8 January 1998 Edition
How the audacious escape was done
First interview with Liam Averill
On Wednesday 10 December Republican POW Liam Averill made a daring and ingenious escape from Long Kesh when he walked out of the top security prison dressed as a woman. This week he talks exclusively with An Phoblacht about how the operation was carried out.
An Phoblacht: Well Liam, first let us join with all the others in wishing you all the best for `98. Obviously you are adjusting to your freedom and getting used to being away from a prison regime?
Liam: Yes, thanks. I know my comrades would gladly swap places with me right now, but as every POW knows, it's our duty to escape and I am keeping my fingers crossed and saving a few bob for the next one, or two who might join me.
But to be serious, I am obviously delighted that our plan worked so well. As with every operation, inside or out, a lot of people contribute to its success but never get the credit, so to those who know, go raibh maith agaibh.
An Phoblacht: How did you react when you found out that an escape was in the offing?
Liam: My first reaction was surprise. While republicans seek every possibility to escape, there are schemes that are feasible and stand a good chance of success, and those that don't. This particular one I was told had a good possibility [of succeeding]. It was unbelievable, especially coming within months of the tunnel. We had worked hard on that and it was just bad luck that it was caught. Unfortunately, we couldn't control the weather.
Every republican escape, such as the big one in 1983, sends the message to the Brits that it is impossible to imprison an ideal, or the political will to be free, whether it's Brixton or Whitemoor in England, or Long Kesh
AP: Moving back to your escape, can you disclose any details for our readers on how it went and how you were feeling?
Liam: It was shortly before the actual escape that I was approached by a member of the camp staff, who said, `This is not a mix [practical joke], but are you still on for ealu [escape]?'.
I just remember saying `Yes'. I was then told that a successful bid could be made through the Christmas parties for prisoners' children and that I would have nothing to do by way of preparation, all necessary material would be provided.
I went to a party on Monday the 8th, had a look at any problems which might arise and as there didn't appear to be any, the plan was on.
I didn't feel nervous at that time but the night before the next party, when I would make the escape bid, I only slept for about 90 minutes. I used some of that `sleepless in Seattle' time to shave my legs, a crucial component of the operation!
AP: So what happened on the actual day of the escape?
Liam: Well, around 9.15am I left the Block and worked in the tea room serving tea and hamburgers for most of the day along with the other helpers at the Christmas party. There was about 108 kids there, absolute bedlam, but great craic. One worrying feature of the day though was the appearance of a number of senior governors who came into the party during the course of the day and had a look around. This caused some initial concern, but we pressed on. I was due to get ready at about 2.15pm, but delayed until 2.25 when I went to a prearranged location and put on a wig and make-up. I spent about 20 minutes with the make-up and felt `transformed' in my new gender.
Going back in, I mingled with the crowd until 2.50pm when the screws switched the lights off and on, signalling it was time for visitors (and me!) to leave. So I waited until the visitors were on their way to the bus and joined in with them.
I went out through the first gate: three screws there, two on the gate and one at the door of the bus. The two on the gate hardly looked at me and the one at the bus was distracted putting stuff on board. I climbed aboard and sat halfway down. The screws came on and did four counts, a bit of a delay. My first thoughts were, `there's a problem', but no, the screw shouted `room for five more'. More people came on the bus and it drove off through four checks.
At the last check the screw counted a few times and I thought the worst but the screw realised that a kid who was messing about by hiding popped his head up as he [the screw] came down the bus. The screw, now happy with the count, let the bus go and before I knew it I was in the car park. I felt so elated, it was brilliant.
AP: What were your feelings, Liam? You were on your own. Why bother taking the risk?
Liam: Well, besides being my duty as a POW to escape there was - and still is - no sign of movement on the prisoners issues. So there was no problem about me taking my chance with this escape.
AP: What is morale like in the Blocks and how do the POWs see things at present?
Liam: There is a feeling of frustration with the lack of movement, but support for the efforts Sinn Féin are making. There is maturity all round, that is very clear, and the prisoners know we must not let our opponents divide us. Division serves only our enemies.
I think prisoners have a shared experience; even when the tunnel was accidentally discovered there was elation in the camp at how far it had gone.
I know how big an effect this escape will have on morale inside the prison and outside. Every republican escape, such as the big one in 1983, sends the message to the Brits that it is impossible to imprison an ideal, or the political will to be free, whether it's Brixton or Whitemoor in England, or Long Kesh.
And yes, I have heard the jokes about the requests on the radio for me for the song, `Sometimes it's hard to be a woman'.
British must focus on prisoners issue
Following the escape An Phoblacht received this statement from the POWs in Long Kesh.
The successful escape of our comrade Liam `Arnie' Averill from Long Kesh once again highlights the ingenuity and discipline of republican POWs.
The British government and others must focus clearly on the need to address the whole question of prisoners meaningfully. The drip-feeding of minimal movement on issues, most of them the subject of intense debate and lobbying for years, does not in any way defuse the tension and the feelings of frustration felt by us and our families. It is against that background that the freedom of our comrade Liam must be placed. There has been a rush of condemnation and attack from the usual predictable sources. The input of these same people to the search for a resolution of the wider conflict - never mind the issue of prisoners - has been negative in the extreme.
Some mischievous and dangerous comments from prison sources should not be allowed to dictate the situation. Internal tensions and agendas within and between the POA (Prison Officers Association), the prison management and the NIO must not be manipulated to create unnecessary conflict.
The comments of some loyalists serve only to expose their own inadequacies and failures. We will not be judged alongside their standards. Our record in relation to compassionate issues speaks for itself.
In conclusion, we send New Year greetings to our comrade Liam and to all of our families and friends. It is their support and help which has been important and crucial to us. We are determined and prepared to face the time ahead with the same unity of purpose and spirit of resistance which has been our strength down through the years.
The Republican leadership has defended and represented our interests and needs firmly and resolutely. We urge them to continue with their efforts and we pledge our continuing support to them.