It was a usual afternoon in Compound 21 of the Long Kesh prison. It was summer, a nice day and the usual routine of studying, walking, training was in play. Within minutes that had all changed. Each cage or compound had a small wooden hut outside the perimeter fence where prison staff would work from. Usually there were 3 or 4 per hut along with a senior officer. We became aware that the contingent of prison staff had went off post but the relief crew did not appear. We would have been aware of their routines as they were of ours. This was distinctly odd.
Compound 21 was in Phase 6 of the large Kesh Maze site. To enter it required travel from the admin section /front gate through phase 5 past Republican cages and the football pitches. Entry to the phase was either by vehicle through 2 large gates or the wicket gates. In short, for a short period of time, the entire phase which comprised compounds 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 and 21 were left in the hands of a solitary prison officer. This totalled well over 400 men.
However one notable feature about the phase set up was that Compound 20 was the Official IRA cage which had about 10 men in it. So in effect the prison staff had ceded control of the entire phase to nearly 400 loyalist prisoners most of them life sentence prisoners or long termers and left one guard to defend 10 Republican prisoners?
The P.O.A. was probably aware of the good relationships between the factions. There was absolutely no threat to the Republican prisoners and life carried on as normal. We awaited developments. Very quickly we could hear, rather than see, gates being opened and shut and the sound of keys jangling. We recognised the uniforms first and realised that policemen were walking, very fast, to man the huts outside the compounds. It was a peculiar situation. It transpired later that the POA had ordered their men out but without planning or cooperation with the senior prison management. The police or RUC as they were then, where threw in at the deep end and it showed. It also later transpired that there was not good relationships between the police and prison staff as the POA were deliberately unhelpful in providing any help or assistance.
What really made things interesting was that the police were not allowed to have any firearms with them while inside the prison working. Just in case prisoners accessed the guns. So there was 4 or 5 police guarding a compound of 60 or 70 paramilitary prisoners. I often wondered what it was like for the police staffing the hundreds of provisional prisoners in the adjacent phase. It could not have been a comfortable position. But then again there were no incidents or action from theProvofaction.
It was felt by prisoners generally that if we took advantage of the situation that this would be greeted by the POA so the next few days were completely uneventful. We treated the police with courtesy and informed them of what the usual routine was. One unexpected aspect of the strike period was that the police had to feed us as the prison kitchen staff were absent. We were all given emergency ration packs which could be bartered. “I’ll give you my chicken for you roast beef” type thing. It was great!
The usual routine at night was that 6 prison staff and a senior would enter the compound and the men from each of the 3 living huts would return to their own hut. A head count was conducted and the doors locked until the next morning. (In times of protest by us with the prison, we would not lock up at night nor have our heads counted.)
That night the police came in along with a senior prison official. We locked up and were counted as normal without any fuss.
Completely self-sufficient we could live a normal routine although we appreciated that the same may not be true for our fellow loyalists across the wall in the H Blocks.
On one occasion I had cause to go to the staff hut. There was a small rectangular hole cut in the wire for passing in and out items and messages. I handed out a small can of paint to the police man and indicated that I wanted it left over in Compound 20, the Official IRA compound. He looked puzzled, then bemused and was pondering the possibility that I was engaged in some winding up. I assured him that the chap waiting for the paint was expecting it. Obviously a police perception was that we would be at each other’s throats.
We were told later that the police could were impressed by the levels of discipline they seen, the studying that went on, the respect they were shown, the cleanliness of the compound, the complete lack of hostility shown to them. Eventually the ordinary prison staff returned and life went back to normal. But it was a novel period when the daily routine was interrupted.