A life in politics

Gearoid MacLochlainn
Gearoid MacLochlainn

In a different time, Gerry MacLochlainn would have been a maths teacher, probably contemplating retirement at this point in his life.

The soon to step down Sinn Fein councillor has the way of a nice teacher about him, hugely knowledgeable but gently informative.

Gerry, front left, pictured at a meeting calling for repatriation of Irish prisoners to jails in Ireland just after he was released from prison in England in 1984.

Gerry, front left, pictured at a meeting calling for repatriation of Irish prisoners to jails in Ireland just after he was released from prison in England in 1984.

In a different era or a different country that may well have been the narrative for the 58-year-old. But like many of his contemporaries he spent his formative years watching violence and social injustice consume his home town. Along with many others, that was to have an immense impact on the rest of his life.

Gerry’s childhood and early youth didn’t just revolve around Derry, but the city was never far from his thoughts or actions.

Born in the Lonemoor Road and having spent his earliest years in Creggan, when he was 12, Gerry, his mother Rosaleen and his three siblings moved to England when his father Eddie got a promotion with the post office. But their stay in Essex was shortlived when his father became ill and the family moved back to the North, relocating in Carrickfergus.

Even while in England, Gerry had made regualr trips home and and as a teenager he witnessed what he describes as the first rumblings of the Troubles. At 15 he took part in the infamous Burntollet march when civil rights activists were attacked by the British Army.

Gerry hands a letter in at number 10 Downing Street.

Gerry hands a letter in at number 10 Downing Street.

A self confessed political anorak, Gerry’s first political memory was television coverage of the 1964 General Election in England.

“I remember going out to my mother who was ironing in the kitchen at the time and being very excited about telling her we had a new government,” he recalls.

“She was quick to point out to me that it wasn’t a new government for us, it was a new government for England. We of course would never get a new government and that made me realise that there was something seriously wrong.”

Gerry’s emphasises that his parents weren’t political and he says his mother, like many others, would have preferred her chidren to ignore the unfolding conflict here wanting to protect them from the worst of the violence. That of course was impossible.

In the early ‘70s, sectarian tensions were high in the Sunnylands Estate in Carrickfergus where the family lived, and Gerry received a death threat. While his parents were forced out of their home there, he was sent to live with an aunt in South Wales.

From there he finished his A levels and applied to go to university in Aberystwith where he studied Maths and Philosophy. After that he went on to study for his Post Graduate Certificate in Education and taught in Wales for a period of time as the situation escalated in the North.

Across the water, Gerry could have chosen to detach himself from all that was going on back home. He didn’t. Even from an early age, he believes he knew he had a part to play in the story which was unravelling in the North.

In fact, it was during his time in Wales that he became most politically active becoming involved in campaigns to support Irish prisoners during the beginnings of the blanket protests.

“I was coming over to visit people who were on the blanket and I did my best to publicise the situation in Wales,” he says.

“As things went on I became more formally involved with the Troops Out movement, the Prisoners’ Aid Committee and I helped to establish a group of Welsh nationalists called ‘Friends of Ireland.”

Gerry continued to actively protest but said it soon became clear to him that protest alone was not going to change the situation in the North.

“Things were not going to change purely as a result of peaceful protest and gradually I realised that,” he says.

“Bloody Sunday was a particularly hard blow. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t there on the day but we knew people who had been killed. When the blanket protest began I started to hear the stories of the prisoners and what they were going through and it was at that stage that I joined Sinn Fein in Britain. I also became an active republican at that point and I carried on doing what I could to help end the situation in the North.”

In 1980 Gerry was arrested in Wales and charged with conspiracy to cause explosions. He was brought to trial in Bedford and in 1981 was sentenced to six years in jail.

“That again was during one of the most traumatic periods for Irish people because it was slap bang in the middle of the hunger strikes,” he says.

He believes he avoided a heavier life sentence because he was sentenced during that turbulent period. For the next six years Gerry was moved between a variety of prisons including Wormwood Scrubs in London, Bedford and Leicester. He served the bulk of his sentence in Maidstone in Kent.

Initially classified as a category A prisoner, he spent his first period of time in Wormwood Scrubs with three other ‘category A’ inmates, namely, Guilford Four prisoner Gerry Conlon, a survivor from the Iranian Embassy siege and a criminal gangster.

Gerry had only minimal communication with other republican prisoners who had been moved to the wing above him after a protest. He remembers vivdly and emotionally the death of Bobby Sands and it’s clearly something which still affects him.

“One of the prison officers opened my cell early and said to me ‘MacLochlainn, you’d need to get out and clean your door. Somebody’s written something on it and you might not like it, you might want to clean it.’

“I went out and saw that someone had drawn a matchstick man and written ‘Bobby Sands, Slimmer of the Year.’ That was how I found out he’d died. I knew it had to be an officer who’d written it and I told them to clean it themselves. I was so angry, it was such a difficult time because I was just getting used to being in prison and there was a terrible feeling of hopelessness.”

Gerry grew increasingly frustrated, unable, as he saw it, to contribute anything meaningful to the campaign from inside. He was in favour of extending the hunger strike to English prisons but soon saw it as an emotional decision and an irrational response to what was happening.

“Ultimately, doing that would only have deflected attention from the hunger strike in the North and would have confused the issue and that was quite right. One of the prisoners in the block got through to me and I realised I was just having an emotional response to what was going on. We would have gained no sympathy in Britain.

“There was a terrible period for six months where people were dying and we were just waiting for them to die. That was horrible,” he says.

Gerry was eventually moved to prison in Maidstone where he spent significant time in solitary confinement for refusing co-operate with prison work which would have involved making shorts for the British Army. When the prison tailoring department closed Gerry was sent to study but was eventually banned from the education department for inciting a pro Palestinian protest. Ultimately, the combination of these events saw him put into ‘private study’ in his cell for the duration of his sentence.

In 1984 Gerry was released and moved to London where he played a role of Sinn Fein representative until he returned to Derry 1997.

While in London he worked closely with Mitchel McLaughlin and facilitated meetings between Gerry Adams and British representatives during the very earliest days of the peace process. “It was a fantastic opportunity for me because I was able to see first hand what was happening in the peace process. “I was never at a very senior level but it was great to be working in London at that time because I could see the changes that were taking place.

I’ve been in awe of the party leadership ever since because they clearly had a focus on what they wanted to achieve” he says.

During this time Gerry also travelled extensively in the Middle East, making the Sinn Fein point of view known.

“It was a great period and an exciting period,” he says.

He remains an active Palestinian supporter today and has recently returned from a trip to Gaza.

In 1997, after returning to Derry Gerry instantly immersed himself in community life here with the Bogside Residents during the height of the marching season and what he describes as a very tense time in the city.

In 2000, he replaced Mitchel McLaughlin on Derry City Council and modestly says he was able to “do some fairly useful work.”

He’s most proud of his party’s contribution to the success of City of Derry Airport. Outside council, his work has always been within the community sector in the city and he is currently manager of Hillcrest House community centre at Corrody Road.

“It’s funny the way you take paths in life,” says Gerry, explaining how he’d been banned from teaching because of his conviction.

By the time the ban was lifted he was firmly rooted in his job in the community and returning to the classroom seemed like too big a u-turn.

“I do regret not becoming a teacher because it was what I’d wanted to do since I was a child,” he says.

It could be something about different paths or a nod to the old adage about life happening in between making plans. About to step down from his political role locally, it’s probably safe to say that Gerry won’t totally abandon politics. He’ll probably take on the role of an active observer, and combine it with learning Irish, spending time with his wife Sinead and son Daniel, enjoying rugby and trying to keep warm in the Brandywell, where he’s a season ticket holder.