Independent councillor Angela Nelson reports on her visit to Maghaberry jail to visit protesting republican internee, Gerry McGeough.
Today Sunday 23rd September 2012 I visited Gerry Mc Geough in Maghaberry Prison. Last night I did not sleep well as I was consumed with thoughts as to what I might expect from this prison system and what condition Gerry and the other prisoners might be in. I had visited many prisons over the years but this was my first visit to Maghaberry.
I met his wife and four beautiful children in the car park, while waiting on the mini-bus to take us up to the prison gates. There was a shop at the car park still run by the Quakers, as they have provided that service to the families of prisoners for as long as I can remember.
I looked at the faces of this woman and her children who have been making this journey every week now for almost 20 months and I was so impressed by them. Maria was so pleased that I had taken the trouble to show any interest in her husband’s case and that I had taken some time out of my day to visit Gerry. I felt humbled. The children being children were bouncing about with excitement; they could not wait to see their daddy. One hour a week these little children get to see their daddy, the man who is obviously the centre of their world and today they were happy to share that hour with me if it meant I could help them get their daddy home for good.
Una aged 11 their oldest daughter said to me, “Angela, wouldn’t it be great if we got daddy home for Christmas”. Other children have “Santa” lists for bikes, phones and other material stuff these children want their daddy home! Four children, Una 11,Cormac 10,Lorcan 8 and little Nora who is only 3years old, more than half of her life her daddy has been incarcerated.
As I entered the prison and because it was my first visit I had to sit in a chair to have my photograph taken, and my index fingerprint scanned, this was then put through a machine and I was provided with a pass which would enable me to proceed to the next step. At the next window I had to show my photographic I.D and the pass, which was put through the machine again and I had to place my index finger on another scanner. Here Maria left some money for her husband and Una went to the desk to leave in Gerry’s parcel, a couple of books and new trainers. We were given access to a locker with a key to place our personal possessions as the only thing you were allowed past this point was pound coins to buy tea etc. We went through a metal detector scanner similar to an airport and all of us; children included were frisked by the screws. At the next stage we had to stand on individual squares while a sniffer dog went around each person in a line then back around us a second time. Yet again through another door, present pass and scan finger again, before going through to the visiting room to see Gerry.
His children squealed with delight and ran into their daddy’s arms, Maria’s face lit up with delight and she kissed and hugged her husband. I stood for several minutes looking around me taking in this area, looking at the faces of the prisoners, their visitors, the whole surroundings. It was an open plan room with booths similar to a fast food outlet, each prisoner to one booth all waiting eagerly to see the familiar faces of their loved ones. All of the prisoners looked very pale and gaunt, long beards and long hair that reminded me of how the men looked on the “blanket protest”.
I was shocked and very saddened to think that these men are going through exactly the same experience that we Republicans thought was behind us for ever. I introduced myself to a couple of the men, Terry Taylor and Alan Lundy and told them that we (All of us) Republicans will do what we can to highlight the injustices and torture that they are going through and we would Unite on this single issue of supporting our POWs.
I sat down with Gerry Mc Geough and we locked heads, knowing I had one hour with him to tell him what was happening in the “Outside” world and he had the same amount of time to tell me about his world. I told Gerry how worried I was because Republicanism was fragmented; there were so many different groups and many of us who thought and who felt that we had done enough to move us towards our end goal, had taken our eye of the ball and believed and followed a leadership that has let everyone down. I said there was apathy outside and that many people were genuinely afraid that “administrative detention” that has been used to remove people who spoke out against the injustice and abuse was going to be implemented more frequently if not challenged. I said many people were not aware of the “Dirty Protest” currently happening in Maghaberry or the conditions the POWs were living in due to a media blackout, and although there is a growing number of politicians across Ireland on a cross-party basis who have thrown their weight behind many of the campaigns and are challenging what is happening, those we would have expected to take the lead on the issue of prisoners appear to be doing nothing more than playing lip service.
Gerry Mc Geough took hold of my two hands and said “Angela, tell our people out there to stop it, No more Croppy Boy Lie Down” This is our time, our country, it has always been ours, we just need to take it. I am pro-peace agreement, he said, but we need someone to re-negotiate the terms. We have had 14 years waiting to see a difference for the Nationalist people in their daily lives and none has come. Someone needs to tell the Unionist people we have a right to live here, this is our birth right. He said all of those people that died for their country did not do so in vain and we should not be diverted by the smaller things we should be paying attention to the bigger things that are happening around us, to us. He finished with saying “When you stand up to any bullies, they back down”.
My head was spinning when I left there; here was a man who has been incarcerated for 20 months, separated from his wife and 4 children, telling me that we are a strong Republican community and that it was still within our grasp. We have the power it we have the “hearts and minds” to demand the changes.
UNITED WE STAND DIVIDED WE FALL.