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An honour to have been part of Blanket protest

(Anthony Mcintyre, Irish News)

The 11th of July 28 years ago was to be my last full day spent as a special category prisoner.

Two weeks earlier my escape bid collapsed; aborted in the jail reception area where I was apprehended with an imitation firearm made by the late Larry Marley.

"What's in your shoe?" asked the screw who searched me.

"The same as is in the other one," my nonchalant reply as I tried to bluff my way and reach Belfast appeal court where security would be more lax and an escape bid doable.

The retort was ill-appreciated. He soon discovered that the realistic looking weapon, equipped with cocking mechanism, was broken down and spread between the two shoes. 'Funny fornicator' would be a polite way of describing what he called me. He felt he had the last laugh. I would now make the transformation from political prisoner to common criminal at the stroke of some NIO bureaucrat's pen.

That is how simple it was.

Due process was a foreign language in the NIO in those days. A prison uniform was more foreign to me. I would never wear one.

On July 12 the door in the punishment block opened and a screw said: "Know where you are going?"

Trying to sound indifferent and eager to deflate his joyous role as the bearer of bad news, I merely replied: "The blocks".

The thought that I was keeping him away from an Orange march was small consolation as I made the short journey to H4 and a new life, vastly different from the laid back existence of Cage 11.

Small wonder early internees would term Long Kesh the 'Lazy K'.

The no-wash protest had already begun and my fear was that I would retch and vomit once placed in a 'leaping' cell, embarrassing myself in front of any new cellmate and screws alike. The anticipated stench failed to materialise. Covering the walls with human waste would not become part of the protest for a further two months. Wearing the blanket was strange at first. Wrapped around the waist like a woman's maxi skirt, it would become the potent symbol of one of the most

determined protests ever to confront the penal systems of western Europe.

By the time I discarded it more than three years later, I felt uncomfortable in my own clothes.

Apart from some screw flexing his muscles as I entered the block I reached my new abode without any hassle. The dreaded beating didn't occur. The screws on the wing were laid back, even polite. A further two months would elapse before I would experience the violence of the NIO's enlightened and humane regime.

Within minutes of my arrival in Cell 15, C Wing, H-block 4, a prison governor arrived to 'award' a punishment for my refusal to wear prison uniform. My cellmate hooted and tooted, all the time banging his chamber pot on the wall to drown out the governor's voice, urging me to do likewise. It was part of life in a brave new world that I was not prepared for just yet.

My reticence to scream and scowl gave the governor his opportunity.

He put his mouth to my ear and shouted: "If you stay here you'll be as mad as him."

I feared he might be right.

By the time a week had passed I knew he was. It was the madness of the defiant damned. And we would be damned in hell before the governor or his brutal minions would get us into that prison uniform and concede that republicanism was a criminal enterprise.

Kieran Nugent, the first blanket man, was on that wing, as was Tom McElwee who would later die on hunger strike.

Their names became immortalised because of the roles they played in the protest. But there were others on the same wing who wore the blanket for years on end and who also died prematurely. Men like Jimmy Conway and Harry McKavanagh from Ardoyne, Sam Marshall from Lurgan; men who suffered the vicious truth that lay behind Britain's PR facade.

Looking back, it was arduous and brutal. Apart from each other our only companions were the omnipresent trepidation and tedium.

Yet I do not regret a day of it.

It was an honour to drink at the well of integrity and human decency that spouted from the pale bodies of those republicans who fought the malign might of Britain with nothing but a blanket. Tom, Kieran, Sam, Jimmy, Harry, the valiant spirits of 'our wing' in H-block 4.

July 15, 2006

Anthony McIntyre is a former IRA prisoner and edits online magazine The Blanket.

This article appeared first in the July 11, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News