The Republican view

'Strip-searched and beaten but still we we were determined not to co-operate'
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The Independent Online

Jackie McMullen and Laurence McKeown were respectively 20 and 19 when they were both sentenced to life imprisonment in 1976 for attempted murders. Both were arrested after shots had been fired, in separate incidents, at members of security forces. Both spent most of their adult life, 21 years, in the Maze.

Jackie McMullen and Laurence McKeown were respectively 20 and 19 when they were both sentenced to life imprisonment in 1976 for attempted murders. Both were arrested after shots had been fired, in separate incidents, at members of security forces. Both spent most of their adult life, 21 years, in the Maze.

They were there at a time of attrition between the inmates, who saw themselves as prisoners of war, and the authorities, who regarded them as sadistic terrorists. Both took part in the blanket protests, refusing to wear prison uniforms and refusing to clean their cells. Mr McKeown also took part in the hunger strikes, which almost killed him. The world outside, in the meantime, moved on. Members of families, including parents, died, friends drifted away. Both men were eventually released on licence in 1992 with £46, one week's dole money, each and most avenues of work shut to them.

The two men now work for Coiste na N-larchimi, an umbrella group for republican prisoners' organisations. Mr McMullen said: "I already had an elder brother, Michael, in prison when I was convicted. But that was not very unusual for the nationalist community at the time. Everyone, including my family, knew of the risks.

"My brother was in the same prison 200 yards from me. But he had been arrested before 1 March 1976 and had political status, I didn't. That is what we had to fight for and there were daily confrontations.

"Beatings were routine and searches were normally the excuse to carry them out. We would be strip searched, which was extremely humiliating, and we would get a kicking. We would be searched in preparations for visits, and we'd get a kicking. But we were determined not to co-operate, and those who did co-operate did not get a much easier time."

The demands made by the prisoners were gradually met one by one by the authorities. "But everything was a struggle," said Mr McMullen. "First of all we were not allowed to have any books. Then we would get only religious ones, nothing political. But at the end we got the literature we wanted and this formed the part of our education process. I studied politics, and formed my views. It was our university."

Mr McKeown grew up in a mixed area outside Belfast, Randallstown, among Protestant neighbours. But, to the surprise of his family, by the age of 16 he was already becoming involved in the republican movement and the armed struggle. He said: "My family were very surprised by what I had done, and they were very distressed when I was convicted.

"Inside, the struggle had begun to get our rights and I joined the hunger strike. Members of my family asked me to stop. The only person who didn't was my mother, she was devoutly religious and thought this was God's will."

Mr McKeown was on just water and salt for 70 days with his life fading away when his mother, Margaret, asked him to end his fast. His weight had dropped to seven stone and the experience left him with permanent eye damage.

"My mother died two years later. In a way she never recovered from my hunger strike," said Mr McKeown. "My father died a few years later. I think he died of a broken heart. So you see, the suffering at the Maze wasn't just confined to those inside, it spread a lot.

"Was it worth it? Yes, I think so. This prison was built to break republicanism. It hasn't. We are out and it's the prison which is pointless now."

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