29 January 2009 Edition
Interview: Le Chéile Munster Honouree Eddie Butler
Hitting the enemy on their own ground
EDDIE BUTLER (59), from County Limerick, is the Munster honouree for next month’s Le Chéile celebration. He talks to ELLA O’DWYER about his republican activism, his 23 years in English jails, and about the bonds of friendship and comradeship that grew out of those years.
EDDIE’S father was from Carrick On Suir, County Tipperary, and his mother was from Castleconnell, County Limerick, where Eddie was brought up. “We lived a few hundred yards from the River Shannon. I went to school until I was 16, when I started working in a factory in Shannon.”
It was against the backdrop of the Civil Rights marches in the Six Counties that Eddie got involved.
“None of my family was involved in republicanism though some of them who lived in America got involved in NORAID in later years. It was the Civil Rights marches that got me interested. I was 20 in 1969 and before that I knew very little about what was going on in the North. Then, in 1970, I joined the ‘Official IRA’ and left them in 1972 when they went on ceasefire. Then I joined the IRA and went on active service. I operated on the Border with a unit for about 12 months.”
Soon after that, Eddie was to become part of one of the most successful IRA units that ever operated in England – what became known as The Balcombe Street Four: Joe O’Connell, Harry Duggan, Hughie Doherty and Eddie. Other close comrades of the men, who operated in England and who were later captured, included Brendan Dowd and Liam Quinn.
“Later, I went to operate in England. It was an opportunity to hit the enemy on their own ground. We were there about 14 months from 1974 to 1975 before we were lifted. We were very active during that time.
Eddie’s unit was responsible for some 40 attacks in Britain, some in the Home Counties but many of them in London’s West End. The capital was in crisis.
The authorities saturated London for night after night with every available police and security officer at their disposal. After one attack in the West End involving Hughie Doherty, Joe O’Connell, Eddie Butler and Harry Duggan there was a car chase which culminated in a six-day siege in a flat in Balcombe Street, near Marylebone Rail Station and not far from Baker Street.
The siege ended on 12 December 1975. Was the siege nerve-wracking? “I’d seen a fair bit of active service by then,” says Eddie, “but I’d imagine it was scary for the couple who were in the apartment when we arrived. I felt sorry for these people. We had gone into the house to try to get out the back. The cops were firing at us and we at them but we were surrounded and couldn’t get out.”
It was an ordeal for the elderly couple, Eddie recalls. “That said, when they appeared in court the man got into the box and looked across at us and kind of half-smiled.” Eddie smiles to himself at recalling the scene and says: “I’m sure if we’d waved over he’d have waved back.”
The trial is particularly memorable for the speech from the dock delivered by Joe O’Connell on behalf of the four, in which he defiantly said:
“As Volunteers in the Irish Republican Army, we have fought to free our oppressed nation from its bondage to British imperialism of which this court is an integral part.”
The unit had earlier and quickly taken responsibility for attacks in Guildford and Woolwich which the British police had framed Paul Hill, Gerry Conlon, Paddy Armstrong and Carole Richardson for.
“The people who were charged with the Guildford and Woolwich bombings were innocent. Three of us and Brendan Dowd made affidavits while on remand saying that we were responsible and we gave details that nobody else could have known. The authorities then tried to say that instead of four there were eight people involved!”
The four were sentenced to a total of 47 life sentences between them. They served 23 years each in some of England’s most notorious prisons and often in very hostile conditions. Eddie and his comrades spent long periods in solitary.
“There was a 26-month period in the late 1970s when Hughie and myself were locked up for 23 hours a day – just one hour out a day.” Even trying to secure the hour’s exercise was a battle because the warders would try to deny them even that.
“You’d get a shower and change of clothes once a week. You’d no contact whatsoever with anyone.
“I met Joe [O’Connell] in Full Sutton and when he arrived into the jail I said, ‘Joe, it must be about ten years.’ ‘No,’ says Joe, ‘it’s 15 years since we last saw each other.’ Someone else chirped in, ‘Look how time flies when you’re enjoying yourself’.’
“But one thing that stays in my mind was that there was a three-and-a-half-year period when I didn’t see any children. I spent six years with Brian Keenan in Leicester.” [Brian was one of last year’s Le Chéile honourees.] “We could have our arguments but they’d be forgotten about straightaway. We all sort of looked after each other. You developed great friendship in jail - after all, we spent so many years together. I still keep in touch with Harry, Hughie and Joe.”
Even when prisoners were being transferred back to Ireland, in the 1990s, the authorities were determined to hold onto the Balcombe Street men and resisted the move all along.
“My father passed away about nine months before we got transferred. There was no reason for not transferring us sooner but they were hanging on to the four of us to the bitter end. Finally, we got transferred back to Portlaoise. The great feeling was when the plane took off from English soil. I met my partner, Eila, when we got transferred back to Ireland.”
At the 1999 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in Dublin, Eddie and his comrades were officially welcomed home to a standing ovation amidst huge emotion. Gerry Adams hailed them as “our Nelson Mandelas”.
“Three days after we were moved back we were let out unexpectedly for the Ard Fheis. It was a bit of a blur because it all happened so quickly. They gave us two weeks parole in April 1999. My birthday is on 17 April and my friends had a surprise party for early that week because I was due back to jail on the 17th. But that week we got word that we wouldn’t have to go back. So that was my 50th birthday present!”
• SISTER SARAH: Unsung heroes such as Irish prisoners campaigner Sister Sarah Clarke gave invaluable support to the men in prison