By Anthony McIntyre (for the Blanket)
The only thing promising to puncture the tedium of the last Monday of August 1979 was the visit I was expecting to receive from my mother. It was my first since Christmas eight months earlier. I felt the grip of the inevitable tension that so many others had experienced before they ventured outside the cell on that infrequent journey to see friends or family. It would be untrue to say that the cell was a safe place - it wasn’t. The screws on occasion often beat prisoners in their cells. But it was the only place during the blanket protest where a state of relaxation could be attained. There was anonymity or invisibility that came with being enclosed in the cell, a blending in with its greyness. There we were just like wildebeest: every body stood the same chance as the next when the predator came along sniffing prey. Once inside it, with the spy hatch smeared with dirt, we were out of view of the screws. It brought with it a certain comfort - out of sight out of mind. Unless they had a particular reason for coming to your cell you were left pretty much to your own devices behind its steel door. Stepping outside it always brought a prisoner to the immediate attention of the blanket screws. On the wing proper, or the walk to and from the visits, and in the visiting area itself, the panoptical gaze of the administration was permanently fixed upon us. It was no coincidence that most assaults occurred outside the cell.
Fred Staunton, or Smig Mor as we called him, (big chin) was the screw who ‘escorted’ me down to the visits. His manner was indifferent. Even when I refused to give my number to a screw on the way back from the visits - I had bagged my visit so didn’t have to jump through the hoops that they put in front of us on the way down in order to get one - he simply shrugged as if to say to his colleague ‘your problem, not mine.’ Apart from that, what stands out most from the visit was my mother telling me that Lord Mountbatten had died in an explosion on a boat. At that time all she knew was that there had been suggestions of a bomb but other explanations had not been discounted. I had some knowledge of Mountbatten, courtesy of my father, an avid viewer of weekly television programmes featuring the English aristocrat years earlier.
On returning to the wing I passed the news, or ‘sceal’ as it was colloquially called in the blocks - the first duty of anyone returning from a visit. Some cheered. Myself and Martin Livingstone discussed it out the cell windows. Ours was a mixture of hope and puzzlement. Hope that he might be unveiled as some senior British secret operative directing something sinister; puzzlement because he had never seriously figured in our world of ‘legitimate targets.’ Why would the ‘RA want to kill Mountbatten? He didn’t strike us as a senior figure in the ‘British war machine.’ Unlike Airey Neave who had been blasted by the INLA four months earlier Mountbatten had never gained notoriety for his involvement in Ireland. Some on the wing had never heard of him. For most, however, if the ‘RA did it, good enough.
Later in the evening the circumstances behind his death became clearer to us when H5 began to shout the news they had gathered throughout the day over to our block. But of even more interest were reports that six soldiers had been killed in Ardoyne. It went up to eight, then to ten. At that point we stopped believing it – the Ardoyne IRA, somebody quipped to wind up our Ardoyne comrades, couldn’t kill ten cats. The wind, as it so often did in the H-Blocks, played havoc with the acoustics. One night a voice would sound as if it was feet away – another, it would be almost inaudible.
The blanket men in H5 were telling us that British soldiers had been ambushed and killed in Warrenpoint. The wind distorted that, leaving us in H4 thinking we were picking up ‘Ardoyne.’ The following morning we realised something major had occurred. The wing shift we received was tougher than usual. Wing shifts were always tense occasions, although, unlike in H3 under the control of the brutal Pat Kerr - later killed for his actions by the Provisional IRA - they were never particularly violent. That morning, the search procedure was rougher, the hair tugs, grips and arm locks applied by the screws, more vigorous; the kicks to force us down so that we might straddle the mirror naked, enabling them to scrutinise the back passage for contraband, were applied with greater force than normal.
In our fresh cells as we prepared to foul them up again, we sat emboldened, our morale high. The first visits of the day, a source for much sought after information. Our comrades had delivered a blow to the most murderous regiment to visit Ireland since the Black ‘n Tans. We were delirious with joy. Seven years earlier the Paras had visited a war crime on an unsuspecting civilian population. Now it was pay back time. It seemed then we were unstoppable – our day had come.
It was all an illusion. Twenty-five years on, our day is as far away as ever. Only last month a Para formation stood in Ardoyne prepared to kill unarmed nationalists. It gave a different meaning to those events a quarter of a century ago which so exhilarated us. What appeared to be a landmark on the road to victory was little more than an act of revenge.