End of an era?
Historical is a term rather loosely applied in Northern Ireland; I have lost count of the ‘Historical events’ of the last thirty years. However as I stood outside Long Kesh on Friday 28th July 2000 I sensed that I was witness to a truly historic occasion – the beginning of the end of this symbol of conflict. If ever a place can truly epitomise the tragedy of the last thirty years then surely the Compounds and H-blocks of Long Kesh must rank high.
While waiting on the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Red Hand Commando (RHC) prisoners to emerge I had time to reflect on my own experience of the H-blocks where I spent the majority of my thirteen years in prison. I thought of my family, particularly my wife, who had made countless treks to this most depressing of environments over many long years for the benefit of a half-hour visit. From I entered its confines in 1981 it was to be almost five years before any sense of ‘normality’ existed. It was one crisis after another; the Republican dirty protest and hunger strike, the Loyalist protest for segregation and the IRA escape spring to mind. Long Kesh was the catalyst that fuelled and prolonged the conflict for many years.
The British government’s mishandling of the Republican hunger strikes was to have profound consequences for Northern Ireland and its people. It beggared belief that anyone would believe that implacable enemies would coexist peacefully when the vast majority of the population of ‘peace loving people’ outside the prison chose to live apart. Ironically this was one issue where the much sought after cross community support could have been achieved, certainly within the prison. The legacy of the hunger strike was a new impetus to the violence of the Republican movement and the rapid political emergence of Sinn Fein on the back of the anti H-block candidates’ successes. Nationalist Ireland was galvanised like never before. The decision to end special category status in the prisons was a blunder of catastrophic proportion. Hopefully the lessons of Long Kesh will ensure that Maghaberry will be managed with a greater degree of realism. It was refreshing recently to hear a former senior Prison Governor acknowledge the mistakes that were made in relation to Long Kesh and the resultant impact on the whole community.
There was a diverse range of people in the car parks of Long Kesh on the 28thJuly including friends and relatives of the prisoners, members of various paramilitary groupings and political parties, the usual media circus and some members of victims groups. For all these people the releases meant different things – some were there to welcome a loved one, others to receive members of their organisation, the victims to register their protest at the releases and the media to report on the event, some in their own sensationalist and mischievous manner. The presence of the victim’s group made the dignified exit of the UVF and RHC prisoners all the more welcome and I took pleasure from that – champagne and flags didn’t seem appropriate! While I disagree with their stance on prisoner release, I can understand the sentiments of people like William Frazer and Michelle Williamson who have suffered grievously during the course of the conflict. I pondered how I might feel in their circumstances but am saddened by politicians who use their plight to further their own political agenda. These same politicians have, in the past, shown scant regard for victims. Indeed if their political aspirations were realised it would be a recipe for future generations of prisoners and victims.
I also gave some thought to the prison officers, many of whom will become redundant in the near future. Prison Officers reflected society in general, displaying all aspects of human behaviour including good and evil. Many officers were decent people who took pride in their work and tried to be as humane as the environment allowed. Some of their colleagues however fell a long way short. There is much talk from their union representatives about shabby treatment in respect of their redundancy packages. Given the level of intellectual and physical ability that I witnessed in their ranks I think that many of them will be counting themselves fortunate to have received inflated salaries over the years disproportionate to their talents. For them Long Kesh was definitely the goose that laid the golden eggs.
What now for the future of Long Kesh? Personally, I would shed no tears if it were razed to the ground. Indeed that is what I would advocate. In recent weeks proposals have been made, particularly from Republican sources, to have it turned into some sort of museum. While I can understand their sentiments, I wonder, given their stance on Loyal Order parades, have they considered how the Unionist residents of the Maze would feel about what would be tantamount to a permanent Republican shrine in their midst.
UVF prisoner 1980 – 1993