Troops Out Movement
Pictures from Troops Out Movement delegations to the Bloody Sunday Commemorations in Derry and
To provide insight into our annual delegation to Belfast, here is a report on a recent delegation, taking the form of short articles written by some of the delegates:
Meeting with Relatives for Justice
At the offices of Relatives for Justice on the Falls Road, the TOM Delegation was given a talk by Clara Reilly, who is a member of the Association for the League of Justice (ALJ). ALJ succeeded in persuading the Irish Government to take the British Government to the European Court of Human Rights, where they were found guilty of degrading and inhuman treatment. However, after this case the ill-treatment continued, and it is still being monitored by ALJ.
Relatives for Justice was formed in 1990. At their West Belfast offices the services and activities available include a councelling service, alternative medicine, craft and jewellery making.
Members of the Delegation had the opportunity to visit the Remembering Quilt organised by Relatives for Justice. Each square on the quilt is dedicated to someone who died as a result of the conflict. The squares are designed and made by family members and friends who wish to remember their loved ones in a creative and positive way. There are 49 squares on each quilt, and the 9th quilt has recently been started. Many who have contributed to the quilt have found it a healing experience. As Clara Reilly said: “The hands that made that quilt were the hands that nursed them as babies”.
(Following the Delegation, Troops Out Movement raised £550 for Relatives for Justice through a sponsored diet. The money went towards the painting of a new mural to remember those murdered by plastic bullets. Members of the Troops Out Movement attended the unveiling of the mural and one TOM member spoke at the event.)
The British government agreed that Plastic Bullets would be phased out by the end of 2003. However when the deadline arrived, a new bullet was introduced instead. The most recent Plastic Bullet is even more dangerous than those previously used.
The most intensive period of Plastic Bullet use was during the hunger strikes, when over 30,000 were fired and seven people died. It was said during this time that, 'Plastic Bullets were being fired like confetti'. On many occasions the firing of Plastic Bullets actually caused rioting rather than stopping it.
Clara Reilly also told us how the murder of Nora McCabe was caught on video, and despite this, those responsible were released free of charge.
Major Human Rights groups throughout the world have condemned the use of Plastic Bullets, but the British government has ignored these condemnations. No testing of the impact on children has been carried out for any of these bullets. To date, nine children, aged between ten and eighteen years have been killed by them. Brian Stuart's family have taken action against the Policing Board over its recent purchase of another 50,000 Plastic Bullets. The family are arguing that it was illegal to buy them as they had not been tested to discover their effect on children. Relatives for Justice clearly state: “We are adament that no-one should sign up to policing whilst Plastic Bullets are still being used”.
Prisoners Day has taken place at The Felons Club every year for the past 20 years. Each year carries a different theme and the theme for this year was prison conditions.
There was a great photographic exhibition on display in The Felons. Former Republican prisoner Gerry McDonnell put on a terrific display of the many various items that he had made during the 23 ½ years he spent inside jail, including an extensive collection of political badges which made for very interesting viewing.
The main event of the day was the ex-prisoners' debate. The panel included ex-hunger striker Raymond McCartney, who chaired the debate; Brian Keenan, who spent 15 years in English prisons; Frankie Quinn, who was placed in Mountjoy Jail under a different name; Jennifer McCann, who was arrested during the height of the hunger strikes; Harry O’Hare, who is a member of the Green Cross and John O’Hagan, who was arrested in 1991, released in 1998 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, re-arrested in 2002 and after spending 2 years on remand in Maghaberry, was released in 2004.
Each member of the panel spoke about conditions inside prison. John O’Hagan spoke in particular about present prison conditions and it is this subject I will concentrate my report on. His main focus of attention was the conditions for today’s republican prisoners inside Maghaberry.
In September 2003, John Steele, the former controller of prisons and a former director of security policy at the NIO (Northern Ireland Office), published a report which carried the following recommendation: 'That republican and loyalist paramilitary prisoners should be accommodated separately from each other, and from the rest of the prison population, on a voluntary basis'. He also recommended that prisoners should be allowed out of their cells more often.
All progressive recommendations in the Steele report were rejected by the POA (Prison Officers Association) and the PGA (Prison Governors Association). They claimed that the report’s recommendations were a backward step and could lead to a return to the ‘H Blocks’ scenario.
In 2003, segregation of prisoners (or ‘separation’ as the authorities like to call it) was implemented and was quickly used as a punishment for prisoners.
As you read this report, today's prisoners are on 22 ½ hour lock up. They are forced to eat in their cells and they are only allowed out in one's and two's to collect their food - so those unfortunate enough to be one of the last out of their cell are served with a meal that is cold. There is no access to direct sunlight during exercise. Inhumane strip searches can happen up to as many as nine times a day and after every legal and domestic visit the prisoners are photographed and fingerprinted.
Families are also victimised and have to endure the infamous ‘drug dog’ even though there is no evidence of drug abuse by republican prisoners. If the ‘drug dog’ sits down next to a family member of a republican prisoner the whole visit is called off. The problem with this method of drug detection is that families have to walk though areas that have already been contaminated by drugs. Prisoners’ families are in the process of arguing for separate waiting areas. The ‘drug dog’ is also used at Magilligan and Hydebank Wood prisons. However, if the dog sits down next to a family member of prisoners, it is only that individual who is not allowed on the visit - other family members are still permitted visiting rights.
We need to ask the question: Why in 2005 are we still seeing prison conditions that hark back to the atrocious conditions of the 1970’s?
Collusion March and Rally
Sunday 7th August saw thousands of people from across the 32 counties assemble in west Belfast to march in solidarity with hundreds of people who had loved-ones murdered through collusion and shoot-to-kill.
The march started on the Whiterock Road and the Troops Out Movement delegation joined it at An Chulturlann on the Falls Road.
Standing outside Chulturlann watching the march coming along the Falls and up the slight rise in the road to where we were waiting to join in really brought home the full horror of what ordinary people in the north of Ireland had been having to endure for many, many years.
There were no TV cameras present to report this and to show the public what was the real cost of maintaining the status quo. However I am sure that most people reading this will be well aware, that when it comes to reporting anything to do with the six counties, the media have rarely, if ever, given a truly honest and independent account of the true situation there.
The weather that Sunday was glorious as we made our way to Dunville Park for the rally. Sinn Féin Vice President Pat Doherty was the main speaker of the day. He talked about the British state's involvement in collusion with loyalist death squads and said the truth must be told.
Another speaker to address the rally was Albert Fullerton, son of murdered Buncrana Sinn Féin Councillor Eddie Fullerton. Mr Fullerton posed the question: "How is it possible over all these years for the British Government to kill Irish People and get away with it scot free?" He said successive Dublin Governments had acquiesced in those murders by failing to hold the British to account for their actions.
On a more light-hearted note, the South Armagh Farmers and Residents Demilitarisation Committee drove a replica British Army lorry on the march - complete with spy post/watch tower! The lorry was draped with camouflage netting, and had several 'British Soldiers' on board. After making its way down the Falls, it finally arrived at Dunville Park where the watch tower was 'demilitarised' by South Armagh farmers, and the 'British Soldiers' were sent packing with their P45 redundancy notice. Teigh abhaile.
The rally continued with more speakers and was followed by live music.
I must admit that before this, my first visit to Belfast, I was filled with nerves, trepidation, but also excitement.
The only certainty that I had was that this was going to be a visit where I was going to listen and learn. By the end of my visit what I had learnt had far exceeded my expectations.
My nerves and trepidation were soon dispelled when, by a geographical freak of nature, whilst I arrived in Belfast, my luggage decided to visit Derry. I had collected the wrong suitcase at the airport and someone else had collected mine! With a lot of help from my fellow TOM delegates and unyielding kindness from a lady at An Culchurlann, I was later re-united with my clothing. Whilst I had found the people of West Belfast very accommodating I did not relish the idea of walking down the Falls Road in a red dress whilst also having a moustache!
Plastic Bullets Vigil
I had decided to arrive the day before the official start of the TOM delegation in order to take part in the Plastic Bullet vigil outside the Andersontown RUC/PSNI Barracks.
I found this to be a sobering, thought-provoking event. There were many people present at the vigil - some friends, some strangers - all united in the common goal to bring an end to the use of these deadly weapons which have maimed and killed many people. Few words were exchanged, they were not needed, I knew instinctively that what I was doing was right.
It began to rain very heavily half way through the vigil. I don't think I've ever stood in such a torrential downpour yet felt nothing.
As a TOM colleague later remarked, it was a small price to pay and the discomfort was nothing compared to the suffering many people had endured by the indiscriminate use of these weapons of obscenity.
As the vigil ended I made myself a promise that I would return to take part every year whilst I was physically able.
Relatives for Justice
This was the first official meeting that I attended in Belfast and Clara Reilly from Relatives for Justice spoke about the many victims of Plastic Bullets, making the previous evening's vigil even more poignant.
One of the victims that Clara referred to was a lady named Emma Groves. Mrs Groves' 'crime' was to play an Irish song called Four Green Fields at the same time as young men in the area where she lived were being arrested. The arbitrary punishment for this was to be shot in the face with a Plastic Bullet, fired by a British soldier.
At the hospital, after seeing the extent of her appalling injuries, the examining Doctor could not bring himself to inform Mrs Groves of their severity and he asked Mother Theresa of Calcutta (who was visiting the hospital at the time) if she would kindly do so, which she did. Mrs Groves' injuries were so severe that both of her eyes had to be removed.
An ironic twist emerged regarding Mrs Groves later at the festival.
We attended a discussion entitled 'Towards a New Ireland'. This discussion was presented by members of the unionist community who looked upon the issue of Irish re-unification positively and recognised the advantages that could be gained by their community within a United Ireland.
One of the speakers was Dr John Cobb, who in the course of his presentation revealed that he was in fact the Doctor who had treated Mrs Groves and had asked Mother Theresa to break the news to her that she had been blinded by the Plastic Bullet attack.
Dr Cobb said that even though this incident had occured many years previously and he had seen many horrific things in the course of his work, his memories remain vivid and as a result of this he is a passionate advocate for the banning of Plastic Bullets.
Notes for Revolutionaries
Whilst it does not do justice to this presentation I am only writing briefly on it. The reason being that if I were to write in order to do it justice I would probably be here all night.
Suffice to say it was a magical world-wide journey through revolutionary music, song and poetry. Each performer was magnificent in their respective roles and the occasion left me on a natural high.
Clonard Ex-Prisoners' Photographic Display
This was one of the highlights of my visit to Belfast. My only regret was, because of time limitations, I was unable to see and read everything. The photographs and newspaper reports covering the whole period of this most recent conflict in Ireland was nothing short of magnificent, and anyone researching the history of this conflict would certainly benefit from seeing this display.
A definite re-visit for me.
By the time this event took place I felt totally at ease in Belfast. This was thanks to other members of TOM who patiently had shown me around and introduced me to so many people, and also to the people of West Belfast whose friendship and spirit of generosity was overwhelming.
I spoke to members of various support groups and former prisoners themselves. Many people would assume that uppermost in ones mind would be: 'what crimes had these people committed and how long were their sentences?'
A principal in common with all the former prisoners that I spoke to was the fact that none of them sought kudos for any alleged actions they undertook during the conflict. None of them sought fame or notoriety. They simply wanted to be allowed to live a normal life.
On a personal level I hope they can.
Sadly, the day had come for me to return to England. Because of travelling commitments, I was unable to take part in the march and rally and had to say my goodbyes.
Before rushing off, I did manage to watch the march however and I am not ashamed to admit there were tears in my eyes looking at the photographs of all the victims of British collusion and shoot-to-kill, some being carried by children.
I said to myself: 'I hope these are the last pictures of victims that have to be carried'.
I will finish by saying that I hope the people of Belfast have their just and lasting peace - they deserve it. I thank them from the bottom of my heart for sharing their stories, for confiding in me and for trusting me.
I look forward to the next Féile, and perhaps I'll be in Belfast before then.
Pictures from Troops Out Movement delegations
Frank Stagg Remembered in Wakefield
To coincide with the launch of activities in Ireland, the 30th anniversary of the death of Mayo Hunger Striker Frank Stagg was commemorated outside HM Prison Wakefield today, Saturday 11th February 2006.
The event, organised by the 1981 Hunger Strike Committee, the Troops Out Movement and Cairde na hÉireann, drew a large attendence, including the Coatbridge and James Larkin Republican Flute Bands.
The crowd assembled outside Wakefield Prison and paraded around the immediate area, before Jim Slaven of Cairde na hÉireann, Mary Pearson of the Troops Out Movement and former Republican POW Roseanna Browne addressed the rally.
Roseanna included in her address a reading of a poem (posted below) written in tribute to Frank Stagg by former Republican POW Richard McAuley whist he was imprisoned inside Long Kesh.
After the speeches and reading a small group were escorted by the local police Inspector to the front of the prison for a wreath-laying ceremony where Roseanna said a few inspiring and emotional words and a prayer in memory of Frank Stagg and other Martyrs who gave the unlimate selfless sacrifice for Ireland's freedom.