Prison to politics

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Sinn Fein MLA Raymond McCartney talks about joining the IRA in the wake of Bloody Sunday, his 19 years spent in Long Kesh and reveals how he felt when he was finally acquitted

Raymond McCartney spent 19 years in Long Kesh, was 53 days on hunger strike in 1980 and watched friends die during the 1981 Hunger Strike but despite everything he has endured he still thinks of himself as a lucky man.

Raymond McCartney MLA. (2312PG51)

Raymond McCartney MLA. (2312PG51)

“My mother and father are still alive, my brother and sisters are all here and I have a fantastic wife and a great son - I am a very lucky man,” he says happily.

Raymond has been a Sinn Fein MLA for Foyle since 2003 when he was co-opted on to the seat when Mary Nelis decided to step down.

“I owe a lot to Mary [Nelis],” says Raymond. “Mary might be a small woman but I can tell you when she stood down in 2003 she left very large shoes to fill.”

Raymond was born and reared in 37 Orchard Row in November 1954. His parents are Liam and Bessie McCartney (nee Gallagher) and he has five brothers and two sisters.

“I have happy memories of growing up in Orchard Row. It was a mixed community back then and we would have spent the summers playing football and cricket - they were great days.”

He added: “My father instilled in all of us a great passion for sport. I played a bit of football but I was never any good. My older brother Jimmy was probably the best out of all us, he played for Derry Harps.”

Raymond attended Long Tower Primary School before moving on to St. Columb’s College where he enjoyed studying Mathematics, History and Geography.

“I enjoyed school as much as I could but with what was happening around me it was hard to concentrate on my education.

“When Bloody Sunday happened it changed the way I thought forever. Hope and idealism clashed with violence and force that day and hope and idealism were left on the road so I joined the IRA in 1972.”

Nationalism was common place in the McCartney household. Raymond’s maternal grandfather, James Gallagher, was interned in the 1920s and and was part of the Catholic Register Association.

“Until the Troubles I wasn’t overtly political. My parents would have been supporters of Eddie McAteer but everything changed for me when Bloody Sunday happened.”

Raymond, like so many of his generation, joined the IRA shortly after Bloody Sunday. He was first arrested in 1972 and later that year was sent to Long Kesh.

Raymond was then interned for 18 months and in January 1977 both he and fellow Derry man Eamonn MacDermott were arrested and charged with the murder of RUC officer Patrick McNulty. They were sentenced in 1979 and he remained in jail until May 1994.

“Eamonn and I were taken to Castlereagh [police station] where we were brutalised and evidence was fabricated. We were both sentenced to life in prison.”

Raymond joined other IRA prisoners in the H-Blocks in 1977 and he immediately joined his fellow prisoners on the ‘Blanket Protest’. After talks to secure political status failed he put he put his name forward to be selected for hunger strike.

It was suggested that the the hunger strike would coincide with the visit of Pope John Paul II’s to Ireland in 1979 but after careful consideration the IRA army council decided to put it off until the following year.

“I was in H5 at the time,” he recalls. “Deciding to go on hunger strike is one of the most surreal things I have ever had to think about.

“I had to do a lot of soul searching because ultimately what we were saying was that we were prepared to die in order to secure political status.

“I communicated to Brendan Hughes that I wanted to be considered to go on hunger strike and then a while later I received a com [communication] written on the back of cigarette paper saying that I’d been selected.”

Raymond was one of seven men who went on hunger strike on October 27, 1980. After the British Government appeared to act in good faith the leader of the strike Brendan ‘The Dark’ Hughes decided to call it off.

The British Government later reneged in their compromise and Republican prisoners demanded that another hunger strike go ahead in 1981.

“The 1980 hunger strike taught me that nothing is signed, sealed and delivered unless you can see the terms you’ve agreed to in front of you.

“We acted in good faith and because of that the British reneged and it was because of this that the 1981 Hunger Strike happened.”

Ten men from both the IRA and the INLA died during the 1981 Hunger Strike. Raymond was close to both Bobby Sands, who was the first to die, Kieran Doherty and Joe McDonnell. He said that as a result of the men’s deaths they ensured that republican prisoners moved toward political status.

“It was tough watching friends like Bobby [Sands], Kieran [Doherty] and Joe [McDonnell] go through what they went through but if it wasn’t for their sacrifice republican prisoners would not have achieved what they did.

“There was a great sense of togetherness inside Long Kesh. It taught me what could be achieved if everyone stood together.

“Yes, there was always going to be individuals who disagreed as a point of principle but there was always a great sense of comradeship.”

In the years leading up to his release Raymond was let out on parole twice a year and he said he was somewhat taken aback by just how much had changed from when he was imprisoned in 1977 until his release in 1994.

“It was a different place and it took a bit of getting used to. I studied for a degree with the Open University when I was in Long Kesh so when I got out I decided to go one step further and study for a Masters in Peace Studies at Magee.”

After completing his masters degree Raymond married his girlfriend Rose Sheerin in St. Columba’s Church, Long Tower in 1995. They have one son, Conchur, who was born in February 1996.

“I met Rose before I was imprisoned in 1977. She was also a political prisoner and was jailed in the women’s prison in Armagh.

“When I got out of prison I rekindled the relationship again and the year after we were married. Rose is an amazing woman and we have a fantastic relationship.

“Our son Conchur is growing up fast and I was really proud of him this year as he won the Irish Freestyle Wrestling Championships. He does wrestling and mixed martial arts - he’s very focused and I have no doubt he’ll win a few more medals.”

Soon after he finished his masters Raymond helped to set-up Tar Abhaile and Coiste (two ex-prisoners groups). He was also heavily involved with Sinn Fein and helped to run the local press office.

In 2003 he stood for election to the Assembly but was unsuccessful. However, after her husband was in a bad car accident Sinn Fein MLA for Foyle Mary Nelis stood down and Raymond was co-opted on to her seat.

“Although Mary stood down from public service she was always there in the background. She helped me so much during the early years. She was always there to offer advice and to be honest I’d have been lost without her.

“I’m honoured to represent the people of Derry. Along with people like Martin McGuinness, Martina Anderson and Mitchell McLaughlin, Sinn Fein and Derry have produced some fantastic public figures.”

On February 15, 2007 Raymond and Eamonn MacDermott were both acquitted of their convictions. Raymond and Mr. MacDermott then embarked upon a campaign for compensation and after failing on two previous occasions the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court in London, ruled in their favour earlier this year.

“I was at home when my solicitor Paddy MacDermott phoned me to say that our legal team had just gone in and then a few minutes later he texted me to say that we’d been successful.

“It was a whirlwind of a day but it was a tremendous feeling - we were totally vindicated.”

In his spare time Raymond watches cricket and attends every Derry City match at the Brandywell.

“We have a caravan at Tullagh and for the last ten years myself, Rose and Conchur have been going there for our summer holidays. In recent years we have taken a little girl called Dasha from Chernobyl with us - hopefully she’ll come with us again next year.

“I love nothing more than watching cricket on television and after my father took me to my first Derry City match when I was younger I have been hooked ever since. I’ll only accept the board’s offer to take over from Stephen Kenny if they let me do it on a player/manager basis,” he laughs.”

He added: “It’s an honour and a privilege to be an MLA. My Sinn Fein colleagues and I will work even harder in 2012 to make sure that we get the best for the people of Derry.