Tales From The Gulag
A Loyalist Prisoner tells of the last few hours spent In Magilligan Camp before being transferred to Long Kesh in October 1977. Magilligan compounds had been opened as an alternative to the Maze in mid 1974 and at one stage there was 8 full cages-4 Republican and 4 Loyalist….2 UVF and 2 UDA
A Sunday in October. The second or third. Doesn’t matter which. Bright. But cold. And where we were-cold. Always cold. Coats were the order of the day in this neck of the woods. Sometimes you had to get dressed to go to bed. Summer- there was some improvement. A little. But generally cold. The wind blew like nobody’s business. All year round. Occasionally a warmish wind, but a wind none the less. In the winter the gusts cutting through the wire at times sounded like a cabal of demented banshees. We crouched almost at forty degrees headlong into the gales when we walked the wire-hands stuffed in our pockets and talking –loudly-out of the side of our mouths.
There was thirty odd of us. The remains. The remnants. We didn’t have much. Not to start with. And even less now. Our meagre possessions had been wrapped and tied and bundled and tagged and dispatched before us. We awaited the order. To move out. By mid morning we had overdosed on tea and coffee. The game of Continental—the last on this turf—was being played by five bored and coated souls-surrounded by a dozen spectators. Double deck piled before them. Small talk was done. Finished. Last night seen to that. There was an acceptance now. A stillness. A realisation that the point of no return had been crossed. A threshold. Of sorts. Each time the end door opened a collective swivel of heads-a craning of necks-an expectancy-to be dashed by the appearance of one of “us”. The odd one lay on top of the bed-waiting. A few still “ bouled” the wire. Talking the inane talk of incarceration.
The door opens. A shout. That’s us. The sound of vans engines running-more than one. Can’t be for visits—its Sunday don’t forget.
Finish the hand is the order-the card players resume. There’s nothing at stake. This time. But credibility. A win’s a win. Everyone else drifts away from the table. Last minute stuff. Mental check lists. Psyche yourself up.
An apprehensive looking P.O. appears and calls for our C.O. Joe is one of the card players. He doesn’t answer. But studiously takes a card from the pile of dirt. Lays down a run to the ten-three sevens-three two’s and his last card for the dirt saying-Count them ladies.
As Joe heads towards the P.O. the other four Mavericks simultaneously throw their cards in the air. A last defiant, pseudo-rebellious gesture. We await the word from Big Joe.
Right lads…he says on his return. It’s alphabetical order—form up in the canteen and wait to be called.
No use me rushing then, I’m well down the list-probably the third run.
Time for another coffee. Most of our stuff has been forwarded on..we are only left with enough personal stuff to less than fill a brown paper bag. Hope it doesn’t rain.
The canteen has small groups standing about. Chatting-smoking-wondering-all in a rather muted fashion.
A group of UVF prisoners in “H” compound 1975
going anywhere. The compound had been thoroughly searched the day before. A conflab. We wait. Resigned to—whatever.
No search..first eight names are called out by the P.O. and repeated by Joe.
—–They troop off to board the mini bus. Outside the canteen the yard seems filled with screws. Like a search team waiting to pounce.
Some light hearted banter lifts the subdued atmosphere-somewhat.
“Got your bucket and spade Ronnie”?
“ Bring us back a rock, Lulu”.
Very quickly it is my turn. I board the bus with a miserable brown bag as do seven others. Our names are checked –Martin–McClean—McClelland—Niblock—leaving the canteen and again boarding the bus twenty yards away . They’re taking no chances.
From H to the Army camp was a short drive-less than five minutes I’m sure. The other cages blurred past..merging into the pages of the past already.
There was an equal amount of screws on the bus as there was us. We were packed in and it was uncomfortable. Through the countless gates and into the unknown. None of us had seen this side of the fence before. It was a different world. The bus entered a shed..perhaps a garage. The tall double doors closed behind us. Suddenly the weak midday sunshine was blocked out and we were encased in complete blackness. The bus engine was turned off and the silence became perceptible.
It was difficult to see anything. An odd cough or muttering was all that could be heard. Seconds later as I gradually adjusted to the darkness I could make out shadows-outlines of figures-I could feel the men on either side of me-one a screw but couldn’t recognise them.
The side panel of the van sliding across noisily invaded our silence. One by one we dismounted from the van. The screws on alighting all turned to the right-seemingly a pre-planned manoeuvre. By the time the last of our crowd had stepped down my vision had returned enough for to make out a semi-circle of British soldiers in firing stance each pointing an SLR in our general direction-no more than eight feet away. It was slightly disconcerting. Although there were overhead lights it was dark and gloomy. We remained silent. The noise of the big doors sliding open distracted us. Another-different noise assailed us..like an ever increasing wind-building fiercely in tempo-but unseen.
A P.O. emerged from the gloom. A different one from H. And indeed one I hadn’t seen about much before.
He carried an arm full of handcuffs. These he gave to the waiting screws before calling us forward one at a time to be shackled. In file we left the hangar each handcuffed by the left hand to a screw. Outside the hangar we were into the teeth of a hurricane and assailed by a deafening roar. We turned right and in front of us stood a Wessex helicopter-surrounded by armed soldiers-and with the side door open.
Once on board we were met by another senior prison officer again carrying handcuffs. By the time he had went round us all we were either handcuffed by both arms to either a screw or fellow prisoner, or in my case to a screw and a steel post. All the Army personnel on board wore ear protectors. Prisoners and screws were exempt.
It was useless trying to strike up a conversation such was the crescendo so we each leaned at various angles to see out the door which remained open for the entire journey. Almost as soon as we were airborne it became teeth chattering cold. Most of us had either light jackets or pullovers on and soon realised why the screws to a man wore overcoats.
The journey was short-less than half an hour-and completed for the most part at low level. We could clearly see the traffic on the country roads-the sheep and cattle on the hillsides. When we came to Lough Neagh it was as if we were literally skimming across the surface of the water. The cold intensified. We longed for the journey to end.
It did. Within moments the screw to my left nudged me and nodded towards the open door. There, framed in the doorway and looking just like an aerial photograph was Long Kesh camp-The Maze….Our destination. It quickly came to us and with a different pitch and rising of decibels our chopper hovered momentarily before touching down on a pad within the Army camp.
Soon we were processed and en route to our designated compounds-in my case 18. Whatever we had thought before coming to here or whatever plans we had worked out were simply ineffectual now. We had had our destiny –at least in the short term—worked out for us from on high. We had departed the Gulag on the Coast and arrived-without a fanfare-to the Academy—The Spence University–The Shankill Sandhurst-and life was about to change—for each of us-but dramatically for some.