Former IRA prison OCs in Derry tomorrow

A unique panel discussion involving three former IRA commanders within Long Kesh will be held in the city tomorrow night.

The discussion is one of a number of events taking place in the city this weekend to mark the 30th anniversary of the death of Derry INLA hunger striker Mickey Devine.

Tomorrow night’s discussion in Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin at 8pm will focus on events inside Long Kesh after the hunger strike ended and will examine how the republican movement managed to turn what appeared to be a defeat with the death of ten men into a victory.

When the hunger strike ended on October 3rd, only one of the prisoners’ demands had been granted - the right not to wear prison uniform. The prisoners had to decide on a new strategy for creating republican structures within the jail.

The discussion will include former prison leaders, Laurence McKeown, Raymond McCartney, and Bobby Storey, and will be chaired by Foyle Sinn Féin MLA and former prisoner, Martina Anderson.

Speaking ahead of the event, Mr McKeown said: “Margaret Thatcher and the British government viewed the ending of the 1981 hunger strike as an absolute victory for their uncompromising stance. They viewed the facing down of the hunger strike as a crucial step in the defeat and demoralisation of republican prisoners and the broader republican movement. Yet, within a year of the ending of the hunger strike IRA prisoners achieved segregated wings, prison work came to an end after the 1983 escape from H7, and republicans began to consciously create conditions more reflective of their POW status – wings that were focused on education, that operated on the basis of equality and fairness, and where everyone who wanted to play a positive role on the wings could be facilitated.”

Mr McCartney, who took part in the 1980 hunger strike said much of what happened after the hunger strike has not been discussed publicly before. “Within months of the ending of the hunger strike IRA prisoners decided, after much debate and discussion, to strategically engage with the prison regime they had resisted bitterly for the previous five years.

“They agreed to engage in prison work, and they agreed to enter ‘conforming’ wings where the prison guards were in control, and where loyalists and republicans were being treated as ordinary prisoners. It soon became clear that these prisoners were on a mission to undermine the conforming wings and to make the jail ungovernable,” he said.

Bobby Storey said prisoners used the pretence of conforming to strengthen their position in the prison. “They used prison work, clearly designed to be menial and demeaning, to establish communication about the jail, to smuggle messages, to facilitate meetings and to get a better sense of the layout of the prison. ‘Conforming’ prisoners began to work as orderlies in security sensitive areas of the jail, they befriended prison guards, they cleaned around areas where only prison guards were meant to be, and they gathered intelligence on prison personnel and locations. The difficult decisions taken after the hunger strike ended were fully vindicated when 38 prisoners escaped from H7 in September 1983.”

Other commemoration events will include the unveiling of a new mural on Westland Street at 12.30pm tomorrow by nieces of Mickey Devine followed by a vigil at the H Block monument, Rossville Street, at 1pm. The National H-Block Exhibition will also be on display in the City’s Guildhall with the formal opening planned at 2.00pm with an address by Laurence McKeown.