6 January 2000 Edition

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Victory in survival

Liam O Duibhir served terms of imprisonment in Portlaoise Prison in the 1980s and in various prisons across England in the 1990s before being repatriated back to Portlaoise in 1994. He was among those POWs recently released for Christmas by the Dublin government and who do not expect to return. In an interview, he recalls his time in prison, particularly in Britain, where republican prisoners bore the brunt of right-wing opposition to the Irish peace process.

``The jails were the playground for the Tory rump and their hanger-on securocrats, who rode their political careers on the backs of the POWs,'' says Liam. ``The refusal of republican prisoners to submit, to be broken, was itself but the mirror reflection of the political development of the struggle. Home Secretary Howard and Thatcher's cohorts, the covert military wing of the British government, still machinating, undercover, to break the struggle, to punish and defeat the undefeated. It was the other side of Major's grey face of intransigence.''

Dubliner Liam O Duibhir, along with many other republican POWs in English jails at the beginning of the peace process, carried this fight.

High on the Welsh cliffs, in the dark of the night, suddenly surrounded, the lights went up. ``We were encircled. They opened up. We made a run for it.'' Liam and Damien McComb were captured, ten years ago.

From Brixton, to trial, then sentenced to 30 years, they had a ticket for the horror tour of the Special Secure Units (SSUs), which ranked amongst the worst jail conditions ever faced by Irish POWs. Liam didn't meet up with Damien again until temporary release last summer, a decade later, such were the times that were in it, the isolation of imprisonment in England.

Understanding the British government's politics was half way to beating them. The other half was calm, intelligent, easy going, resilience, `having a job to do, and just getting on with it.' This is Liam. Tall, quiet, but immovable.

``Since childhood I'd read Irish history,'' he says. The headmaster at the primary had a plaque to the Tipperary Brigade, memories of Dan Breen, Soloheadbeg.'' These were the days, in the early 1970s, when school masters encouraged the kids to go down to the British Embassy, which was burnt in protest over the introduction of internment.

He joined Sinn Féin in the Hunger Strike period, while studying at UCD. ``We built a really great cumann. We recruited widely and we went outwards to debate with those who were not republicans, to talk with people who later might be the government, to engage with them in political discussion, to present the argument for the republican position.''

And then, in 1984, Liam was arrested. The arrest, in the Phoenix Park, was brutal. The doctor reported that `Liam had fallen and bruised himself'. They broke his nose. It didn't ruin his face. He was charged with attempted murder.

``Conditions in Portlaoise jail in the mid-eighties were dire. Closed visits, endless cell searches, appalling brutality towards the prisoners. Despite this, Liam followed degree courses, the first of many degrees he accrued on his sojourn through the jails.

In England, in Parkhurst, his first SSU, he diversified from history into an Open University General Science course. A science kit pack came with the course, for basic experimentation. It all went great until a screw met red fumes filling the cell with lab work gone awry. Nevertheless, he carried on with the general studies.

``In the jail, I'll never forget the support we had from people all over the world. And of course, we built friendships so close that perhaps you'll never be so close again to anyone. We often didn't know what someone looked like. But we just knew each other, by instinct.'' We knew it was them, and the men that went before them at the start of the campaign, to whom we owed the respect everyone had for IRA men in the jails. They had fought many of our battles.''

``In 1993, I went to Whitemoor. Michael Howard had come in as Home Secretary, and for utterly opportunist reasons of currying a support base with Thatcher's remnants amongst right wing Tories, he imposed racist policies in the SSUs. The rule of law went out the window. There was an inexcusable immorality in his decisions. On repatriation, every time we won the argument, the goal posts moved. For ten years, the British refused to implement the UN convention for the repatriation of prisoners.

``In September 1994, straight after the first ceasefire, the policy backfired in Howard's face with the Whitemoor escape. Peter Sherry, Danny McNamee, Liam McCotter, Paul Magee, myself, and another great comrade, Andy Russell, who was in the unit with us and always staunch, brought a rain of criticism on Howard's tenure at the Home Office.

``We were down the blocks for three months before a visit from the Irish Embassy got us moved to Belmarsh, where we were separated within the SSU.

``We were fighting for the most basic human rights. Continuously on punishment. Every day, one of us was on a charge. Loss of one month's remission, one month behind the door, one month's wages, one month loss of canteen. It was regular. We kept up the fight, calling witnesses and questioning them in the `adjudications' into our alleged transgressions. We'd throw the prison into chaos, calling out all the prison officers, the dog handlers, the Dedicated Security Teams (DSTs) in their black overalls, black boots and Darth Vader hats, to give evidence and answer our questions. It gave us a routine and something to occupy our minds, which they tried to deaden by confining us in ten-foot boxes of grey space.

``The security was totally oppressive. There were six screws assigned to each of us. They took one-hour shifts. It was all they could tolerate. They even had counsellors on hand to help them if need be. At night, every half hour they `checked' us, saying, `when I look in at night I want to see you move.' It was an orchestrated campaign to break all of us psychologically. They wanted to give us a telly, for the screws to watch. We told them to get rid of it by the afternoon or we'd smash it. There was nothing we needed from them. They couldn't understand this.

``Visits were closed, with no privacy whatsoever, shouting through a mesh and glass. The last three years, we didn't take them at all. My parents were quite elderly. I couldn't inflict it on them. We got many visits from delegations, who got as far as the visiting place and were shocked at the treatment. Eamon O'Cuív, Mary Flaherty, Cecilia Keaveney, Dan Neville and many others came to visit, and many spoke out on their return against the conditions.

On 15 June l998, Liam was finally repatriated back to Dublin. He remembered the jail as it was in the 1980s. ``I knew all the `kickers', who now were worrying about their jobs. Most of us have had short-term, temporary releases now, but none of us will rest until all the prisoners under the Good Friday Agreement are out, until the government fully honours its commitment.''

Portlaoise had been a fair preparation for what had happened in the SSUs, come the peace process. For the POWs in England, victory was to survive. And they did.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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