‘We shouldn’t have faced trial in the first place’

Eamonn MacDermott. (2805SL01) Photo: Stephen Latimer
Eamonn MacDermott. (2805SL01) Photo: Stephen Latimer

EAMONN MAC DERMOTT was sentenced to life in prison when he was 19-years-old. In 2007 his conviction was quashed and earlier this month the Supreme Court ruled that he should be awarded compensation for spending more than 15 years in Long Kesh.

In this interview he talks about life in Derry during the Troubles, joining his fellow republican prisoners on the blanket and dirty protests and explains how he feels vindicated after this month’s ruling “Not only should they have been acquitted, but they shouldn’t have faced trial in the first place” was how former Lord Chief Justice for Northern Ireland, Brian Kerr, described the case that led to the imprisonment of Derry man Eamonn MacDermott for more than 15 years.

Along with Raymond McCartney, Eamonn was convicted of the murder of RUC officer Patrick McNulty in Derry in January 1977. Both men have always contested their convictions and in 2007 they were cleared of Mr. McNulty’s murder. Since their convictions were quashed Eamonn and Raymond have embarked upon a campaign to secure compensation for their time spent in prison. After failing in their bid for compensation on two separate occasions Eamonn and Raymond were left with only one more option; to take their appeal to the highest court in the land; the Supreme Court in London.

Although both men faced legal bills in excess of £100,000 they decided to give their appeal one more try. Over four years had passed since their convictions had been quashed but earlier this month Eamonn and Raymond got the good news they’d been waiting for when the Supreme Court ruled that they were entitled to compensation.

“The waiting is not over just yet but hopefully we should get our compensation in the not too distant future,” says Eamonn.

“Raymond and I have always contested our convictions and when you listen to Brian Kerr’s words you soon start to think to yourself that had things been done properly we could have had completely different lives.”

Eamonn was born in Derry in March 1957. His father was well known local GP Donal MacDermott and his mother was Kathleen (nee Hegarty). He was the third eldest of a family of eight children and attended Rosemount Boys PS before attending St. Columb’s College.

Eamonn comes from a family with a proud association with republicanism; whilst teaching in the North after the 1921 Anglo-Irish treaty Eamonn’s grandmother on his father’s side of the family refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the English crown. As a result she was barred from teaching in the North and moved to Buncrana where she taught for many years.

Eamonn’s grandfather, who was also called Eamonn MacDermott, was one of the first men arrested in Derry after the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. After he was arrested he taken to Frongoch Internment camp in Wales; the camp was used by the British to imprison well known republicans such as Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith. Eamonn’s grandfather also spent time inside the Ballykinler Internment camp in County Down.

The family lived in Great James Street before moving to Springham Street. Eamonn recalled a happy childhood but explained that he became politically aware at a very young age.

“One of my brothers was born on August 12 and I remember when I was very young looking out of our bedroom window and seeing the Apprentice Boys marching down the road - I thought they were doing this for my brother because it was his birthday but it wasn’t before long that I found out the real story,” he recalls smiling.

Eamonn’s parents instilled a pride in Irish history and culture in their children. They also raised their family to respect others and provided them with a tremendous sense of social justice.

“My mother and father taught all of us to stand up for what we believed in. They taught us that if we saw something wrong then we had to stand up for ourselves and speak out.”

Eamonn admits that he was a republican before the Troubles officially started in 1969 and explained that his outlook on life became all too clear two years earlier.

“I was doing my homework and one of the questions I had to answer was ‘Prince Charles is our next king? - True or False?’ I hadn’t a notion so I took it to my father and he told me the answer was false,” says Eamonn laughing.

Eamonn’s parents were both involved in the Civil Rights movement in Derry during the 1960s. From Eamonn’s recollections and memories it’s clear that he was raised in a political household where principal and integrity ruled supreme. As he became more involved in what was going on around him he soon started to take part in marches and he accompanied his father on the infamous civil rights march in Derry on January 30, 1972.

“I remember the Paratroopers set-up outside our house on Bloody Sunday. It was the perfect location for them - they were able to get on with what they were doing and it was only five minutes away from the Bogside. They were so aggressive. They stuck the butt of a rifle into my mother’s stomach and I remember one day playing outside with my brothers, one of the soldiers came up to me and asked if I was a Catholic or a Protestant - I told him it was none of his business and walked into the house.”

Eamonn was arrested and charged with the murder of RUC Detective Constable Patrick McNulty in 1977.

Eamonn explained that the RUC beat him in a bid to get him to confess.

“I was arrested about a week after the police officer was killed. Raymond and I always contested our convictions. They only evidence they ever had against us was confessions that they obtained under duress. The RUC were never interested in the facts or the truth, they were only interested in convictions.”

Eamonn’s case began in September 1978 and he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison in January 1979. After spending time on remand in Crumlin Road gaol, Eamonn entered the H-blocks in Long Kesh where he immediately joined fellow republican prisoners on the blanket and dirty protests.

Hunger strikes

Eamonn had only been in Long Kesh for a few months when republican prisoners decided to go on hunger strike in protest over the British government’s refusal to grant them political status. Raymond McCartney, who is now a Sinn Fein MLA for Foyle, was on the first hunger strike and Eamonn described it as a difficult time.

“The first thing that people must know is not one republican went on hunger strike in 1980 or 1981 to die – they went on hunger strike because the British Government had given us no other option.

“It was hard watching friends and people you knew put themselves through such a horrible time. I knew Bobby Sands, Raymond McCreesh, Joe McDonnell, Patsy O’Hara and Martin Hurson. Although I was sad when Bobby Sands died I wasn’t shocked that the British had let it happen – you could never underestimate what the British Government were capable of. It was a very hard time – watching your friends die is not an experience that anyone should have to go through.”

After the 1981 hunger strikes came to an end Eamonn described a relative atmosphere of normality inside Long Kesh. He claimed that remaining positive helped him through some of his toughest days inside prison.

“In the context of prison life, I found that I could be happy if I was in my cell with a cigar, a good book and a cup of coffee,” he smiles. “Don’t get me wrong, I’d have far rather been have back home in Derry but you had to remain upbeat otherwise you’d just drive yourself insane.”

Eamonn used his time in prison to his advantage. He studied for an degree in a variety of combined subjects from the Open University.

“I was an avid reader before I went into prison so I suppose you could say I got through plenty of books in over 15 years,” he jokes.

As a result of a unsustainable prison system it was decided by the Northern Ireland Office that any prisoner serving life would have be considered for release on licence after ten years if they admitted their guilt. Eamonn and Raymond always contested their convictions and as a result they were made wait an extra five years before they were considered for release.

“My release from prison was a gradual process,” explains Eamonn. “But I remember the first night I got out – I met my parents, my brothers, sister and friends in Cole’s bar on the Strand Road for a drink. It was strange being out but you just had to get on with it.”

Getting a job was always going to be difficult for a former prisoner so Eamonn went to the University of Ulster, Magee where he studied for a Masters Degree in Peace and Conflict Studies. After he graduated he worked for a while for Guildhall Press before securing a job with a local film company De Facto Films.

“I really enjoyed my time at Guildhall Press and with De Facto Films. We made a documentary about Johnny Walker [A Long Way to Go] of the Birmingham Six – we took the film to a film festival in San Sebastian in northern Spain and the people there loved it.”

Three years after his release from prison Eamonn met and married Philomena. Eamonn is step-father to Philomena’s son Ronan and the couple have two children of their own, Domhnall and Cait.

“I am one of the lucky ones,” exclaims Eamonn. “I admit that there were days when I was inside prison that I thought I would never get married or have a family but here I am in my 50s with a wonderful wife and wonderful children.”

In between his release from prison and starting a family Eamonn’s younger brother Domhnall died from cancer in 1994. Three years later Eamonn’s mother died after a long battle with lung cancer.

“It always annoyed me that my parents only really knew a few years of normality. I was away in prison for a good part of my life and then soon after I am released my brother passed away. It was a difficult time and I only wish my parents could have had more time with us all together as a family.”

In June 1996 Eamonn went for an interview for a job with ‘The Derry Journal’ and was successful. He worked at the paper as a reporter, county editor and ‘Sunday Journal’ editor before he left the company in 2009. He is now a freelance journalist.

“I owe a lot to the ‘Derry Journal’ – they gave me a chance when many others wouldn’t even look twice at a former republican prisoner. I enjoyed working there and I made some great friends who I still keep in touch with.”

In 2000 Eamonn and Raymond discussed their case and decided that they would submit all relevant information to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC).

“To be honest with you we didn’t really know what to expect but we decided that because we still wanted to contest our convictions we thought it was the right step.”

Six years passed by with very little communication from the CCRC however in January 2006 a knock came at Eamonn’s front door.

“I remember answering the door and the postman had a package that had been sent by special delivery. The package was from the CCRC and the letter inside said that they were referring our case back to the court of appeal.”

On February 15, 2007 Eamonn and Raymond McCartney were acquitted of their convictions. Michael Mansfield QC represented Eamonn whilst Eilis McDermott QC represented Raymond.

“We were delighted when our convictions were overturned so we then decided that we should apply for compensation. Our case was rejected twice and it wasn’t until last month that the Supreme Court ruled in our favour.”

Vindicated

Eamonn said that the ruling could not have been possible had it not been for the help and support of both his and Raymond’s legal teams.

“I have to stress that all those who took on the case, from senior council to junior council and solicitors – they all worked for free. But the costs of case were sitting at around £100,000. The photocopying bill alone ran into the tens of thousands but our legal teams were with us as a matter of principle. We’d have been lost without all the administrative staff too.

“I was represented by Greg McCartney and Kevin Casey whilst Raymond was represented by MacDermott and McGurk. Joe Brolly, John Larkin and John O’Hara acted as my barristers at different stages whilst Donal Sayers was involved with Raymond.”

The waiting game is not yet over for Eamonn and he does not have a definite date for when he should expect compensation.

“Nothing will ever give me back the 15 and a half years I lost when I was sent to prison. The Supreme Court’s ruling was amazing - it was total vindication. However, the real tragedy for me was what Brian Kerr had to say. He said that not only should we have been acquitted but we should never have faced trial in the first place. That’s in the past and there’s nothing we can do about it and hopefully the waiting game will be over sooner rather than later,” he says optimistically.