Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

1 June 2000 Edition

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Long Kesh - Museum of Irish Freedom?

As the last prisoners prepare to leave Long Kesh, scene of so much drama and suffering over the course of the conflict, An Phoblacht's FERN LANE argues that the time is fast approaching for it to be formally designated a museum in recognition of its particular historical importance. As a museum, she says, people could gain a tangible sense of Long Kesh's central role in contemporary Irish history

Long Kesh was never just a prison. In its various forms, from the Cages to the H-blocks to its gradual emptying, it has consistently represented a microcosm of British policy towards resistance in Ireland and, paradoxically, the embodiment of the struggle of Irish people against those policies.

The H Blocks were the locus of Britain's most recent efforts to first criminalise and then break Irish republicanism in the old formula so beloved of those of a colonial mindset. They were also, critically, where those efforts ultimately failed
Despite the physical and psychological isolation both of the place and those held within it, Long Kesh has always been intimately connected with what was going on outside its perimeter fence. Because of this, and because of the battles - and intense suffering - which occurred inside it, the very fabric of the buildings themselves have begun to acquire an almost iconic status which far outweighs their practical use; the familiar shape immediately provides a form of visual shorthand for the history of the war in the Six Counties. The H Blocks were the locus of Britain's most recent efforts to first criminalise and then break Irish republicanism in the old formula so beloved of those of a colonial mindset. They were also, critically, where those efforts ultimately failed.

What then, after the end of July when the last prisoner is freed, is to become of Long Kesh? No doubt there are some on the British side who would like to keep it as a functioning prison (just in case) and no doubt there are others who would like to see the entire place bulldozed to the ground in an attempt to wipe the evidence of the failures of British policy from the face of the earth. A third option, increasingly under discussion, is to retain some of the site - the cages, one of the blocks, and the hospital wing - and turn it into a museum, a place where in future people can gain a tangible sense of Long Kesh's central role in contemporary Irish history.

There are, of course, many precedents for this; Kilmainham prison is now a cultural and historial landmark and there are also obvious comparisons to be made with South Africa's Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held for almost three decades. Robben Island, like Long Kesh, became synonymous with the struggle against oppression. Apart from Mandela, other ANC activists like Neville Alexander, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Robert Sobukwe and Govan Mbeki, were imprisoned there.

Indeed, reading Mandela's account of the island in Long Walk to Freedom, one cannot help but be struck by the similarities between the shift in policy by the then Apartheid government in South Africa in the mid-Sixties and that enacted by their supporter, Margaret Thatcher, a decade or so later, when the policy of criminalisation dictated the moving of republican prisoners from the old cages in Long Kesh to the newly constructed H-Block system:

``Robben Island had changed since I had been there for a fortnight's stay in 1962,'' writes Mandela. ``Two years later, Robben Island was without question the harshest, most iron-fisted outpost in the South African penal system. It was a hardship station not only for the prisoners but for the prison staff. Gone were the Coloured warders who had supplied cigarettes and sympathy. The warders were white and overwhelmingly Afrikaans-speaking, and they demanded a master-servant relationship. They ordered us to call them ``baas'', which we refused. The racial divide on Robben Island was absolute: there were no black warders and no white prisoners.

``The high spirits with which we left Pretoria had been snuffed out by its stern atmosphere; we were face to face with the realisation that out life would be unredeemably grim. In Pretoria, we felt connected to our supporters and our families; on the island, we felt cut off and indeed we were. We had the consolation of being with each other, but that was the only consolation. My dismay was quickly replaced by a sense that a new and different fight had begun.''

|ndeed, Mandela was also forced to fight with the authorities on the matter of prison clothes, although in the end even the apartheid regime in all its cruelty was less rigid on this point of principle than that overseen by Mrs Thatcher:

``From the first day, I had protested about being forced to wear short trousers. I demanded to see the head of the prison and made a list of complaints. The warders ignored my protests, but by the end of the second week, I found a pair of old khaki trousers unceremoniously dumped on the floor of my cell. No pin-striped three-piece suit has ever pleased me as much. But before putting them on, I checked to see if my comrades had been issued trousers as well.

They had not, and I told the warder to take them back. I insisted that all African prisoners must have long trousers. The warder grumbled `Mandela, you say you want long pants and then you don't want them when we give them to you'. The warder balked at touching trousers worn by a black man, and finally the commanding officer himself came to the cell to pick them up. `Very well Mandela' he said, `you are going to have the same clothing as everyone else'. I replied that if he was willing to give me long trousers, why couldn't everyone else have them? He did not have an answer.''

In 1996, in recognition of the site's historical importance, the South African government designated the 574-hectare site as a national museum and cultural heritage site. The museum traces the 400-hundred year history of Robben Island; over time it has been used to imprison slaves, chiefs who resisted British colonial rule, lepers and the mentally ill. In December last year, the site was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations, a status which provides huge cultural and economic opportunities for the local area.

In a similar vein, the time is fast approaching for Long Kesh to be formally designated a museum in recognition of its particular historical importance, and to provide similar opportunities to that afforded by Robben Island. The site provides its own narrative structure; a story which goes from internment and de facto political status in the cages, through criminalisation in the H-Blocks, the Hunger Strikes and the consequent acceptance once again of political status, to the more sane regime in the prison which has prevailed over recent times, and finally closure. Part of that narrative also concerns loyalists and their strange relationship with a state which quietly gave them the nod (and very often practical assistance) to commit atrocities against those it considered to be its enemies, and then imprisoned them for it.

Sinn Féin's Paul Butler, a Lisburn councillor, has been working hard on the proposal for a museum and to that end has been discussing the possibility with other cultural bodies who might be interested, such as the Ulster Museum and the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. He also met with officials from the Robben Island museum, to hear first-hand about their experience of running such an important historical site. He envisages something in a similar spirit to that of Derry museum, which had made a genuine attempt to honestly explore and account for the history and politics of the town.

Sinn Féin Assembly member Gerry Kelly has also been campaigning around the issue and is especially keen that the hospital wing be preserved intact, particularly the hospital log detailing the progression of the hunger strikes - documents which are of huge historical import. He recalls being in the hospital wing himself on the first anniversary of Bobby Sands' death and the emotions this aroused: ``There was a really powerful feeling in there'' he says, ``an atmosphere - you could feel it.'' In response, he wrote two poems, one to Rosaleen Sands, Bobby's mother, and another which places the hungers strikes in a wider historical context. `One year ago tonight/These cells echoed to your agony/Death approached you violently/But without surprise... I cannot imagine your suffering/Though it cries through the ages/Hunger is no stranger/To the Irish people'.

Curiously, John Stevens, prospective Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and investigator of RUC/loyalist wrongdoings, paid a visit to Robben Island in November last year and declared himself ``moved and humbled'' upon standing next to the cell where the ``terrorist'' Nelson Mandela was incarcerated. Whether he would be similarly moved and humbled (although the word ``ashamed'' should also come to mind) upon paying a visit to the hospital wing of Long Kesh to see where the ``terrorist'' Bobby Sands and nine others died slow, agonising deaths in defiance of the cruelty of the British state is another matter altogether.

For the benefit of future generations, Long Kesh deserves to take its rightful place in Irish and world history.

An Phoblacht
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Dublin 1