The British government is under pressure to confirm that it used a lethal gas on republican prisoners during a prison riot 32 years ago.
More than 300 prisoners were affected by the toxic gas fired from helicopters during the burning of Long Kesh in October 1974.
The Ministry of Defence has always denied using CR gas, a known carcinogen, on the prisoners. It has claimed the gas was the much less dangerous CS gas, often used against street rioters at the time.
It’s believed that sixty of the prisoners have since died or are suffering from unexplained cancers.
Although admitting CR gas was kept in Long Kesh and that it was authorised for use in the North in 1973, the British government still denies using the deadly poison during the prison riot.
In interviews with Daily Ireland newspaper, three former British soldiers who were sent into Long Kesh to take on the republican rioters have said the gas was unknown to them.
The soldiers’ remarks have put pressure on the British government to admit the gas, which the US army refuses to employ because of its links to cancer, was used in Long Kesh.
Former IRA prisoner Jim McCann, who was one of those gassed, said the British soldiers’ statements confirm what he has known all along.
“The prisoners were used as guinea pigs to test CR gas.
“More than 50 men, including many who led healthy lifestyles, have since died or are suffering from cancer,” said Mr McCann.
“Now that we have British soldiers all but admitting CR gas was used the Ministry of Defence should do the same and end the cover-up.”
One of the soldiers said he witnessed men “dropping like flies” when the gas canisters were launched.
“I can tell you now, because I have seen CS gas being used and that wasn’t CS which was fired from the helicopters.”
“I don’t know what it was, we weren’t told and we didn’t ask questions.
“Really, it [the gas] was unknown to us, but it made those boys [the prisoners] drop like flies.
“A couple of our own ones were affected. One guy told me he felt as if he was drowning.”
This is the same memory Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, who was in Long Kesh at the time, had of the effects of the gas. The controversy over the use of CR gas in the jail came about after Labour MPs Ken Livingstone and Kevin McNamara asked a series of questions in the House of Commons.
Prisoners who were affected are now mounting a legal challenge against the British government under international human rights law.
The Long Kesh riot began after a dispute between the inmates and authorities over visits, food and compassionate parole. Republicans burnt 21 of the compounds used to house internees.
In the weeks after the riot blood samples were taken from all the prisoners affected by the gas. The British government has refused to make these samples available to the prisoners or their legal representatives.
OFFICIAL ADMITTED CR GAS USED
Meanwhile, a former leader of the IRA in Long Kesh has said a senior British government official admitted to him during a private conversation that CR gas was used on republican prisoners during a riot in the jail.
West Belfast man George Gillen was officer commanding in charge of IRA internees in Long Kesh in October 1974.
Three weeks after the riot, he was taken to a meeting with then Long Kesh chief prison officer William “Punchy” Wright. Also present at the meeting was a senior British prison official from London.
“I hadn’t even sat down when this guy started talking about CR gas,” said Mr Gillen. He was told the prison officers had “nothing to do” with the distribution of CR gas.
“It wasn’t until years later, when the stuff about CR gas being used on us came out, that I realised what he had meant.”
“The man who was introduced to me as a senior British prisons official from London admitted CR gas had been used against the prisoners,” added Mr Gillen.
“It is obvious to me and everyone else who was there on the day of the riot that the Brits used CR gas on the prisoners.
“It was fired from helicopters that flew above the football pitches where prisoners were fighting with the British soldiers.
“It made you feel as if you were on fire.
“I was in absolute agony and couldn’t get a breath. I reckon I was knocked out almost instantaneously.”
Sinn Féin Assembly member Raymond McCartney has called on the British government to finally come clean on the use of the CR gas in Long Kesh.
“Thirty years on the people deserve to know the truth... The British government attempts to conceal the truth about that night in October 1974 must end and the truth must emerge.”