These words, spoken by an actor in period prison officer costume, opened Why Are You Here, Son?, held within the foreboding confines of Crumlin Road Gaol’s old chapel on the night of 16th October. A capacity audience of some 250 filed in to the strains of a live acoustic performance of Johnny McEvoy’s You Seldom Come to See Me Anymore to take their seats for the event, a co-production between the ACT Initiative, Ex-Prisoners Interpretive Centre, and REACH (Renewing, Engaging, Advancing Community Hopes). Timed to coincide with the 21st anniversary of the CLMC ceasefire, and in the belief that “the significance of former political prisoners in the implementation of the ceasefires and the subsequent Good Friday Agreement cannot be ignored”, the event sought to “present a collection of experiences, thoughts, and emotions from those who were incarcerated”.
EPIC director Tom Roberts introduced proceedings, paying tribute to the efforts of ACT co-ordinator Dr William Mitchell in organising the event, and dedicating the night to those Ulster Volunteer Force and Red Hand Commando prisoners who died while in prison. Noting that the UVF and RHC prison experience has often been overlooked compared to the republican version, Roberts commented upon the profound nature of the question that gave the event its title. Every UVF and RHC volunteer who found himself in Long Kesh during the years when Gusty Spence was OC was asked this question by Spence upon his arrival. Spence was interested not in the offence they had been convicted of, but rather the personal motivations of the mostly young men who found their way into the compounds:
[…] he wanted to understand why I was in the prison and what beliefs had taken me there. I found it an arrogant question and yet it was a question that began to unlock a door to a different idea. He was confronting my attitudes and was forcing me to question why.
David Ervine, interviewed by Roy Garland
PUP prisons spokesman Ken Wilkinson introduced the next speaker, Bobby Rodgers. A former RHC life sentence prisoner whose incarceration took in the H-Blocks, Long Kesh compounds, Magilligan, Maghaberry, and Crumlin Road itself, Rodgers is also a highly experienced youth worker of over 20 years standing. An engaging speaker, he began his talk with a history of Crumlin Road Gaol – grimly noting the 17 hangings carried out there – leading into a contextualisation of the social and political turmoil of the late 1960s which led ultimately to the conflict and the imprisonment of an estimated 5000 to 10000 loyalists. From seeing as a 13yr old in the Village graffiti proclaiming “Gusty Spence is innocent”, he recalled the “overwhelming sense of lawlessness”, paramilitary mass recruitment, and continual arrests which saw Crumlin Road “fit to burst” with political prisoners. He went on to recount often overlooked episodes from those early days such as escapes by Tommy Cull and Danny Strutt, and the sabotaging of the gaol laundry and cookhouse by loyalists during protests.
Rodgers stated that while not all UVF/RHC prisoners appreciated the strictly regimented system put in place by Spence within Long Kesh, he believes “it was the best system for prisoners doing long sentences”. Magilligan, situated on a bleak peninsula jutting out into Lough Foyle, operated under a far more relaxed – perhaps too relaxed? – regime. His talk concluded with reflections on those prisoners detained on indeterminate sentences due to their youth (“Secretary of State’s Pleasure” or SOSPs in legal parlance), referring to them as the “child soldiers” of the Troubles. The abnormality of their experience was vividly recounted in the surreal affair of a volunteer who took a weapon to school so that his mother would not find it.
Next came a short extract from The Man Who Swallowed a Dictionary, Robert Niblock’s forthcoming play about the late David Ervine. Produced by Etcetera theatre group, the scene portrayed a dialogue between Jeanette Ervine and her husband during a fraught visit following his arrest, and while all too brief it provided a taster of what will surely be a highly-anticipated work.
A fascinating insight into the UVF/RHC prison experience was given by the short documentary Voices From Behind the Wire, put together by the ACT Initiative’s Archive Group. The first half focusing on the compounds, interviews with former prisoners – interspersed with evocative and previously unseen photographs – touched on the militaristic yet progressive Spence regime; one recalled a discussion group on the question “will there be a federated Europe by 1990?”. While the hardships of imprisonment were still keenly felt, the camaraderie bred by solidarity was much in evidence even 40 years later, one contributor even declaring of his jail time, “I wouldn’t want to have missed it”. For Billy Hutchinson, the experience emphasised the importance of the collective, rather than the individual. It was particularly interesting for this writer to see Denis McClean among the interviewees, 25 years on from his appearance in Peter Taylor’s 1990 H-Blocks documentary The Enemy Within, and on whose poignant words Taylor chose to end that programme:
[…] I think everybody is going to have to give a little to resolve the situation.
Does that solution involve those IRA prisoners on the other side of this wing?
Well…it would have to involve everybody. Otherwise there’s no solution.
At this point there was an intermission and a chance for a cup of tea and a glance through the literature produced for the event. In addition to a small pamphlet given to each attendee a 27-page booklet was on sale for a small fee. Post Scriptum featured a dozen pieces of writing from former UVF/RHC men, comprising poems, reminisces, and anecdotes on the theme of incarceration. Particularly amusing was The Brief Cell Mate, the story of the “countryman” mistakenly housed with UVF remand prisoners for possession of “six bullets”, who in fact turned out to be a heavily-accented cattle rustler charged with stealing “six bullocks”! Post Scriptum was illustrated throughout with the first-rate artwork of Geordie Morrow, the Belfast artist who himself passed through the “Crum” and Long Kesh as a UVF prisoner in the 70s.
After the intermission the documentary’s second half looked at UVF/RHC experiences of the H-Blocks and Magilligan. The bitter and drawn-out fight for segregation involving “wreck-ups”, a regime of 23-hour lock-ups persisting for years, blanket protests, and the remoteness and inaccessibility of Magilligan with attending difficulties for visiting families were all recalled in vivid detail. The stories were memorable and forthright: one man spoke of his father’s obliteration in an IRA bombing and the subsequent burial of a coffin weighted down with sandbags. This left him with “a big chip on [his] shoulder”. He joined the youth wing of the UVF aged just 15.
Taking the stage next, Robert “Beano” Niblock reminded the uninitiated within the audience (which was admittedly peppered with former residents) that we were in the old chapel of the gaol, which had also doubled up as the cinema. He recalled one particular Easter when Ian Paisley came to preach, only to find himself being pelted with eggs by loyalist Young Prisoners. Niblock, a former RHC prisoner and now a poet and playwright of some note – last year’s Tartan being staged to strongly positive reviews and sell-out audiences – shared his own memories of his time in the perpetually windswept Magilligan, including the fresh eggs from hens each morning, and a Christmas concert by a showband which ended in a mass brawl! He pointed out the importance of including the often-overlooked prison, whose compounds closed in 1977, in the loyalist prison narrative.
The night’s next speaker David Martin served a 12 year sentence in Long Kesh. A District Master in the Orange Order and for 27 years a Sunday school teacher, the Lurgan man remembered Crumlin Road Gaol as “damp, squalid […] horrendous conditions”. He experienced a religious awakening in July 1983 and interestingly his testimony contradicted the common belief that once one is sworn into the UVF one is a member until death. Not true, he said: on the contrary, the UVF leadership wished him well after his request to leave the organisation. Nevertheless, he is “not afraid to call [himself] a loyalist”, and used his talk to draw attention to the many difficulties faced by ex-prisoners in matters of employment and reintegration.
That subject, and the issues faced by the families of loyalist prisoners, was the subject of the talk by Marion Jameson, a Community Relations Officer with REACT (Reconciliation, Education and Community Training). She was just 23 when Ralph, her husband now of 36 years, was arrested after being shot and badly wounded by security forces. She spoke of the great difficulty of being the wife of a loyalist prisoner in a rural town such as Armagh, not least the lack of a support service at that time. The stigma – people crossed the road to avoid her following her husband’s arrest – was also great, although she acknowledged the support from family and “true friends”, without whom “[we] wouldn’t have got through it”. She concluded her talk by expressing the hope that the loyalist prison experience would not be repeated.
Last speaker of the night was Raymond Laverty, manager of the Inner East Youth Project, which provides opportunities and support to young people in east Belfast. Having spent two years on remand on the word of a supergrass in the early 1980s, he was keen to highlight the resurrection of this practice in recent years: “internment did not end in ’75”, he said, but continued to the present day in a modified form based on the same values. He drew attention to the work being carried out by community workers and groups such as ACT, rarely remarked upon by a press calibrated for negativity: “a good news story doesn’t fit the narrative of those who want to stereotype”. His talk ended on a quote from Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”
A Q&A session featuring a panel made up of the night’s speakers followed the talks, with the evening rounded off by another theatrical short, this time in the form of Dr William Mitchell’s Yo, Mister!, a sharply-written 10 minute monologue – an ideal form for prison drama, for obvious reasons – featuring a commendable performance from its young actor.
This was another professional and well-staged event by EPIC, REACH, and the ACT Initiative, which is finding its feet as a valuable contributor to the loyalist community as it channels the resources and abilities of UVF ex-combatants into a new, constructive role. The event overran considerably but this was pardonable given that it was the first staging (hopefully with more to follow outside Belfast). My impression was one of a growing confidence within the UVF/RHC ex-combatant community in its ability to relate its own story, without third-party interlocutors. The documentary Voices From Behind the Wire had the courage to record the opinions of those who questioned or disagreed with the Spence system, showing that self-reflection by no means implies uncritical self-mythology. It would be gratifying to someday see a similar project detailing the UDA prison experience, which also deserves attention, from its “auld hands”. The capacity audience for Why Are You Here Son? confirms an interest amongst the wider public in the loyalist story, and could potentially be replicated throughout the rest of the UK.