In September of 1985 I was transferred from a Category ‘B’ prison – Blundeston in Suffolk – to The Maze Prison’s H-Blocks.
I had been a Category ‘A’ High Risk prisoner for nearly 10 years in England around various top security prisons, and had only been reduced to Category ‘B’ 6 months before my transfer.
My actual transfer was banal – a taxi to Birmingham Airport with two chatty prison officers and no other visible security and then onto an ordinary commercial flight to Belfast airport.
However, upon arrival at Belfast Airport, it was immediately clear that my security rating had been escalated back to Category ‘A’ – there were soldiers, police and an armoured car reception party awaiting me for removal to The Maze.
In the prison reception area, a deputy governor told me I would be brought the IRA wings.
I replied that I would not be going to the IRA wings, that I did not want to be controlled by the IRA and that I had resigned from the IRA eight years earlier.
The deputy governor was discommoded – surely I wanted to be on the IRA wings with the personal freedoms enjoyed on those wings?
No, I replied, I would never again be subject to the IRA’s controls.
After a delay of a few hours, I was told I was going to be held in solitary confinement while they decided what to do with me.
After a week in solitary confinement, a prison chaplain had met me and had discussed at length my reasons for not wanting to be in the IRA wings:
- I didn’t want to be subject to IRA discipline or orders
- I didn’t want to be a party to murder inside or outside the prison by having to smuggle ‘comms’ in or out
- I didn’t want to owe the IRA for any favours granted in prison
- I wanted to be free of the grip of paramilitaries
Finally, I was offered an “ODC/Sex Offenders” wing in one of the H-Blocks – would I accept that? [“ODC”s were somewhat humorously referred to as ‘Ordinary Decent Criminals’].
I pointed out that all of the IRA prisoners in English prisons were mixing with ODCs and sex offenders, and some loyalist prisoners, for years without any difficulties – sure I would accept going onto the ODC/Sex Offender wing.
I didn’t at all realise the unintended consequences of my decision.
During the first three or four weeks on the ODC wing, the prison officers were highly suspicious of my presence and did not immediately accept that I had left the IRA. They smelled some kind of security plot and, after the IRA escape from The Maze only two years earlier – during which one prison officer lost his life and others were stabbed and injured – that was understandable.
Within hours of going on the wing, I was “nicked’ and placed on a charge and brought back to solitary where, the next morning, a deputy governor sentenced me to a few days in solitary confinement for an offence against discipline which I had not committed.
As soon as I returned to the ODC wing, another prison officer charged me with another offence, and I was once more returned to solitary.
This farce continued for a few weeks until it was obvious that the prison officers did not want an ex-paramilitary prisoner anywhere except on paramilitary controlled wings, and not on an ODC wing.
After an intervention by a prison chaplain and some honest communication between me and some prison officers on the ODC wing, I was allowed back to the wing without being charged with offences aimed to get me back to isolation.
At last I could settle into a somewhat normal prison life on an ODC wing of the H-blocks, which involved calming some of the prisoners who also believed that an IRA plot was being hatched by me and might endanger them as well.
Weeks passed without any disciplinary charges…
A number of prisoners known to me sent me ‘comms’ asking questions about life on the ODC wing. Others spoke to me in the van on the way to visits, or in the visiting area itself. They wanted to know if it was possible to survive on the ODC wing without harassment by prison officers. They were tired of the paramilitary ‘internal security’ goons searching their cells, reading their mail and overseeing their V.O.s (visiting orders) – effectively deciding who could or could not visit them, in particular local councillors not affiliated with the paramilitaries.
Suddenly, a number of prominent loyalist and republican prisoners landed on the ODC wing and joined me. They variously explained that they wanted to get away from paramilitary control and – a matter I had not considered until then – they wanted to cooperate with the Life Sentence Review Board and with the Probation Service to get release dates.
More and more prisoners left the paramilitary wings and joined us.
There were prominent names – Billy Mitchell of the UVF, “Junior” McClelland allegedly of the UFF, ‘Rab’ Turner from Portadown, Albert Brown, Kenny McClinton, Stevie Berry of the INLA (allegedly involved in the murder of Airey Neave), John Dornan, ‘Jock’ Hone and, unusually – a Cages’ man – Willie Doherty – who had given up ‘special category’ status in “the Cages” to join us, Gerry Fearon – the young SOSP (Secretary of State’s Pleasure prisoner) from Jonesboro who had been convicted for his part in the murder of Captain Robert Nairac. Prisoners kept on coming over to us. Also the group known as “the UDR 4” whom I helped write letters to peers and MPs in England.
Our wings were now called “the mixed wings” of The Maze and after nearly two years, in November 1987, there were so many prisoners on the mixed wings that news came to us that the NIO was going to open up a previously mothballed prison to accommodate us – it was called Maghaberry and it was supposedly brand new.
Suddenly one week, nearly all of the prisoners on the mixed wings were transferred to Maghaberry to enjoy a different kind of prison life – ‘mixing’ or ‘conforming’ and escaping the grip of paramilitaries still bound to the belief that murdering people was legitimate.
What had been the primary lesson for us in deciding to live together on the mixed wings?
As fast as we got to know one another and made a conscious decision to live together, we got on very well and friendships were begun that lasted for years.
We men who had given many years of our lives to loyalist and republican paramilitaries found we had a lot in common – not least the prison years and the profound changes that imprisonment brought to us – not forgetting that prison probably saved most of our lives.
The paramilitaries’ claims that loyalists and republicans could not live together peaceably and positively on the same wings was categorically shown to be false and entirely contrived by paramilitary “strategists” bent on achieving ends not related to the needs or interests of their slave prisoners.
And so, many men got to work with the Life Sentence Review Board and with the Probation Service of Northern Ireland, but more importantly with people from the “enemy” side of the community.
I always remember locking up with a prominent loyalist prisoner in his cell for part of the afternoon to go over some literature homework he had to undertake – a loyalist prisoner who had murdered Catholics – who told me that I was the first Catholic friend he had ever made and got to know and trust.
We hung about a lot and talked over our pasts with extreme honesty.
Those “kite flying” commentators on behalf of paramilitaries who nowadays spew out the nonsense on radio and television in Northern Ireland that the threat of prison would militate against paramilitaries telling the truth – the ridiculously short alleged 2 years that paramilitaries might partially serve if convicted of murders or bombings from past years – know nothing of the good that prison achieved for so many prisoners in allowing them time to grow and change and leave behind nihilistic paramilitary organisations.
It’s abundantly clear that certain paramilitary leaders who avoided imprisonment – liars and mass murderers – would have benefited from a decade or more in prison to perhaps learn to empathise with their many victims.
I and many others have a lot for which to thank the prison system, not least that it kept us alive and allowed us to grow and change for the better, not forgetting the excellent education facilities offered to us.
The victims abducted, tortured and murdered by paramilitaries got no such mercies.
Prison’s necessary existence can and always should be beneficial to both prisoners and to the society that pays for it.
[For an article about the IRA and its torture and murder of its abducted prisoners, see here.]