The first Long Kesh escape
The first Long Kesh escape

The escape from Long Kesh of Francis McGuigan, 35 years ago this week, on 7 February 1972 -- within days of the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry -- was an important morale booster for the nationalist population throughout the Six Counties.

Of the 342 people arrested during the internment swoops of Monday 9 August 1971, fewer than 60 had anything to do with the IRA. While some IRA Volunteers were arrested after ignoring warnings to stay away from their homes, others, such as McGuigan, were just unlucky.

McGuigan had slept away from his home and avoided the initial swoops, but when the swoops seemed to be over, he went down to a house to get a cup of tea and to make contact with the brigade and was arrested by British troops. His arrest was one of the most serious losses for the IRA’s Belfast Brigade.

In Long Kesh, where the internees were held since September 1971, security was tightened following an attempted mass-escape from the camp in November, the escape from Crumlin Road Jail of Martin Meehan, Anthony `Dutch’ Doherty and Hugh McCann in December, and the embarrassing escape of seven internees - ``the Magnificent Seven’’ - from the Maidstone Prison ship in Belfast Lough on 16 January 1972.

The internees in Long Kesh concentration camp were always on the look-out for a chance to escape. In early February 1972, an ideal opportunity presented itself when a group of priests visited the camp to meet the internees. McGuigan immediately saw his chance to escape to freedom.

Towards the end of the visit as the clerics were preparing to leave, McGuigan dressed in black and, wearing a clerical collar, mingled with the priests and calmly walked with the group to freedom.

The escape of McGuigan, a well-known republican from Ardoyne in Belfast, the first internee to break-out of Long Kesh, was an enormous boost for the IRA and its supporters. As with the escape of Meehan, Doherty and McCann, the press were the first to know of the escape. They were informed by McGuigan’s mother that her son was safe, even before the camp commandant realised he was missing. He was soon over the border and later appeared at a press conference in Dublin along with the `Magnificent Seven’, much to the embarrassment of the Stormont regime.

In a heated debate at Stormont, the Home Affairs Minister, John Taylor, was forced to admit that it had taken 18 hours to discover McGuigan’s escape. This was because “it wasn’t possible, without the assistance of the army, to have periodic roll-calls or even headcounts at Long Kesh. Needless to say, the internees do not co-operate in such exercises”.

Later that month McGuigan, along with representatives of other Irish political organisations, gave evidence before the Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee of the House of Representatives in Washington on the situation in the Six Counties. They also appeared at numerous press conferences in Europe throughout the following months while on a publicity tour to explain the republican position.

During the following years a number of other successful escapes from Long Kesh took place, including those by John Francis Green (September 1973), Brendan Hughes (December 1973), William Kelly (1974) and Owen Coogan (July 1974). The most spectacular, however, was the mass break-out by 38 republican prisoners in September 1983.

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© 2007 Irish Republican News