Saturday, December 31, 2016

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Tommy Donaghy

Anthony McIntyre recalls Tommy Donaghy, twice a sentenced republican prisoner, who died in September.

Tommy Donaghy

Wee Tommy as was known to his comrades was the Magilligan Prison IRA's Battalion Intelligence Officer, or Batt I/O as we termed it, when I first arrived in the Co Derry jail towards the end of 1974. There was a lot of fractiousness within the republican cages at that time. Most of it emanated from a belief by some that the jail leadership had struck a deal with the prison management: no escapes in return for a light touch prison policy. How true it was, I was never actually sure. The only prisoners who were permitted to try an escape were those who were "cleared"., and the jail leadership was notoriously slow in getting clearances from "the army" on the side. Which on one occasion saw men with long sentences sit and watch a comrade who was serving a shorter sentence climb into a skip, unbeknown to the camp leadership, and make good his departure from the jail while they sat and languished until the end of their sentences. An opportunity missed because of a technical suspension.

Control of the jail eventually changed hands and Tommy came to be replaced as I/O by a Belfast man. He came up to Cage F for a while, where I was housed, to be with friends from his local area. I never got to know him all that well but found him friendly and not somebody cut out to be an efficient senior IRA Intelligence Officer. There was no badness in him; just someone I felt to be out of his depth. And he seemed as happy as the rest of the prisoners when prisoners started escaping with greater frequency.

Years later I was surprised to run into him in the H Blocks, where he was back in again serving a second sentence. I thought, given his age, that the first stretch might have finished him, but he was immersed in republicanism. This time I got to know him much better. Often we would walk the yard or sit about the wings chatting together, winding up and mixing to kill the day. As Jock Holme, a friend of Tommy,  often put it, spending time killing time.

As a wing O/C  in one of the blocks I happened to be in he viewed his role as one of  running things smoothly, whether that meant resolving conflict with screws or easing tensions that some times flared up between prisoners. On one occasion, having moved quickly to prevent a conflict situation with the screws getting out of control, I found myself the recipient of much gratitude from him. He asked how I had pulled it off, to which I merely replied that it was just a misunderstanding between himself and the class officer: nothing that a bit of talking to a screw who would listen could not resolve.

My favourite memory of him was a double act he routinely performed with a South Armagh man. The two of them were characters in their own right and were diminutive in height which added a certain pull to their performance. Each day they would stage mock fights at the grills when hauling in the dinner trolley. It was like a Punch and Judy show, comical. The screws loved it and would encourage it, seeing it nothing more than harmless entertainment, trying to get the both of them out to the corridor to the block circle at the same time so that they could get the trolleys. The real purpose of the mock fight was to pass clingfilm clad IRA communications from one wing to the other. Just about everybody but the screws knew what was going on.

When he left jail he became a Sinn Fein councillor for a time in Dungiven. But his health had not been good for a while and he eventually left the council although continued working in the Sinn Fein constituency office right up until his death. One of his party colleagues, a close friend, told me he would man the office and respond as best he could to constituency issues.  On the question of prisoners, he never lost his affinity for them, unlike some of his party colleagues:

He would never ignore a request for help for prisoners or their families, no matter what the alignment of the prisoners. His death is a big loss to the entire republican family.

At his funeral Mitchel McLaughlin delivered the oration above the Tricolour  draped coffin accompanied by a guard of honour.

Tommy's politics in his post-prison life would never have any traction with me but there is more to people than their political beliefs. I remember Tommy, a Dungiven former republican prisoner, for his ability to add colour to a drab grey prison existence and his readiness to reach out to everyone on the wings, regardless of their political hue or background.