John McDonagh (JM) and Sandy Boyer (SB) interview Gerry McGeough (GM) via telephone from his home in Dungannon, County Tyrone in his first interview since his release from Maghaberry Prison last Monday. Mick O'Brien (MO) of The Druids also joins the conversation.
Radio Free Éireann
WBAI 99.5FM Pacifica Radio
New York City
2 February 2013
GM: Well you can't beat that for an introduction.
JM: (quips) Well, Gerry, the interview is now over. I thank you for coming on.
But Gerry, the last time we met I had flown into Dublin two years ago, dropped off my bags with a friend in Dublin, drove up to Belfast, met you at a little cafe shop with you and your friends, your wife and your kids, walked with you into the court house. And I was of the feeling that even if you were found guilty you would be given a couple of weeks to get your medicine ready, to get prepared to go to gaol and do your time.
And I was sitting, because I had a press pass from WBAI, with Suzanne Breen who was writing I think for the Belfast Telegraph at the time. So I was up front by the judge. I had never been in a Diplock court. And it was an English judge. And when he was pronouncing the sentence your fellow accused, who was up on the same charge with almost the same evidence, he says: 'I couldn't believe the evidence against him. You may leave.' You never seen a guy walk faster out of that court house than him!
And then when he goes to you with the exact same evidence he goes: 'I believe everything that was said. You're now being sentenced (to) twenty years.' And then they barged into the room and it was completely sealed off by bullet proof glass where you were sitting and you were being dragged out and I know you wanted to finish what you were trying to say that day.
GM: Thanks, John, thanks. I had to wait two years for that.
Yes, I shouted out – and I remember it was a packed, packed gallery and there was an enormous amount of tension in the whole place. We found out afterwards that in the next court room it was jammed with riot squad from the RUC/PSNI so you can imagine the atmosphere that prevailed.
Yes, as I was being literally, as you said, being dragged out in handcuffs, I shouted: 'Long live the Irish Nation!' And the second part of that was, and thank you for giving me the opportunity: 'And perdition upon her enemies!'
So before I got that far a huge thug from the prison service had grabbed me, bundled me, pushed me and the others trailed me in behind the doors and there was a bit of a scuffle in there and I told them: 'Watch who you're punching' and so on. And they said: 'Oh...we know who we're attacking' (basically). And then they put me in an elevator and took me downstairs to the cells and they were of course gloating all the way down.
But that's what happened and as you know in the run-up to it, as you said you and I met, we were going into to the court house and there was quite a bit of reportage going; the reporters, TV cameras and what have you. And one of the reporters came after me as I had gone into the court room and gone through the security she said: 'Gerry would it be possible that we have a word?' So I went right back out again. And such was the atmosphere that nobody said anything. None of the security guards. Nobody. It was almost like no one knew what to do or where to turn there was that much tension in the air
And it was a bleak, cold, rainy February day as you will recall.
And I went out and of course I was standing with the various cameras there and told them exactly what I thought of the situation and answered all their various queries.
And apparently I must have went on for about twenty minutes or so because the entire court proceedings had to be held up until I entered.
And when I got back in again, alot of my neighbours who were there who were protecting ourselves and the family, they came with me and all of us in turn were surrounded by very aggressive looking PSNI/RUC people. And we got into the court and as you said, that's where it went from there.
It was quite an experience you know. I mean it really was a clear message being sent: that anyone who dares to speak out on behalf of the Irish Nation who adopts a patriotic stance will be railroaded into gaol. And that's precisely what they did in my case. They railroaded me into gaol.
And before we go any further I really have to take this opportunity to thank everyone. I thank yourself, John, the late Brian Mór, yourselves and our good friends Helen McClafferty and Martin Galvin who have done so much over in the United States along with numerous other people whom I haven't time to mention but you know who you are we. And firstly, we really appreciate what you have done. Throughout the past two years you have stood by us, you've never failed to ... indeed I should say six years because we go back to 2007 here ... you promoted this case and the injustice that surrounded it when most people weren't even slightly in the least bit interested in it.
And indeed some of my political opponents were absolutely practically gleeful about the predicament myself and our family found ourselves in, but our true, loyal friends stood by us. And I notice now we have quite a gathering and judging, as Martin said by last night, the support is absolutely tremendous and obviously growing on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond.
Obviously, having been in gaol for two years and this may come as a surprise to alot of people, in Maghaberry you are so cut off it is incredible. We really may as well have been in Siberia given the amount of information that was coming through. Letters were being stopped. Letters going out were being stopped. Everything that did come in was censored. There was very little opportunity to have proper contact. Of course, you're under twenty-four hour surveillance with cameras and listening devices and all the rest of it.
And throw into the bargain I was there during the height, well throughout the entire dirty protest which was one of the worst and most prolonged since the 1981 hunger strike period. So that in itself was a fascinating experience. And again it meant a huge clamp down because there was no one getting in or out of the prison other than the high security people. However, we persevered through it. And as you would be aware I've come through my long hair and long beard period. But that's behind me now. I'm shaved and relatively shorn as are all the other fellows in there.
It's unbelievable. Going into Maghaberry was like stepping back into 1974 because we had a situation where there was absolutely no change in attitude or for that matter personnel. They still had a shebeen, which is an illegal drinking den, in Maghaberry where the warders, the screws as we call them, would drink themselves silly. And quite often we would have drunken warders on the landing. But such is the culture there that no one passed the slightest remarks.
If you could imagine, in any profession in anywhere else in the world one of the workers was wandering around drunk ... how long would they last? But here they get congratulated practically. And after a period of time the shebeen was closed down and it was very noticeable how many of these people, these screws, were very antsy about the whole thing.
There's also a very clique-ish mentality in there which I'm happy to say is beginning to break down. But absolutely ... the guys who were these prison guards in there who were basically all Loyalist, Unionist, members of the Orange Order, various Masonic orders and so forth ... they ruled the roost. And those above them, the governors or even as far up as the various British people, the ministers and so forth, would make decisions that would be more aspirational than anything. It was the guys on the ground who would decide: well will we do this or will we not? It was simple as that.
It was quite bizarre. But you're right back to 1974. Absolutely nothing has changed. It was like the old Six County Regime still in place.
Now having said that, and it is worth pointing out that in the Republican wing we were banned from wearing Easter lilies on Easter Sunday. That was actually an offence. So there was alot of problems over that. And the outcome was that we would be locked in our cells during the entire period of Easter Sunday.
And I remember and it was poignant and it is worth pointing out because there were decent guys in there, screws in there, and one of them who was a Protestant and a Unionist came in and he said to us, he said: 'This is disgusting. We're being forced, we are obliged to enforce this by the Northern Ireland Office but we disagree. We honour our dead and you guys should be allowed to honour your dead.' And I thought it was a very decent and humane thing to say. It's worth pointing, out despite all the bleakness and all the blackness and so forth, you do get the occasional decent individual in there.
JM: Gerry, I wanted to bring up, maybe somebody's who's just tuning in, that Gerry McGeough has been a life long Irish Republican. He did five years in a German dungeon, an underground thing that was made for the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany. He also did a couple of years in this country when he was involved with the Irish Republican Movement here. And now he's done two years in that...
You had the unfortunate uh ...You have experience now in three gaols. How do you compare them?
GM: (laughs) Indeed! I'm a connoisseur of gaols internationally.
It's like comparing apples and oranges in many respects. The first thing is that the German situation was very much very repressive from the point of view it was the authorities who controlled the thing and geared it all towards repressing people. In the United States you had more concern I think about your fellow inmates because there were people getting stabbed and whatnot left, right and centre. Happily, I came through all of these various experiences unscathed. But it was tough going in many cases. And of course I was on my own for the most part.
The situation here in The Six Counties is: Maghaberry is almost a byword for dysfunctionality. I've never seen anything like it. If anything can be organised backwards and done wrong and take the difficult route ... it happens in Maghaberry. And whether that's institutionally defined or whether it's just sheer dysfunctionality ... I haven't yet worked it out.
But everything moves at a glacial pace. You have so many screws about, or prison warders, it's just unbelievable. It takes five of them maybe to move maybe one guy just from A to B whereas in the United States one prison guard would be in charge of maybe one hundred and twenty prisoners and never any problems.
But of course it's very much a “job for the boys” there. These guys are on huge, huge wages – it's unbelievable! Then they get enormous pensions and get bought off and it's costing a fortune at a time when there's a lot of recession going on. And no questions asked about it. So it's almost “Third World” in it's approach to things.
But if there's anything that I've learned from gaols is not to like prison. So of the various experiences that I've had I wouldn't care to repeat any of them. But as I say I was in Maghaberry at a fascinating time ... during the dirty protest and it's hard to convey exactly what that's like.
For example, back in July of the year before last, which would that have been what was it? 2011. And it was a very hot, it wasn't necessarily sunny July, but it was a very steamy, humid time. There's a four inch pipe that runs up all the cells and connects them all up and that pipe ... the heat was on at full blast, full furnace blast in the middle of July while the dirty protest was going on which meant that walls were smeared with excrement in the cells all around me. And in the evening times the guys were pouring out a urine-faeces mix out through the doors which would be swimming up the landings. And you had a situation whereby you had flies all over this ... you had a stench that was absolutely indescribable!
And when you were moving from A to B you saw into the cells they were literally black inside with human excrement which would be there for weeks at a time all over the walls and all over the ceilings and whatnot.
And of course all of us were going around with long hair and beards ... no one was shaving throughout it. Which was probably a hygienic thing as well because if you had cut yourself ... because what was going on there was unreal.
There were scientists coming in periodically to do bacteria and culture checks and whatnot. Anyone who came in, and when I mean anyone, it would have been very restricted to maybe priests coming in for saying Mass or something along those lines or visitors who would be coming in for whatever reasons, maybe political, they were obliged to wear what the guards were wearing which was protective clothing. And these guards also had gas masks and face masks on them. But we were just wandering around with whatever clothes we had. And the stench was absolutely overwhelming. I just can't begin to convey it.
In the evening times, what was called an absorbent, an organic compound, absorbent kind of a green material in plastic bags, was poured all over the urine-faeces mix and it soaked it up. And of course this, we learned later, that four hundred thousand, almost a half a million pounds, was spent on this particular product coming in. And of course also you had cleaners, who were these Loyalist cleaners who were coming in, hosing the cells down right next to you so you'd have water slopping all over the place. Water as I said that was just almost like diarrhea because obviously what was being washed down was coming out onto the landings and floors there. So it was hardly the most hygienic of environments.
Now bear in mind as you know I've had seven stents inserted ... I've had heart problems and a heart attack and so forth. And had been in and out of hospital even from Maghaberry and I had my seventh stent inserted a few months ago there. And I would find myself returning to that prison with all this material floating around. And when I pointed that out to the local media I was attacked by the DUP saying it's all lies and that it was propaganda on my part. But of course it was caught on camera so it's there, it's documented – anyone can see it. So anything I've said is absolutely completely above board. So that was the environment I was living in.
At I at various stages began to suspect that part of the programme that the British had was that I would just simply die in prison and they could put it down to heart failure or whatever.
So what I can say is that, and I thank God to all the good people out there who prayed for me and all you guys that gave us tremendous support ... that having come through a situation like that, despite the health problem ... if I can come through Maghaberry at the at the height of the dirty protest I think I'm well and truly have got a health check for any future political rumplety-thump that may come down the line. So I'm feeling absolutely having been purged and now ready to go again.
SB: Hello, Gerry, this is Sandy Boyer.
GM: I don't mean that not necessarily literally, but you know what I'm saying. But I have to say I really wish to extend my deepest thanks, and I can't emphasise this enough, the support coming from the United States, from Australia from around the world from Europe, in my own case from Spain and Catalonia, where my good wife is from, from England and Scotland and throughout Ireland and of course the Irish diaspora across the world ... that support is absolutely overwhelming and it is absolutely necessary and it is deeply, deeply touching. And we've gone from a situation, John, and you know it personally as does Martin and Helen and all the others, where in 2007 we were a very small group being laughed at and looked down upon following the elections that I was arrested at. And that has changed.
In fact last night at the function we were at, that Martin has so eloquently described, a young man came up to me at the end of it and shook my hand and said: You know, I was in Galbally, which was a hall in Tyrone, which in the run-up to the election you will recall myself and the Sinn Féin leadership had a bit of a head-to-head shall we say? And it was a packed hall and he said:
I was there that night and you had very little support and we could see there was only a handful of you. And although you spoke eloquently we were all weighed-in behind what Sinn Féin was telling us about the whole policing issues and all the rest of it. And we kind of in a sense were condescending and perhaps regarded what you were saying as nonsense.
But he shook my hand and said: 'You were absolutely right in everything that you said and it's taken me and alot of others a long time to come around to that but I'm proud and honoured to have been here tonight' is what the young man said. So I think that has vindicated our position.
And you indeed yourself and Martin has said no amount of words could have underscored what we were trying to say to the extent which the actual British forces did by arresting me ... coming out of an election centre, a polling count centre, as a democratic candidate.
I mean ... where in the world would you get this?
Someone stands in an election, has been around for a long time, available for, if they have to question him, arrest him and question him...at any time but they wait the media are present at an election count! Is that not an insult, a contempt for democracy that is beyond almost comprehension?
SB: Hello, Gerry, this is Sandy Boyer. First of all: welcome home!
GM: Sandy, how are you?
SB: Good. I wonder if you could say a few words about some of the men you've left behind especially Martin Corey who is essentially interned exactly like Marian Price is interned but unfortunately his case gets very little attention.
*GM: I'm sorry I didn't quite catch what you said.
SB: Martin Corey ... I was asking you about Martin Corey.
GM: Well Martin's is a really, really tragic situation...our hearts go out to him.
I was actually there the day back in July of last year when there had been a court hearing at which he was granted bail. We all said our good-byes. We were delighted for him because the man had already been in over two years. And I think he was a little surprised and obviously delighted that he was going to go out to his family. So we all shook hands and whatnot and away he went. And we were delighted. We really felt very happy for him.
And then two hours later I saw him walking back in again with his long, white beard and long hair...we were all bearded and so on at that stage.
I couldn't believe it. And of course he told us he got out, had gone through reception. He had seen a pile of mail sitting waiting for him which had not come through and he was hoping to get a chance to look at it and so forth. But the rest is history railroaded and U-turned right back into prison. And he's been there ever since. It is a conundrum. He is the embodiment of victimhood in this sense because it's like something from the old totalitarianism eras of the last century.
He's arrested. He doesn't know what he's charged with. It's literally is Kafkaesque. He is held in prison. Not told what the charges are. Not allowed, as I understand it, to appoint his own barrister. If something comes up when there is a hearing he has to leave the court room. It's just beyond belief. It beggars belief.
It's actually quite frightening because there goes Martin today God knows how many others tomorrow!
Because this is a form of secret persecution. We've heard these things, we've read them in books about potential totalitarian societies...here it is actually existing and it's something which needs to be addressed and not just simply from Martin's point of view but from the point of view of democracy, from the point of view of human rights right around the world.
I mean if this was happening in some third world country as they call it we would all be up in arms and shouting about it and rightly so. But here it is happening under British rule and they claim to be fighting as well for democracy and promoting democracy all around the world which is utter nonsense.
I would have to say to the English establishment: let's see some democracy. The majority of the Irish people would like them to leave our country and that's the democratic will of our people so please, acknowledge that and simply go!
JM: You're listening to Radio Free Éireann and we're speaking with Gerry McGeough. And if you've been a long time listener you would have heard gerry when he was living in this country back in the 80's. You would have heard him when he was running, as he said, as a candidate in The Six Counties and now he just finished two years in gaol.
And Gerry now with the new technology I got a text from the wife and kids: Kate, Madden, Elizabeth and Cassie all send their best and we're hoping to go up and meet you and Maria this year when we come over to Ireland.
(quips) Which brings me to your family: Do you think you've done enough already? Enough with the Republicanism? Maybe lay back? Write a couple of stories – enough running. Maybe move to the South? We're giving you permission right now here in New York. Please, take it easy, okay?
GM: I haven't actually done anything. Just being Irishman in this country is a crime in itself.
My family have always been my priority and always will be. They have been utter stalwarts. My wife, who's not from this country – she is as you know from Catalonia in Spain - has held the whole show together. The children, the four of them, have come down week after week to MagHaberry to visit their daddy and it hasn't been easy for them. But they have absolutely refused to be broken. They have been absolute stalwarts and they've come through it all.
And my eldest child, my eldest daughter, Una, has proven herself to be a very accomplished would-be politician. She's at the age of eleven. Last year she was taking on press conferences in Dublin and elsewhere and addressing meetings and so forth which would have done anybody in their thirties proud. So I'm very proud of them.
And I have to say our community here in The Bramley and Eglish and throughout East Tyrone and well beyond in fact has been phenomenal. I mean, the neighbors were there at any time that they were needed. They absolutely stood by us. I cannot praise them enough. And people were willing to do...they were there, they were visiting me, they were in touch with us and they supported us a hundred percent. And it's very humbling to be quite honest. You know, I would do the same for them quite obviously and hope I could do it just as well because it really is something else. It has brought the community together.
And another thing it has also helped open people's eyes because we were all buying into the developments from Good Friday Agreement and hoping against hope that this was the way forward and so forth.
I have to say of course I still support the peace process but I think that it has been badly negotiated – we're seeing that more and more all the time.
And I wonder how could those who negotiated possibly have allowed it to happen that twenty years practically after the ceasefires and and fifteen years odd years or more after the signing of it that Republicans can be arrested and flung in gaol and have to struggle to get out – and have to have international campaigns to get them out in a two year period and so forth. It's bizarre! And this is only the tip of it. We have no idea how badly negotiated this deal was on behalf of the Nationalists.
JM: Gerry, I just wanted to cut in here. Gerry, we only have five minutes left and I wanted to let people know they can help Gerry out (and) get back on his feet. There was a fund raiser last night in County Tyrone. There is a website that will only be available very shortly. Helen McClafferty owns it. From what I understand she's going to be selling it to Gerry Adams very shortly. It's called: freegerry.com
You can help Gerry McGeough out that way and find out addresses.
But also there's going to be a fund raiser down in Dublin next weekend and one of the persons that will be playing at it from The Druids is Mick O'Brien. Mick, can you give us an update on what's happening in Dublin next weekend?
MO: First of all, John, it's a pleasure to be on the programme while Gerry is on it as well and I just really want to welcome him home and say gthat I'm overjoyed that he's out. While he was in MagHaberry I had some communication with him through letters until it got too difficult when basically my letters were being censored...what I was receiving from him was being censored and I'm sure what he was getting from me was being censored as well.
So but anyway....I'm really looking forward to playing the gig next Saturday night in The Marble Arch in Drimnagh in Dublin. This takes us back to just over two years ago we played a gig in Dungannon, County Tyrone in support of Gerry. And it was really the first time that I met his wife, Maria, and his family. I was really blown away, John, by Maria's dignity on that particular night and really blown away by his kids. To be honest with you I was very, very emotional during the gig watching his children there and just thinking about what they must be going through and what his wife must be going through with this unjust incarceration of an Irish Republican.
And I supposed we made a commitment and I made a commitment at that point that we would publicise his case at every time that we got an opportunity, whether it was on radio, through our gigs, on television, whatever it was. And we done that. We kept that commitment. I suppose the culmination of that is we get the honour of playing at the gig in Drimnagh next Saturday night and it is an honour, John, no doubt about that.
JM: Gerry, there's someone supporting you and I know you're going down and I also know and Martin Galvin will be at it.
GM: Yes. And I have to say, Mick and The Druids, you guys really deserve credit and I also thank you for all your support and help. And I also thank The Irish Brigade who turned out last night and did us all proud.
And I'm looking forward to getting down to The Marble Arch in Dublin and meeting all our great friends down there who have backed us and supported us. And I know Mick, you wrote to me and I wrote back but as it happened with so many people - that was the end of it. Letters disappeared. We don't know what's going on. They censor them. They throw them, they burn them or whatever they do and they do disrupt communication all the time but we'll have a good yarn next weekend with the help of God and we'll meet and have a good chat.
MO: I'm really looking forward to having a cup of tea with you and we'll have a good chat. I really want to shake your hand and we'll have a good chat. And again, I'm overjoyed that you're home for own sake, for Republicanism's sake and for your children's and your wife's sake as well. So congratulations and welcome home.
(RFÉ Engineer Liza Butler and Mick O'Brien detail The Druids' schedule of upcoming gigs in the United States.)
JM: Alright, we're wrapping up here. Gerry, we're going to have you back on again maybe for the whole show just to get more into what was exactly going on in the prison but any final words as we wrap it up here?
GM: Well, yes, I just like to say a wide Thank You! to everyone. The British are going to leave Ireland and I think we really need to be focused now because ....
JM: (quips) Gerry, now, now now ... you're only out a couple of days. Easy! Easy!
GM: This is a political statement. If we organise ourselves politically. I'm calling for broad, national Republican unity in order for us to focus on getting true democracy in Ireland by getting the English establishment out and off our backs once and for all. The stinking carcass of English mis-rule has hung around our nation's neck for so long ... far too long ... so the Irish Nation, including our great diaspora overseas, is entitled to its freedom and entitled to forge the destiny of that nation. And that's what we're going to be focusing on. GRMA
(ends at time stamp ~56:40)