John McDonagh (JM) interviews Ardoyne native and solicitor Seamus Delaney (SD) in the studio about his background, his experiences as a political prisoner and the problems he encounters in post-conflict Ireland. Again, thanks to TPQ transcriber.
Radio Free Éireann
WBAI 99.5FM Pacifica Radio
New York City
19 March 2016
(begins time stamp ~ 30:00)
JM: And with us in the studio, of which I mean I was talking about an episode of what happened to Gerry Adams during the week where he couldn't get into a party and comparing himself to Rosa Parks – that's the least of people's worries trying to get into this country. Saw another story there:
Martin Ferris, who's a TD (Teachta Dála – Member of the Irish Parliament), was trying to get into Boston and the irony of that is: Martin Ferris was convicted of getting guns coming in from Boston that were sent over by Whitey Bulger but he still gets into the country. He's delayed an hour or two but the arrogance of some of these Sinn Féin members – they think they should be coming over on first class and not going through any security at all - so they're complaining - while friends of ours, like Anthony McIntyre, who had a book published here in the United States, he could not come over to the United States. A good friend ours, Gerry McGeough, was banned from coming into the United States - so I don't have much sympathy for Gerry Adams that he can't get a pint of Guinness in the White House or Martin Ferris to come over and maybe talk about his connection to Whitey Bulger, who's doing a very long sentence in a federal penitentiary – I think last I heard he was out in Arizona but they're moving him around. But we go to now a former graduate of Long Kesh University and we're going to talk about how you can't get away from your history – even Gerry Adams can't get away from it – or Martin Ferris – we have with us in the studio is Seamus Delaney. Seamus, maybe give us your background. How did you end up in Long Kesh on the blanket?
SD: Morning John, how you doing? Thanks for having me on the show. Basically I was arrested as a seventeen year old in Ardoyne, North Belfast. And I was sentenced to sixteen years for the attempted murder of an RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) police officer and at that time I refused to recognise the court as a Republican. My trial lasted I would say around fifty minutes and I was sentenced and taken from Crumlin Road Court House to the H Blocks, up to H3, where I went on the blanket.
JM: And we want to remind our audience: There was a political protest going on at that time. Was this before the hunger strike in 1981?
SD: Yes. This was before the hunger strike, yes.
JM: So this was a protest that Republican prisoners were refusing to wear prison uniforms or be classified as common criminals - that you were political. Because prior to that, people arrested - up to a certain date until Maggie Thatcher did away with it - she wanted to criminalise Republicans – so you were thrown right in, as a seventeen year old, into the middle of that protest.
SD: Yeah John, that's correct. Basically there was a strategy adopted by the British government and the Secretary of State at the time of a Ulsterisation policy and a criminalisation policy to run in tandem with each other where there was a massive recruitment drive for the RUC and the part-time division of the RUC – massive recruitment for the Ulster Defence Regiment, UDR, both of which have been lambasted for their treatment...
JM: ...And done away with.
SD: Absolutely, yeah. But the difficulty in The North you see – the things really didn't go away. When they were discredited – an example: The B Specials of '69: A sectarian militia wing of the RUC, they were so - the way that they treated Catholics simply because of their religion, the pogroms of '69 - they were disbanded when Direct Rule was imposed. But when that was disbanded they adopted then the RUC part-timers. They brought into fruition the UDR, the Ulster Defence Regiment, so all these B Specials simply joined this other regiment so it didn't go away – they were just given a different name.
JM: And so, but what was your time like in Long Kesh? I mean that's very young, seventeen, to be involved with a political - and where did you get your politics not to recognise the court? I mean I would imagine any seventeen year old here arrested here in New York City - you're frightened about what lies ahead of you. Did you know what laid ahead of you about going on the blanket and everything?
SD: Well I grew up in Ardoyne and I could see around me – I didn't need people to indoctrinate me in any shape or form. I mean, I witnessed it first hand what was happening in Republican areas, areas like Ardoyne, at the hands of the British Army, at the hands of the RUC, at the hands of their militias within the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) and the UDA (Ulster Defence Association) and when that happens around you I mean you try to defend yourself. And in Ardoyne, and anybody who knows Ardoyne, it's a little area in North Belfast surrounded at that time by Loyalist areas, and there was a war then like being fought against three fronts: One against the British occupation, one against Loyalists and the other with the RUC.
JM: The state institutions.
SD: Yeah. So when you grew up with that and basically there was daily, daily gun battles, riots going on in Ardoyne in the early '70's. 1970 to 1973 were some of the worst years of the whole conflict...
JM: ...most casualties.
SD: Yeah. From growing up - my home on Hooker Street - I mean half of the street was burned down in 1969! I was nine years of age. And I wasn't by myself. Families were dispersed throughout the rest of Belfast. I lived with my grandmother because she had a two up two down two bedroom mill house built for the mill workers. And my father then moved my other brother over with my paternal grandmother. I stayed with my maternal grandmother - families were split up all over the show and whenever, eventually, when my mother and father got a house I still remained in Ardoyne with my grandmother and it was from there that I was arrested.
JM: And what was life like being on the blanket?
SD: Life on the blanket, I mean for anybody that's heard the story of it, it's horrendous – it was absolutely horrendous. When you take away someone's liberty - that's fine – okay. But when you take away someone's liberty and then you systematically torture them on a daily basis because they're standing up for their rights - the right not to be criminalised – like all of a sudden Margaret Thatcher with the wave of a pen declares that on the first of March, 1976 you're no longer a political outfit - you're a bunch of criminals. So if I had been arrested at five minutes to twelve on the twenty-eighth of February I would have been classed and I would have had political status within the prison. If I was arrested on the first of March I wouldn't have that right.
JM: Because then what happened after the first of March there was a thirty year crime wave that went on!
SD: Yeah, absolutely, yeah.
JM: I mean that's – and were there any toilets in your cell?
JM: What was the conditions? They called it 'slopping out' but what was that?
SD: Well slopping out: You had a pot in the cell with you. As the protest escalated - prisoners were systemically beaten and set upon whenever they tried to leave the cell. They were locked in the cell, you had to press the bell for a prison officer to let you out of the cell to walk up to the top of the wing, naked, to go to the toilet and to come back. And depending on what bunch of prisoner officers you had on at the time you were taking your life in your hands. You were systematically beaten. Thrown back into the cell. So prisoners had to escalate the protest and we were refusing to leave the cells and in order to do that then your own human waste had to go on the walls. It had to go on somewhere so it went on the walls in the cells.
JM: So that started what was then known as 'the dirty protest'.
SD: Well we prefer to call it the 'no-wash' protest – there was nothing dirty about our protest. There's a definition there. I don't want to be splitting hairs with you...
JM: ...Right. Okay. No, no, no...yeah, yeah.
SD: The fact of the matter was it was a 'no-wash' protest and it was a 'no-wash' protest for simple reasons and I just outlined one of them to you.
JM: Right. And how long were you on the blanket?
SD: I was on the blanket for over two years. At that time I mean, you didn't get exercise – no one ever got exercise. You were put into the cell, an eight by nine cell, and there you remained twenty-four hours a day – no access to televisions, no access to papers, no access to reading materials albeit but for a Bible and that was the only thing that was in the cell.
JM: And you were allowed out on Sunday for Mass?
SD: Well Mass was held in the canteen at the top of each wing. In the H Blocks they are what they are: They're the shape of an H and in the middle you had what was known as 'the circle'. And then you had A,B,C and D wings branching off that. And at the top of those wings there was a canteen which the prisoners never had access to only on Sunday morning when the priest came round to say Mass. And in order to avail of this you had to wear the prison trousers. So prisoners, to get access to the priest, to get access to Mass, wore the trousers. But by the time the trousers were handed back they were in shreds – they were rolled up – and so there was no bowing down as such because the prisoners were refusing to wear the uniform but that was the only access you got. The only time you could see each other was that on a Sunday morning.
JM: I heard from other people that we - it was very scary. You really didn't have a concept of what you looked like with no mirrors but when you saw someone else you'd go: My God! Look how badly they look! And it had to reflect back on you - if he looks that bad how do I look?
SD: Well it's a funny thing because on Sunday you'd've went up and someone that you'd seen the week before and the Mass became almost clique-ish because you didn't have the access to each other but when you did see each other we all – all the ones from Ardoyne, from wherever – we all came together – all the ones from Andersonstown would have got together, Short Strand and Turf Lodge, Ballymurphy - because you knew each other and you'd be trying to get sceal from each other, who had visits and so on and that's how basically you would communicate then. And then when you'd see someone that you hadn't really seen since remand because you were too busy and then all a sudden you'd see him and you hadn't seen him in a year, 'cause you hadn't notice him and say: My God, he looks rough! And then you go back to your cell thinking: My God, he looks rough! But you haven't taken on board yourself!
JM: So now how did you manage to get out? What happened there because you were sentenced to what? To sixteen years?
SD: Sixteen, ten and five. Sixteen for the shooting, ten years for the possession of the gun and five years for membership of the IRA. The Senior Medical Examiner at the time was a guy called Robert Irwin and completely out of the blue he was being interviewed on like a Panorama programme, something like that – a current affairs programme – and he said that he had first hand knowledge that prisoners being detained in Castlereagh and other detention centres that the RUC were using around The Six Counties that these prisoners were being systematically tortured into signing false confessions. And as it turned out...
JM: ...Did you sign a false confession?
SD: I did. Yes.
JM: And what did they do that you signed it – that you said I'd rather do sixteen years than sit here and proclaim my innocence?
SD: It's an unfortunate time in my life...
JM: ...You're seventeen! I know as much as you think you're politically aware you're still a seventeen year old kid with professional interrogators coming at you. So what was the tipping point?
SD: Well one of the methods wasn't exactly professional - they hung me from a window and I could see a pile of scaffolding bars on the ground floor and the first thought that went into my mind was...
JM: ...Now, when they hung you they were holding onto your wrists like two gorillas?
SD: No, the back of my jeans – back of my jeans. They were holding me out the window holding on to the back of my jeans and that's why I could see all these scaffolding bars and the first thing I thought was: I'm going to hit these head first!
JM: And it's a suicide – you jumped out the window.
SD: Yeah, yeah. And that was one method. The rest of it was just your old-fashioned beating you, kicking you, punching you, spitting on you...
JM: ...Now how long did you put up with that where you just said: I'll sign anything you want right now? I mean, you were admitting to everything at that stage.
SD: Three days. It was three days. Three days. And then you're brought down to court after the three days...
JM: ...Now they wrote it out? Or did you have a say?
SD: They wrote it out, yeah.
JM: Did you even look at it?
SD: No, I just signed it. But the Medical Examiner, Robert Irwin, when he examined me before the interrogations and he examined me after it and it was night and day. And at my trial they refused to call the medical evidence because I refused to recognise the court so it was a conveyor belt, if you'd like, and it was just from there that – and you knew at that time you weren't getting justice so what's the point of standing up in a court and calling witnesses...
JM: ...Yeah but then if you knew that why didn't you just sign it when you went in? You just say: Ah, listen, whatever you're charging me with...
SD: ... because it's human nature...
JM: ...No, no. Because as you say: I'm innocent. And what am I doing here?
SD: I lived in the street where this happened so it was handy.
JM: So I mean – as the old saying: Pick up the usual suspects.
SD: Roy Mason, Secretary of State at the time, prided himself on the size of his prison population. I don't know any other politician in the world that takes pride and boasting the size of a prison population.
JM: Yeah – just lock 'em up and put 'em away. So now how did you get out?
SD: Robert Irwin stated, had given my details that he knew that I was tortured. Lord have mercy on Martin Hurson, who died on hunger strike, Martin's name as well. And it led to what some might know of: the Rafferty Tribunal. And during that tribunal it was divulged and the information came out that systematic torture of individuals when arrested did happen. As a result of that I was granted an appeal. Now, I had to apply for leave, for permission, to appeal because it was outside the time. My lawyer at the time, he's dead now, a fantastic man, PJ McGrory, came up to the Blocks, called me out and said: Look, listen. I'm going to put an appeal in for you. And I said: How you going to put an appeal in for me? It's too long, you know? He said there was a programme on television last night, your name came up and I think we've got a shot at this. So we went and at that time whenever you left the Blocks you were forcibly washed by the prisoner officers...
SD: Scrubbed. With back scrubbers. And when I got to the court I complained to PJ McGrory and I showed him my back where the skin was lifted off by the back scrubbers. And he said: Look, listen. We'll deal with it later and get the appeal on the way.
JM: Yeah. One torture at a time.
SD: Three judges, Jones, Kelly and I think the other one was Chambers, they unanimously agreed that I should be granted a re-trial and the statement as evidence was thrown out. I was then, along with Martin Hurson, we were then brought in back onto remand. And then later on it was to hear the appeal Paddy McGrory said: Look, they've granted you permission for an appeal. Do you want them to hear it now? That's the way it happened then. And I said: What do you think? And his words to me were: It's going to save you another forced wash. So we went ahead with it. They granted the appeal. And then later on down the line the appeal didn't take place. I was just brought over to court – no one knew anything – stood over to court - charges were dropped and I was released.
JM: So now when you get out – we're speaking with Seamus Delaney, who's a former blanketman now a solicitor, and we taking the long road of a seventeen year old being tortured, sentenced to sixteen years and becoming a solicitor. So now you're released, allegedly your background is not going to be held against you because it was thrown out. Was there any compensation for the years they kept you in prison or anything? Or was it just like – be lucky you're not in for the sixteen? How did you end up becoming a solicitor?
SD: Well obviously being in prison you tend to get an interest in law, you know? About the injustice that was going on and how to find a way round it and later on it was just, I thought maybe initially it was a pipe dream but it turned out I got my qualifications for university, went to university, studied law, got my law degree and then got my Masters at the Institute and to qualify as solicitor took another two years. I worked for one of the biggest firms in the country, Madden and Finucane - Pat Finucane, who was murdered by Loyalists, I worked in that firm and then progressed to other firms to the position where I am now where I have my own firm, Seamus Delaney Solicitors, and I've three offices – one in Newcastle, Co. Down, two in Belfast - one in Ardoyne, where I'm from, and the other one in Ligoniel.
JM: I mean, I think that's great but it also says: Jeez, there's a lot of business over there in a small country – for you to have three offices to keep going, man, I mean – Good God!
SD: Well - creating employment for locals! (both laugh)
JM: But Seamus, as I was bringing up in a weird way with Martin Ferris trying to get into Boston and Gerry Adams trying to get into a party – talking about people that can't get in. Your past never leaves you either. I mean maybe explain what happens to you literally – every year. You come over every year. You love coming over on Saint Patrick's Day and enjoying the city. Your wife is here and the clothing is starting to stack up and she's ready to go out shopping again and you said the only thing to save you is you've got to go to the airport tonight an you'll be heading to Kennedy but what are the problems that you have as a solicitor - never mind these other people talking about trying to get into parties?
SD: Well unfortunately I can't get access to the United States by way of the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) like any other...
JM: ...And what's that? What's that?
SD: It's the form that you fill in online in order to gain access...
JM: ...to get a visa to come over?
SD: Yeah. So I've been told that I'm not entitled to that, that I can't do that, that I have to apply to the State Department for a visa – a proper visa which is stamped on my passport. It took a while to get it but I managed to get it. And even then – once I got it I thought: I'm not going to get stopped any more. I still get stopped every year.
JM: Now, in Dublin or New York?
SD: Well in Dublin because I go through Dublin and I go through immigration in Dublin...
JM: ...And people might not realise it – the United States Customs operates out of Dublin Airport and they can deny you leaving that country to come to the United States. I look at it both ways: It stops you having being denied in New York and being sent to Dublin but giving up the country's sovereignty that that person cannot leave the country because somebody, an American, told you: You can't get on this plane.
SD: That's right. And I had a guy and I don't want to name him actually who flew into an airport here in The States and Homeland Security, as usual, they take me away and it's embarrassing when someone takes you away – people think you're getting arrested or something. So they take me away and they usually hold me an hour, two hours – one time it was seven, eight hours...
JM: ...What are the questions they're asking you?
SD: They're not asking me any questions which is the whole problem. If they were asking me questions I'd be able to answer them. So they're simply saying: No. There's a reason why you're not getting in. What is it? Why are they not telling you? So then this guy, this particular guy had said to me: Look, I've just read your whole rap sheet. He had an Irish name - I've read your whole rap sheet......
JM: ...Now where is this, in Dublin?
SD: This is Newark. This is Newark.
JM: In Newark? So you're already in the country.
SD: This is one year when I flew in - and he said: Look, listen. I've read your whole rap sheet here and it's not until you get to the very end here where it says your conviction's quashed. He said: It should really say that at the very start. So when they get this come up it's just denying access. I'm going to have you out of here very, very quickly – don't be worrying. But when you go back home challenge it - which is the problem because when your convictions are quashed it puts you into the position that you were in prior to any conviction so you don't have a rap sheet. So where is this rap sheet? And how does the State Department and Homeland Security have it when there isn't one on me?
JM: Well Seamus, we're talking about how your history just follows you around particularly now in The Six Counties. One of the problems even though there's been agreements – there was a treaty signed in '98 – you told me about another agreement that was reached - that your past should not impede you from getting visas, from getting work, from getting into schools, from teaching – explain in the next five minutes – being involved with The Troubles, whether you were part of it or dragged into it, how it's affecting, particularly Nationalists, from work, from licencing – everything!
SD: It's been well-recognised and not even up for debate that a lot of these prisoners would never have seen the inside of a prison had it not been for the conflict – not anywhere near a prison! And because of the conflict they found themselves and they took up the conflict themselves and because of that they went to prison. And it was hoped that, as part of the peace process, that political convictions would not be an impediment, a bar, to employment. And as it turned out what happened within the prisons and whenever the H Block protest finished and prisoners were allowed access to educational facilities, exercise facilities, their own clothes and free association what actually transpired was that a lot of these men came out of prison highly educated with a contribution to make to the community and they're denied in doing that. And example would be of a personal friend of my who was a life prisoner – released – a fluent Irish speaker and a master on Irish history and language - applied for a job at a grammar school in Belfast and was granted the job. And then they realised he was a former political prisoner and because of that he was denied the position. Now that's still going on. I mean nothing has changed for ex-prisoners. There's still...
JM: ...But weren't there promises made? I mean at the time?...
SD: ...even to get a taxi licence you have to declare that you have these convictions and it's debatable whether you'll get the taxi licence or not then.
JM: So I mean it just seems there's no way around it and plus I mean everyone's getting older and their life is moving on but that was supposed to be all taken care of in 1998. And what was that other agreement you were talking about?
SD: The Weston Park Agreement. It was supposed to be debated there - the issue with political convictions - and not just for Republican prisoners but for Loyalist prisoners as well.
JM: And quickly – we've got about two minutes – are you handling any of the political cases now that are on at Maghaberry and what are the conditions like?
SD: The conditions are intolerable in Maghaberry at the moment – I mean the strip-searching still goes on when there's absolutely no need for it. An example would be a client of mine, a friend of mine who's also from Ardoyne, had a heart attack in prison, was brought from the prison out to a hospital. During the whole period - and had stents put in – during the whole period that he was out at the hospital he never left the sight of the prison service, the security team: Hand-cuffed at all times, brought back and forcibly stripped searched after a major operation. There was absolutely no need for it. That still continues. Controlled movement, where there's only three or four allowed out on the landing at a time when over on the...
JM: ...the criminal part...
SD: ...the criminal wings there's thirty and forty out. There's officers being assaulted there. There hasn't been a prisoner officer assaulted on the Republican wing in Maghaberry in seven years.
JM: Well Seamus, I'm going to wrap up here. I could go on for another hour because there is probably a huge gap between you being released and you getting your law licence and there would be a good couple of years there that we could cover. But you know what? This is the second Saint Patrick's Day maybe next year when you're back over we'll cover that little time frame there. And at what age did you get out? Twenty? Twenty-one?
JM: And when did you get your law degree?
SD: I got my law degree – well I qualified as a solicitor at age forty-four.
JM: So there's a couple of years there things might have went on in your life! (all laugh)
SD: Yeah. I drove a taxi a lot, John!
JM: So we're going to try and cover some of those years!
(ends time stamp ~ 55:18)