As part of an ongoing series to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike, ‘Journal’ reporter Michael McMonagle spoke for former blanketman, TONY MILLAR, who was in Long Kesh at the time, about his memories of the period, the impact it had on republicans, and its place in modern Irish history.
Derry republican Tony Millar had already spent four years inside the North’s prisons before he was sent to Long Kesh at the height of the blanket protest in 1978 but said that nothing could have prepared him for what he found there.
Tony, who now works with ex-prisoners group, Tar Abhaile, said he can still remember the smell he encountered when he was led into the H-Blocks during the blanket protest by republican prisoners who were fighting the British government’s policy of criminalisation.
The Derry man was 18 years-old when he was first sent to prison in 1973 at a time when republican prisoners still had special category status. “I was taken to Crumlin Road jail, and after going through administration on B-wing, I was taken to A-wing, which was totally politicised and controlled by republicans. We were treated as political prisoners. The cell doors were opened in the morning and not closed until night. We had education classes, drilling, and operated as a military structure.
“That went on for twelve months and then the Diplock Court system came in and I was convicted and sent to Long Kesh for a month before being sent to Magilligan. We regarded ourselves as political prisoners and were treated as such,” he said.
Tony was released from Magilligan in 1977 and immediately became reinvolved in republican activities in Derry, leading to him being arrested again the following year in 1978 and sent back to Crumlin Road jail. By that stage, special category status for republican prisoners had been removed by the British government.
“We were going into a very different system,” he said. “They were trying to criminalise the republican prisoners. That is when I went on the protest. It was already started at that stage and prisoners refused to slop out or clean our cells. We then stopped using the toilet and threw the stuff out the window or onto the landing.
“The winter of 1978 was particularly severe and the sewers in Crumlin Road jail exploded, sending the waste onto the wing. It became pretty hostile at that stage and beatings by the screws were commonplace,” he said.
During his time in Crumlin Road, Tony came face to face with four of the Shankill Butchers.
“Things had got pretty bad and one day when I was going to get water a fracas erupted and I was taken to B-wing, which was a criminal wing, and put on punishment, or as we called it, behind the wire. Some of the Shankill Butchers were in there too, as I soon discovered.
“I went to the toilet one day and the toilets had half doors and I saw four pair of feet under the door. There was a knock on the door and I opened it, preparing for the worst, four of the Shankill Butchers were standing there. One of them said he knew who I was and that the screws had sent him in. I was expecting the worst but he said he was not going to play the screws’ game. I washed my hands and returned to my cell ” he said.
The Derry man was sentenced to nine years imprisonment in early 1979 and was sent to the H-Blocks of Long Kesh, an experience he says he will never forget.
“The hostility was unbelievable. When I went in they handed me they uniform and I said I would not wear it and stripped naked and said I was a political prisoner and that I wanted to go to the protest blocks.
“I was put into a van and taken to the blocks and I looked out through the slots on the van and saw the blocks for the first time. All the windows had been put out and I could see the space around each window covered with the waste the prisoners had thrown out. It was scary.
“I was taken out of the van, still naked, and faced a barrage of sectarian remarks before being forced to squat over a mirror while being hit by the screws. Then I was thrown into a cell, still naked, while I waited for them to bring me a blanket,” he said.
The first prisoner Tony encountered was Kieran Nugent, the first man to refuse to wear the prison uniform. “I was in the cell and heard a tapping on the pipe and it was Kieran Nugent. He told me what was what and I got to know him over the next 18 months,” he explained.
Shortly after Tony arrived in Long Kesh preparations began for the first hunger strike. “My abiding memory of the first hunger strike was the night it ended in December 1980. Pat McKeown was on the Camp Staff and on our wing and he was the one who gave us updates about what was happening. When Sean McKenna was nearing death I remember seeing him go off the wing and when he came back he spoke to us all in Irish. He informed us that the hunger strike was over . We soon realised there was nothing there and that the British had reneged . Deep down we were gutted but determined to fight on,” he said.
Tony said that all the prisoners knew there would be a second hunger strike. “After Christmas people started to talk about hunger strike again. My mother died in February 1981 and I applied for parole to attend the funeral and was given six hours parole. I had to go to Derry, pay my respects, and be back in six hours. Everyone was asking about what the situation was within the prison,” he explained.
When the second hunger strike began in March 1981, Tony knew many of those taking part. “Kieran Doherty was in the wing opposite me. I remember him as a big tall lad. When they rotated us in the cells I was put into his cell and saw all the poetry he had written on the walls. Raymond McCreesh, Thomas McElwee, and Kevin Lynch were also on the wing and I would have seen them at Mass on Sundays.
“When Bobby Sands was elected morale was great but when he died we were devastated.
“When Bobby Sands died Bik McFarlane was on our wing and told us the news and you would have heard a pin drop. We all knew he was going to die but there was silence when we heard.
“Francis Hughes was on the wing and the night before he went on hunger strike he gave a speech and said he was a fighter both outside and inside and inside he had no weapons except his body to fight with. That has stayed with me for a long time ,” he said.
Tony said he has clear memories of the day the hunger strike ended. “The day it finished I was out on a visit and another prisoner shouted to me that it was coming to an end and for me to tell my OC. I went and reported back and later that day we were told it had ended. There was relief that no more would die but the talk turned to what the next step would be.
“The strategy changed and within six years the whole system had been changed too. It had returned to the way it was when we had status. I got out in 1983 but was back in prison in 1990 and went back into an entirely different place. It was totally changed and run by republicans. We had classes, discussions, debates and were treated as political prisoners. That was all because of the hunger strike,” he said.
Tony also said the spirit that drove the hunger strikers still exists today among republicans. “Bobby Sands was the man who told us not to lie down and take it and to challenge the system. That is still happening today but in a different way.
“The prisoners broke the system from within the jails and since then republicans have used that same spirit and dedication to go forward in achieving our political objectives ,” he said.