12 October 2006 Edition
Short Strand to remember its fallen
Thirty years ago, on 16 October, the night sky over Belfast suddenly turned bright orange. I watched this strange occurrence with other republican prisoners from the top landing of C Wing in Crumlin Road jail and wondered about the source of it. It was not long before we heard on the radio that an explosion had occurred at Belfast's gas works in the Markets area.
We were locked in our cells for the night; it was the next day before we found out that the IRA had lost three volunteers in a premature explosion.
For most of that day the wing was awash with rumours about who had died. As the lads came back off visits they brought back different names, which added to the confusion.
But before our cell doors were closed for the night we had the confirmed names of Joey Surgeoner, Francis Fitsimmons and Paul Marlowe.
Paul, I did not know, but Joey and Francis were from the Short Strand - the same district as me. I knew them, Joey better than Francis, as part of the local IRA from 1970.
Losing Paul, Joey and Francis was a massive blow, not only to their families but to the IRA in Belfast and in particular in the Short Strand. All were former political prisoners and experienced IRA activists.
The Strand is a very small area. By October 1976 the war had been going on for over six years. During that time, the people of the district had paid a heavy price for their part in the war effort.
Ten IRA volunteers from the Strand had already died since June 1970 - eight of them lost in two accidental explosions in 1972. In the first explosion, in February, four volunteers died together a few miles away from the Strand as they travelled in a car to their target.
I remember seeing the headline news on a Belfast Telegraph notice board as I made my way home through Belfast city centre. I knew I would know them and I did. I also knew that the shocking news would rip the heart out of the small district.
The second multiple loss happened in May 1972 when a bomb, again inside a car, exploded in Andersonstown Street. Eight people died in that early morning explosion: four IRA volunteers and four civilians.
In the space of four months, twelve people lost their lives.
Many others died at the hands of loyalists in bomb attacks and random shootings. Two men were shot dead by the British Army.
On top of this loss of life, scores of people were imprisoned, and the area was held under virtual military occupation for most of those years.
This small community carried its burden with remarkable courage. Despite the pressures brought on by the war, the people of the district never stopped fighting British occupation.
This weekend, the people of the Short Strand will march to the Markets, symbolically retracing the steps of those who died that October night 30 years