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17 August 2006 Edition

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Remembering 1981 - Jackie McMullan's Hunger Strike experience

Brendan McFarlane, IRA O/C of the H-Blocks During the 1981 Hunge Strike, Seanna Walsh, former blanketman and cellmate of Bobb Sands, Mary Doyle who took part in the 1980 Hunger Strike in Armagh Jail and 1981 Hunger Striker Jackie McMullan

Jackie McMullan, aged 25, joined the 1981 Hunger Strike on 17 August, replacing the late Thomas McElwee. The third of a family of seven, the young McMullan studied in Athlone as a boarder. In Belfast the conflict loomed large and by 1971 he had gone home. That summer his home was raided several times a week and in September his older brother Michael was interned. Later that year Jackie joined Na Fianna Éireann.

In 1973, aged 17, McMullan joined the IRA. He was arrested in 1976 and charged with attempting to kill RUC members. Sentenced in a non-jury court to life imprisonment, he joined the blanket protest.

From 1976 to 1978 McMullan took no visits, refusing to wear the prison uniform and only seeing his mother twice in three years. His mother died in 1980. Neither Jackie nor Michael were allowed compassionate parole to attend her funeral. Last weekend, as republicans prepared to mark the 25th anniversary of the Hunger Strike, ELLA O'DWYER spoke to Jackie and his sister Esther.

Jackie McMullan's sister Esther describes the young Jackie as a typical teenager but with a very determined nature. "My brother Michael had been interned while I was in my first year in secondary school and then he got out but was back in jail when I was in second year." Esther was about 17 when Jackie was sentenced to life. She was three years his junior.

"We never really knew Jackie was involved. He was very, very secretive. My mummy was heartbroken and my Daddy was going to kill him. But when he went to see him in the police station he gave out stink about the peelers. My father and mother were behind Jackie all the time."

The family didn't see Jackie for a long time. As a blanket man he refused visits for over two years. The first time Esther saw him after his arrest was when he appeared in court. He was hurt in Crumlin Road Jail in a fight between loyalists and republicans. "I remember when he came to court. It was frightening. He just looked like a caged animal with the long hair and all."

Jackie's mother got involved with the Relatives' Action Committee. "She joined the marches, toured America, went to Paris and Holland and chained herself to Downing Street in order to highlight the plight of political prisoners at home."

It was more difficult for their father John, as he was not the kind of man who felt comfortable in the public eye. "I have to say I really admired my Daddy for what he did. He went to meetings up in Stormont and spoke with Lord Gowry who was in charge of prisons.

"I used to pray that if Jackie went into a coma, I wouldn't get the telephone call because I didn't want to make the decision. I could never say what decision I would have made. How can you say, unless you're in the situation, what you would do. Someone's life is in your hands. How can you say what you'd do - but Jackie's strength would have kept us going."

Esther felt strongly for her brother Michael who only got to see Jackie for a short visit when their mother died in March 1980. Jackie went on the Hunger Strike the following year. At times Esther, like other relatives, felt that "there was never going to be an end to it. The families were united until Fr Faul started his shenanigans. Instead of Fr Faul putting pressure on families, the pressure should have been put on the governments. The families were put through enough, they really were."

Asked how she felt when the Hunger Strike ended she said: "To tell you the truth you were relieved that Jackie was not going to die, but heartbroken because the other men had died."

Jackie McMullan was tried, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in the space of 40 minutes. It was an unprecedented sentence in a case where nobody had been injured. Moved to the sentenced wing, McMullan remembers being able to look over the yard where the remand prisoners took exercise. When his comrades learnt of Jackie's heavy sentence they were so taken aback that they started laughing. "They were genuinely amused. They were in stitches." At the time nobody looked too far into the future and the notion of 20 years in prison on a charge where nobody was killed seemed ludicrous.

He took his first visit at Christmas 1979. It was a family visit and his mother was there. His second visit with his family was in 1980 and "was the day they came in to tell me my Ma had died. I was in my cell waiting to take a visit. The door opened. The priest walked in.

"It can't be said often enough how much hardship and suffering the families went through.

"Sometimes the relatives wouldn't sleep for a week before a visit. You often hear of the distress suffered by mothers. My father too suffered and I really admire him. At the time I had to galvanise him into a position where, no matter what pressure he was put under, he would not take me off the fast. My father was an ordinary man who wanted the best for all his children. He didn't want to see us end up in prison, never mind on hunger strike. But he took up the challenge, went to meetings and represented our case.

"I must mention Mickey too. He suffered massively. He was in the Cages at the time and couldn't even do what Esther, Meta, Bernadette, Gerard, and Maurice could do. They could march and protest. Mickey couldn't. It was hard for him."

Jackie had put himself down for both the 1980 and '81 hunger strikes.

Asked how he coped as friends and comrades died McMullan said: "There was powerful grief for people you knew and were close to who died but it really isn't much different than how I'd feel about comrades like Finbarr McKenna, who died in a premature explosion, or Larry Marley or countless other people who I know who have died. I know a lot of people who died."

Asked how he felt when, after 48 days on hunger strike, the protest ended he said: "On the one hand I hadn't died but 10 of my friends had. It seemed at the time that we hadn't achieved our demands and that the protest was broke. But then we started to win the conditions outlined in the 5 Demands. A major escape was pulled off within two years."

McMullan was released in 1992. He worked for a period setting up ex-prisoner groups and currently works with Sinn Féin. Reflecting on his prison and hunger strike experience, McMullan says: "You have to struggle; nobody is going to offer it to you on a plate.

"My memory of the Hunger Strike is only as valid as anyone else's. We all have our various memories of the time. It was part of my life. I like my life; I enjoy it."

Jackie McMullan lives in Belfast with his partner Laoise and young son Manus.

An Phoblacht Magazine

AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:

  • The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
  • It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
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