20 December 2007 Edition
INTERVIEW : Gerry Kelly, H-Block escapee and Sinn Féin Assembly member for North Belfast
The ‘Iceman’ melteth
GERRY KELLY (54) took an interesting journey to become a junior Minister in the Six County Executive. After involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, active service with the IRA, imprisonment, hunger strike and numerous escape attempts, Kelly became a member of the North’s Assembly. He chats to ELLA O’DWYER about the road he’s travelled.
Gerry, you’ll hate me for saying this but you give off an impression of being tall, stiff, and a bit serious.
[Gerry Kelly laughs loudly] I’ve done serious things and I take my politics very seriously.
During the negotiations the media used to refer to me as ‘The Ice Man’. Part of it was to do with the beginning of the talks with the Brits. My job was really as a kind of a ‘political sweeper’: I’d go in well briefed up and I’d stand back, observe and pass notes and generally make sure all the points were covered. So the Brits got the impression that I was very stoic and didn’t engage.
As a boy what were you like?
I was born at Easter Sunday, and between first, Confirmation and surnames I ended up with Gerard Francis Kelly, roughly translating as ‘Strong-arm Spear-throwing Warrior! So I was rightly hammered from the start [laughs].
I’m from Raglan Street in the Lower Falls. I went to school in St Finian’s Primary on the Falls Road, just next to where our Sinn Féin office in Sevastopol Street is now. Gerry Adams went to the same school but he was about five years older than me and had gone by then – written out of primary school history [laughs].
We lived right beside the school so it was impossible to ‘mitch’ [play truant] as the teachers would know your whereabouts. Sometimes I just fell out of bed when the bell went and be late and the teachers used to go spare because they knew I lived next door.
There were 11 of us in the family: four boys and seven girls. I was fifth in the family. Both my parents came from the Falls. They weren’t particularly political though grandfather Kelly was a Labour supporter. I enjoyed primary school at St Finian’s. Even at a time when very little Irish history was taught in the North, our school took pride in Irishness and we were taught some Irish history.
When I was young I wanted to be a priest – thankfully I didn’t make it [laughs].
After primary I went to St Peter’s Secondary School, got my O-Levels and then at 17 took my first job, in the Civil Service as a clerical officer with the Belfast Corporation Electricity Department.
So you were moving out into the world.
As a 17-year-old with my first wage I was enjoying life just like other young people. I got on well with the people I worked with regardless of whichever community they came from.
We’d have a bit of banter amongst ourselves. They had this old joke for newcomers called ‘The Long Stand’. A fella would send you off to another office to get something. When you’d arrive in the office to ask the guy at the desk for a long stand, he’d say ‘fine’ and then leave you standing. After a couple of rounds of it you’d clock that you’d been given ‘the long stand’.
That was the good-natured and fun working atmosphere for the most part, that is until the period leading up to The Twelfth. Then the entire atmosphere would change. It’d get icy. It was a very strange phenomenon.
I remember the 1966 anniversary of the 1916 Rising and, of course, houses being raided. Things like that make you aware, they radicalise you.
And then you got involved in the republican struggle.
Yes. I’d become aware of sectarianism from the workplace and then I remember being stopped by older kids on the street and asked if I was Catholic or Protestant. I was brought up to be proud of my background so, of course, I said I’m Catholic. I got a bit of a hiding [laughs].
That wasn’t such a big deal but I remember when Paisley got the RUC to take the Tricolour down from a Sinn Féin office in the Divis in 1964. But I was only about 11 then and I don’t remember much about it. There was four days of riots afterwards and then there were the Divis riots of 1969. It’s the events on the ground that make you politically aware.
I joined Fianna Éireann and was arrested in Omeath, County Louth, in August 1971, caught with Fianna weapons [laughs]. I was sentenced to two years and put in Mountjoy which then consisted of three sections: one for men, one for women and another for young people. Conditions in Mountjoy were dreadful. You’d see young lads being beaten and the food was very bad. Two years back then seemed like a very long time and I escaped.
I believe you camped up a tree for while in the process.
[Laughs] Yes, for a few hours, though that wasn’t part of the initial plan!
In January 1972, myself and another fella called Noel Moore, from Derry, hatched a plan to get me out through a workshop in the women’s wing. Noel wasn’t for escaping because he’d only six months to do.
The workshop, which was used for making mats, was being renovated and a hole was being broken out in one end of it in order to install a toilet. I used to be taken to do woodwork in the mat shop to make benches during the renovation.
When my Dad came on a visit one day I told him of my plan. He had mixed feelings about it because while I was in jail at least I wouldn’t be getting involved in the mounting struggle on the streets of Belfast. Anyway, he said he’d arrange to have a car outside to collect me on the day I was to escape. As it turned out, I had to postpone the escape because on the day I wasn’t taken for the woodwork class because the instructor didn’t come to work. So that put paid to the escape for that day. A couple of days later I decided I was going anyway, even though there’d be no car waiting outside for me.
Noel and myself were in the mat shop. I’d secured a painter’s white overalls and a white shirt so that I could change out of the prison-issue clothing.
We were in the mat shop and there were a lot of Screws about, looking to see the progress on the renovations. At one stage the entourage of Screws viewed the work and there was a Screw left in charge of me. “Stay there,” he said to me. “I’m just running over there to get some wood glue. I’ll be back in two minutes.” No sooner had he left than I gave Noel the nod. “I’m going now,” I said. There was another prisoner standing nearby, a Cork fella. “Do me a favour,” I said. “When the Screw comes back tell him I’ve gone to the toilet.”
Noel and I went out through a window, into the women’s exercise yard and to the 16-foot high wall. I climbed on Noel’s shoulders, got onto the wall and dropped myself down to the other side and headed off. Noel rushed back inside.
My plan had been to find a church somewhere and hide in a confession box until dark when I would go to an address I’d been given where I’d get help. I didn’t know Dublin and I couldn’t find a church. Eventually I found myself walking beside the Royal Canal in Dublin, trying to look like an ordinary painter walking about my business. I kept looking out for a church but couldn’t find one. I arrived at Glasnevin Graveyard, got into the grounds and headed for a tree. I climbed the tree and stayed there until it was dark.
To make a long story shorter, I eventually arrived at the address I’d been given, that of a woman called Mary Doyle who, ironically enough, lived in Parnell Square. I told her the story and before long I was sitting down to a big feed. I stayed in Dublin for a week. I was to get a lift with a taxi man to the border and the driver actually gave me £15 and drove me right to my own home in Belfast. I was there a couple of hours when a Saracen slammed to a halt outside. I ran straight out the back and that was me on the run in the North.
And you joined the IRA and went on active service?
Immediately after that I joined the IRA and operated in the Whiterock/Ballymurphy area – that’d be January 1972.
We were sent over to bomb London in March ‘73 – it was known as the Old Bailey bombings. This was really the start of the campaign in England.
Ted Heath was the Secretary of State at the time and Whitelaw was Prime Minister. There was a referendum on the border set for 8 March. Nationalists boycotted the referendum and only 57 per cent of the electorate took part in the poll. The car bombs were set to go off for 8 March – the date of the referendum.
It was a Belfast Brigade operation for GHQ. Two car bombs were defused but two went off – one at the Old Bailey and one at Scotland Yard. I got two life sentences and 20 years.
A group of you went on hunger strike for repatriation to jails in Ireland.
Yes. We were sentenced on 14 November ‘73 and immediately a group of us went on hunger strike. After a while it ended up with four of us on it – Dolours and Marian Price, Hugh Feeney and myself – and even with the force-feeding to try and break the strike we lasted a long time – 206 days.
They started force-feeding me around the 19th day and I was force-fed 167 times. You’d be held down by between six and eight Screws, pinned to the bed with your head held over the bed-end and they’d try to force open your mouth.
They’d run forceps up and down your gums to try to prise open your mouth. They had another method too – a tube would be pushed up your nose where it would hit off a particularly sensitive membrane, which automatically made you open your mouth. The sensation of the tube up the nose was like having a pin stuck into the corner of your eye.
When they’d your mouth forced open they’d stick a thing like a horse-bit with a hole in the middle of it in to keep your mouth open. Then they’d get another tube which would be lubricated with paraffin oil and stick it down your throat. That tube would be filled with a high protein substance like Complan. You’d frequently vomit and that too would be forced back down your throat.
The Brits finally did a deal.
Yes, they did a deal and then they broke it. They said we’d be repatriated before Christmas. Then the Birmingham bombs went off in November that year and I was told then that we wouldn’t be repatriated. I made an escape attempt soon after that. I got as far as the top of the outside wall when the alarm went off and I was caught.
Paul Holmes, Frank Stagg and Michael Gaughan were on hunger strike in solidarity with us. Then between ‘74 and ‘75 there were talks between the Brits and the IRA and as a gesture of good faith a group of us were to be repatriated. First the two girls got back in early ‘75 and then, in April, Hugh and myself got back.
The next two that were to be brought back were Paul Holmes and Frank Stagg but then the talks between the Brits and the IRA broke down. It was hard to leave the other lads behind, especially with Frank’s death – he died on 3 June. The Brits effectively killed him through the force-feeding. We were devastated. But we’d won and we’d broken the Brits’ practice of force-feeding
And you made other escape attempts.
Yes I made an attempt again in ‘82 while I was out at hospital for an X-ray but it didn’t come off. I was about to feel a failure as a potential escapee when a very complex and highly organsied escape plan from the H-Blocks of Long Kesh was devised in 1983 – what they call ‘The Great Escape’.
The job was well organised and although it almost went wrong as we reached the outside gate we managed to get away.
So you were on the run again and ended up operating on the Continent.
Yes. Myself and Bik McFarlane were arrested in Amsterdam and charged with possession. There was a big extradition case mounted against us which we beat and ended up only charged with matters relating to the escape and again we were back in the Kesh.
You were finally released in 1989 and got involved with the negotiations around the Good Friday Agreement. What did you think of the likes of Blair and Clinton?
We were fortunate in that the combination of Reynolds, Blair and Clinton fell into place.
In terms of British prime ministers, Blair was ahead of the rest in relation to Ireland and Clinton gave a lot of time and attention to the Peace Process.
He developed a personal interest in Ireland. I think the likes of Albert Reynolds and John Hume saw that it was a historic moment. They were in the right place at the right time.
Now you’re a Junior Minister in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
Yes. Martin [McGuinness] has the same power as Ian Paisley and what you see is what you get with those men.
Myself and Ian Junior work together – almost joined at the hip. The work is diverse. We’ve been doing work on issues around children and suicide prevention for instance.
Yours has been a varied life path from armed struggle to your role as negotiator and now your ministerial role. Was it hard to adapt?
I think you have to be adaptable. Also when you come from a community like mine, where people have gone through so much and yet always picked themselves up, you take strength and courage from that. Coming from such a community empowers you in that sense.
Also I think it’s important to lighten up and have a sense of humour. I’ve a family – my partner Margaret and my six children. I’m also a grandfather and I love kids. [Chuckles] Who doesn’t love kids? They keep you young!