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27 July 2000 Edition

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H is for history

By PEADAR WHELAN


With the final closure of the H-Blocks of Long Kesh this week, and the release of all but a small number of the remaining republican prisoners in both the Six and 26 Counties, ex-prisoner Peadar Whelan reflects on the toll of years, and of republican lives, lost in those jails.


In their new video `100,000 Years' Coiste na nIarchimí, the republican ex-prisoners'organisation, tells us that republicans have served up to 100,000 years in British prisons during the last 30 years of struggle. That 100,000 years has been served by approximately 15,000 people.

Also listed on the video are the names of 24 people; it is the Roll of Honour of those republicans who died in both British and Irish prisons over the last three decades. They include 12 hunger strikers. Volunteers Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg died in English prisons. Volunteers Bobby Sands, Frank Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O'Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Thomas McElwee and Mickey Devine died in the H Block hunger strike in 1981.

Sinn Féin member Noel Jenkinson died in prison in England, in Leicester jail in 1976.Volunteers Francis Dodds, Teddy Campbell, Patrick Teer, Hugh Coney, Jim Moyne, Henry Heaney, Sean Bateson and Pól Kinsella all died in Long Kesh.

Hugh Coney was shot dead by a British soldier in 1974 as he tried to escape from the Kesh and while their death certificates might put the deaths of the others down to natural causes in most cases there was deliberate medical neglect that contributed to their deaths.

Jim Moyne from Derry City was interned when he died from an asthma attack. Had the prison authorities rushed him to hospital instead of taking hours to treat him he may be alive today. And in the case of Pól Kinsella, the British refused to treat his cancer and he died in December 1994.

Volunteer Paddy Kelly was similarly mis-treated. He was locked up in an SSU in England and his cancer ignored. He died in 1997. Volunteers Tom Smith and Brendan Seery died in Portlaoise. Smith was shot dead by Free State troops during an escape attempt.

This Roll of Honour and the figure of 100,000 years of imprisonment will come into sharp focus for republicans as Britain's most notorious of prisons, Long Kesh, closes this week. As renowned as Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for so many years, the struggle is now on to decide the future of Long Kesh.

Former republican prisoner and now a Sinn Féin councillor in Lisburn Paul Butler argues that part of the jail should be kept as a museum. Not to celebrate the cruel and brutal regime which flourished there but to commemorate those who fought and died in struggles, often against all the odds, to maintain their own dignity as human beings.

The British would probably prefer the place to be razed to the ground. Built to be the ``breaker's yard'' for the Republican Movement and the cause of Irish freedom, the H Blocks of Long Kesh became the grave yard for Britain's criminalisation policy in the North of Ireland. Those who argue that the place be bulldozed dismiss the political and historical importance of the place.

It housed the first internees and became a by-word as a concentration camp similar to those that housed prisoners of war in the Second World War. The cages during the 1974 Burning, where both sentenced prisoners and internees were held before the British government's attempt to remove political status, witnessed the biggest single engagement between republicans and armed British forces throughout this phase of the struggle. Hugh Coney from Tyrone was shot dead as he tried to escape three weeks after the Burning and the effects the CR gas used on the prisoners had is still being explored.

And as the 1981 hunger strike began and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stubborn refusal to be moved by the heroism of Bobby Sands and the other Hunger Strikers ensured that the symbolism of the H Blocks is now steeped in images of courage and fortitude. Thatcher is finished yet the commitment of all the H Block prisoners is a potent political factor in the growing strength of the republican struggle.

Whatever happens to Long Kesh on Friday the facts remain that the place has affected the lives of everyone in the Six Counties, and further afield, in one way or another. To destroy the place would be to commit an act of gross political, historical and cultural vandalism.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1
Ireland
 

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