By Jim Gibney (for the irish News)
Long Kesh has been at the centre of the Irish political conflict for most of its 30 years as a prison. Opened in late 1971 and closed in 2000, 25,000 republican and loyalists were held there, tens of thousands of relatives visited them, 15,000 prison warders and thousands of British soldiers detained them.
The International Red Cross said few prisons in the world had links to the community like Long Kesh.
The prison became a microcosm of the conflict beyond its two-mile perimeter wall.
Treatment of the prisoners inside the prison reflected government policy, whether unionist or British.
In late 1971 hundreds of republicans were interned there as the last unionist government tried but failed to suppress the nationalist uprising and the IRA’s armed struggle.
Thirteen people protesting against internees being held at Long Kesh were shot dead on Bloody Sunday in Derry in January 1972.
This atrocity ended unionist domination for ever.
Long Kesh was a major embarrassment to the British government. It was a notorious prison. Its lasting image is that of a concentration camp.
The British government tried to alter this image by changing its name to the Maze and using ‘detainee’ instead of ‘internee’ to describe those it held captive.
As the intensity of the conflict grew the numbers of prisoners dramatically increased to a point in 1974 where more than 1,000 internees and sentenced republican and loyalist prisoners were held there.
The prison was flattened in October 1974 when republican prisoners burnt it in protest at harassment by warders. As part of a ceasefire deal with the IRA in late ‘74/early ‘75 the British government released the internees and introduced 50 per cent remission for sentenced prisoners.
Behind these peace moves the British government was duplicitously planning its criminalisation policy. This policy had a major impact on Long Kesh, those who were held there in the newly built H-Blocks and the struggle for freedom.
The British government hoped the H-Blocks would end the prison’s ‘concentration’ camp image and criminalisation would isolate, weaken and defeat the IRA. They could not have been more wrong.
These moves sparked off the protest by hundreds of republican prisoners for political status at Long Kesh and Armagh Women’s prison which resulted in 10 young men dying agonisingly on hunger strike 25 years ago this year, while on the streets 60 people died.
The prison was never too far away from national and international media attention.
Tens of thousands took to the streets in support of the prisoners. The prison protest gave the freedom struggle a much-needed boost.
I did time in the prison on three occasions. I met some of the finest people you could meet anywhere.
They had great energy, were industrious and inventive.
Many inmates spent their time trying to escape, digging tunnels. Some pulled off spectacular escapes. Hugh Coney from Coalisand was shot dead trying. Others educated themselves politically and militarily to return to the freedom struggle on release. Many did and subsequently paid with their lives.
Teenagers lost their youth there. Individuals served 10, 15 and more years. Some never came home alive, dying of natural causes or medical neglect. Almost 30 prison warders were killed by republicans and loyalists.
Most of the leadership of Sinn Féin and loyalist organisations served time there.
Gerry Adams was released from Long Kesh in 1972 to take part in negotiations with the British government.
Sinn Féin’s electoral strategy, which helped build the party into what it is today, came out of Long Kesh and the decision to stand hunger strikers, two of whom were elected, Bobby Sands and Kieran Doherty.
Long Kesh is a place apart. Inside and outside its walls it generated great pain, loss and heroism.
It shaped those it held and they shaped the war and peace as we know it today.
On Tuesday the British government unveiled a new and bold vision for the future use of the Long Kesh site.
Gone as a place of conflict.
It will now be a place of pilgrimage for those who want to experience its history or to cheer on their Gaelic, soccer or rugby teams in the proposed new stadium.
A fitting memorial for an island at peace.