different people. I am one of the lucky ones. I have special category status. Many do not. All the talk at the minute is about the H-Blocks and protests. I will return to the cages in the Kesh. To talk and walk and study.
This is a Diplock court. Only one judge. No jury. Most times no evidence at all except a confession. Freely given of course, not beaten or threatened out of people you understand. I wonder at the logic of using a criminal system to deal with a political problem.
Soon it’s my turn. The screw barks out my name. I exit the door and am surrounded by screws who will walk me up the stairs to the dock. I enter into the bright light which hurts my eyes. The colours are bright. Anything is bright after a while in ‘A’ wing of the Crum. I feel the tension in the screws that stand beside me. And there he is. Sitting on his own, right in front of me. I’m not even told his name. The blood red robes give him away. He does look silly. But I think, this is what I am defending. The court is huge. There loads of other people but it still feels empty. Barristers and hangers on. Peelers. The press. No doubt the ‘Tele man’. More news to pass on. I have asked my family not to attend. Saves the pain on them and on me. This is the loneliest place in the world. The people on my right I don’t recognise. Victims’ families? There is a curious expression on their faces. Not hate nor hurt. I did not know any of my victims nor do I know these people. I do feel sorry for their pain and misery. A loved one missing. I felt that way myself one time. I expect some emotion, some outburst. But there is none. I don’t want to stare. I catch one woman’s eye. It plain to see that she has been crying.
The clerk reads out the charges. There is a lot and it takes a while. At one point she takes a sneaky look at me. ‘How do you plead’? I hear the word come out. It’s me but sounds like someone else. ‘Guilty’. The judge is saying something. I can barely hear him. Can he not bloody speak up? I lose interest.
I have a mix of feelings. Afraid yet calm. I did not do these things for myself but for my people, my country. Hundreds more will stand here like me, young and idealistic. Wanting to do their bit. Thousands will travel this path. Some will stay longer than others. I count myself lucky that Im here at all. I got winged by a .38 one night in an accidental discharge. It travelled through my shoulder without doing much damage. We went to the back street doc who actually done a very good job. I hurt for a while. Many of us have paid the full price for our beliefs and actions. I wonder what, “Dieu et mon droit” means. Its written on the crest on the wall above his lordship. God and my right? It says ‘For God ‘on our badge. I wonder who will get his backing.
Their voices drift off and I am suddenly back in primary school. Its only 10 years ago. Amazing. I will be 20 years old in 3 days’ time. I’m sitting at my desk in school, looking at the window at the beautiful blue sky. I’m day dreaming of being outside kicking football or playing tig in the street. I watch the fluffy clouds scud across the sky. I’m an ordinary boy interested in football, cheesers and going round to the sweetie shop. ‘4 fruit salad for a penny please’. I remember my Granny’s house. The smell of home baking, of fresh linen and carbolic soap in the sink. My Granny spoilt all of us rotten. I loved her. What would she think today? I had never dreamed of killing people or belonging to one of the most violent organizations in Europe. But then again I never dreamed of the killing and carnage I would see as a child. The bombs exploding. My mother crying in fear. I was a child but I put my arm round her shoulder. Walking behind a funeral with the anger and the sorrow. We had played cowboys and Indians. In summer we ran and shot guns and arrows and laughed. We fell to the ground pretending to be dead. But we all got up at the end and went home for supper. A thought comes to my mind that in my entire family not one person has been in trouble with the law. I’m about to make up for that. Big time.
I suddenly realise my wigman is saying something. He’s much more clear. He says such nice things about me. This place reminds of a school trip to theatre. Everyone knows their lines and the story and plot has already been set out. Maybe Dylan was right. We live in a land were justice is a game. I have missed the first part of the sentencing. I get snatches of what he’s prattling on about. ‘Shame’, ‘disgraceful’, ‘waste of life’. I wish I could say ’are you finished yet’. But that’s not part of the script. 20 Years for possession, 20 years for attempted, 20 years for that. The court is holding its breath. What do they want from me. Tears? Pleading? Outburst? I say nothing and look straight ahead.
Suddenly the screw pulls my arm. At last, ‘let’s go joe’. And it’s down the steps. I hear one screw say to another, ‘Life sentence’. Sounds strange. Is that me? And I realise it is now. Back down to the happy room. Faces look up at me. I feel nothing. Just get back to the cell. I’m reading a good book at the moment. Wonder how it ends. Wonder how this will end? Friends ask me what happened and I tell them. The room goes quiet. Another man is taken out. He too will get life. When it is all over we are handcuffed together and walked back through the tunnel. Instead of going back to A wing we am taken to another part, a virtual dungeon, to spend the first night. No longer remand but sentenced. My big day has come and gone. A total anti-climax. Tomorrow will be the first day of my new life.
The cell is dirty, damp and dark. A single bare bulb hangs from the high ceiling. The puke coloured paint is flaking off. I lie on my bed staring at the ceiling and thinking. Of empty chairs and tearful parents.
A Belfast Boy.