Flames, then Gas

Jim McCann, Coiste na nIarchimí, has been on the trail of what the British used on the helpless men after the burning of the Kesh...

This month not only marks the 30th anniversary of the burning of the Long Kesh cages, an event marked in a series of articles and features in the Andersonstown News, but it also marks the 30th anniversary of the use of CR gas on unprotected and exhausted Republican POWs on the morning after the blaze.

On December 17, 1998, Labour MP Ken Livingstone asked a question in the British House of Commons about the reason and under what circumstances the British army had used CR gas. In a written response to Mr Livingstone on January 11, 1999, the then minister for the armed forces, John Spellar, said that “The British army has never used CR gas, operationally.” This can be checked in Hansard. Jan. 11 1999: Column 11.

In a subsequent question, Mr Livingstone asked Mr Spellar: “For what reasons was CR gas selected from the available riot control gases to be stockpiled for the counter-terrorist capability?”

Mr Spellar answered: “CR gas was selected some decades ago as a potential counter-terrorist response capability and there are no surviving records of this decision. However, stocks of CR gas continue to be held as tests have confirmed it to be effective as a potential counter-terrorist response capability.”

So where and when did they test CR gas to know that it had proved so effective? It is hard to believe that they found this out testing it on mice or rabbits. A more realistic, and in terms of the British Army, desirable ‘testing ground’ would have been the cages of Long Kesh on October 16, 1974, after the burning of Long Kesh, on unprotected republican POWs. Which is exactly what happened.

Within a few weeks of the use of CR gas by British soldiers, a team of Ministry of Defence (MoD) technicians took blood samples from a large number of sentenced republican prisoners and loyalist internees in Long Kesh. This has been confirmed by two loyalist ex-prisoners who we contacted through their own support group (EPIC) on the Shankill Road, Belfast.

I was speaking to Steve Wright of the Omega Foundation, a Manchester-based human rights research body used by, amongst others, Amnesty International, the European Parliament and Belfast-based Relatives for Justice, about the use of CR gas on that day and the subsequent taking of blood samples. He put me in contact with a scientist who is expert in the field of riot control.

I told this scientist about the British taking blood samples of both republicans and loyalists. He informed me that “had the tests been part of a British government study into the effects of the gas, the testing of those not intentionally exposed to it (ie the loyalist prisoners) as a ‘control group’ would have been standard procedure. No samples were taken from republican internees at the bottom end of the camp.

The results of the blood samples have never been published. I contacted the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS), who told me that they had no records of any blood samples being taken.

In 1977 all remaining stocks of CR gas were tranferred to the Chemical and Biological Defence Sector of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency at Porton Down, the home of the British biological warfare facility. Why would they deny even their own military forces this “effective counter-terrorist response capability?” Recently I found out that the British government in the 1960s supplied the US government with the details of their new weapon, more than likely with a view to selling either the weapon itself or the technology to produce it. At any rate, the US government declined the offer, because as they pointed out to the British, “not enough is known about the carcinogenic or mutagenic effects it might have.” No sale.

As John Spellar himself pointed out in his letter to Ken Livingstone: “Tests have confirmed CR to be effective as a potential counter-terrorist response capability.” So why aren’t they selling it? They sell, or attempt to sell, everything else they develop from tanks, landmines, airplanes, bio-weapons, tactical manuals and military advisors. I am sure that there are plenty of governments in the world who would like to possess this “effective counter-terrorist response capability”.

In the year 2000 alone, the British arms industry, including the MoD, sold £3 billion pounds worth of weapons to countries all over the world. It appears that they have no moral dilemma in selling weapons of mass destruction (is there any other?) to the worse despots and dictatorships anywhere, but it appears they draw the line when it comes to CR gas.

I contacted a Professor of Chemistry who works in a reputable European polytechnic on continental Europe and asked for his opinion. I informed him that I had absolutely no background in chemistry except for the fact that 30 years ago, I, along with hundreds of others, was subjected to copious amounts of both CS and CR gas in Long Kesh. He obtained the formulae for both CR gas and CS gas to compare them. In his qualified opinion “the human sensitivity to CR gas is TEN TIMES higher than CS gas.” He isn’t totally surprised that it is kept in Porton Down.

So, who is going to believe that the British army used republican POWs as guinea pigs to test a possibly lethal biological weapon?

At present, the MoD in Porton Down is the subject of a court case because of their testing of Sarin nerve gas and other types of ‘riot control capabilities’ on what is believed to be hundreds of British soldiers in the early 1950s. One of the soldiers, Ronald Maddison, was told he had volunteered to test, amongst other things, a new flu vaccine. But he was actually testing the effects of Sarin gas. Within a few hours Ronald Maddison died. If this is the way the MoD treat their own, then the health and safety of Irish republican POWs should pose no problem for the British armed forces.

In July 2000, Mr Spellar was asked again about the use of CR gas in the Maze Prison (Long Kesh), in one of a number of questions put to him by Labour MP Kevin Mc Namara. Once again Mr Spellar denied that CR had been used, stating that “some 200 hand-held spray devices containing CR were held at HMP Maze at that time.” This was a fact that he didn’t mention in his written answer to Ken Livingstone two years earlier. He also denied that there was any record of blood samples having been taken.

The fighting on the football pitch was intense. A British soldier captured on the pitch had his life saved by the intervention of the Camp OC, Davy Morely (RIP) and Volunteer Frank Fitzsimmons (RIP). The British army were present, captured republicans were present and CR gas was present. It was not ‘hand-held spray’, as stated by Mr Spellar, but the real stuff, delivered in clusters from helicopters.

Gerry Adams refers to the use of CR gas in his book, ‘Cage Eleven’. Joe Doherty refers to the use of CR gas in an article in ‘An Glor Gafa’ in winter 1994. I myself wrote about my own experience of CR gas in my book, ‘...And the Gates Flew Open’ in September 1998. And Father Denis Faul and Brian Brady wrote about it in their booklet ‘The Burning of Long Kesh’, page 11, published about six weeks after the fire, in which they state that they sent a telegram to the International Red Cross to investigate the use of CR gas as well as the brutality of the British army to unprotected prisoners. Both priests were permitted to enter the prison a few days after the event to say Mass.

We are greatly interested in finding out the nature of the poison that the British army put into our bodies thirty years ago. The curtain of secrecy that the British government has draped over its use is virtually impossible to penetrate. Yet, somewhere on the shelves of one or more government departments are kept the results of blood tests carried out on republican POWs and others.

CR gas was developed by the MoD to be a last-resort deterrent, before the use of live ammunition. In terms of its actual use, CR gas was fired from a helicopter that swept low over the men below. It was fired in clusters, which scattered in mid air, this was meant to spread the gas over a larger area. CS gas, as everyone of age in the North of Ireland knows, was one large canister; while the effect of it was very hard on people at its epicentre, it was relatively easy to escape the more potent effects of the stuff. And while the use of water was widely used to relieve the painful effects of CS gas on the eyes and throat, the use of water to offset the effects of CR gas only made it much worse (source: Hansard), and this it was designed to do.

The firing of CR gas in clusters had the effect of creating epicentres over a wider area, thus making escape from the more potent effects of the gas almost impossible. My recollection is that the small cylinder that contained CR gas was of a grey colour and had CR gas and MoD clearly marked on the side of it. We had never experienced anything like it. John Spellar was right when he said it was totally effective. Gerry Adams’ memory of its effect was that he felt as though he was drowning. Gerry talks about the use of CR gas the night before the riot and during the fire of Long Kesh. We have heard from other internees and they also remember CR being used at the bottom end of the camp. I myself vividly remember that when it was used the fighting was nearly over. This was contrary to the ‘official rules of use’. The British army had managed to outflank us. Large numbers of British soldiers had been able to cut us off on one of the two football pitches that at that time were in the centre of the sentenced end of Long Kesh. They had effectively broken us up into three or four groups, the largest group probably being on the football pitch that ran from Compound 11 to Compound 13. The British army actually piled unconscious prisoners three and four deep along the top end of the pitch. I remember being right up at the gate of the pitch that led to the top cages when the gas was used. When I came round, I was about 100 feet or so from where I dropped and my face was scraped from being dragged face down across the all-weather football pitch. I was so disorientated that when we were running the gauntlet of soldiers and being struck with batons every step of the way, I can’t remember feeling a thing. I can, however, remember the next morning, as like many of my comrades I was aching and my back and legs were black and blue.

Anyone with an ounce of sense could see that we were on our last legs as a result of the copious amounts of CS gas and rubber bullets. I believe that the use of CR gas was a planned operation, purely to test its effects on human beings. Another possible reason the British army used CR was to test equipment and men under ‘battlefield’ conditions.

Coiste na n-Iarchimi, Madden and Finucane, Relatives for Justice and Sinn Féin are currently trying to find out the exact nature of the effects of CR gas. We are becoming greatly concerned at the numbers of men who were in Long Kesh at that time and have susequently either died or contacted some sort of carcinogenic condition: leukaemia or other terminal illness. We are at present aware of some 50 to 60 men who have either died or have been diagnosed with some form of cancer. Relative to the numbers involved, this constitutes something in the region of 12 per cent to 15 per cent of the men directly affected. There is no reason to believe that this figure will not rise in the future. In a way it reminds me of asbestosis. Nobody ever died suddenly from asbestosis, but years later they are still dying. Nor have I heard of anyone dying suddenly from the effects of Agent Orange, but they still are dying. They are dying from coming into contact with the chemicals or substances that were introduced to their bodies many years before.

When starting this research five years ago, I did not set out to prove that CR causes cancer. Since the men who have either died or been diagnosed with cancer are my friends and comrades, I sincerely hope that it doesn’t, but I don’t know. Given the nature of the political control that a government, any government, can impose on people and information in relation to internal security, I realised from the outset that to prove a direct link between CR gas and cancer would be virtually, if not totally, impossible. Personally, my fear is that it is connected and must be investigated by an independent body given a free hand to prove or disprove my fears.

Irrespective of whether or not there is a link between CR gas and cancer, a serious breach of both civil and human rights was perpetrated against men on October 15 and 16 1974. Our primary concern is the health and future health of the ex-prisoners who were subject to its use. The professor of chemistry informs us that, while not comparing CR gas with Agent Orange, he was reminded that, “The ingredients of Agent Orange were not as carcinogenic nor mutagenic as the impurities they created.”

Belfast solicitors Madden and Finucane, on my behalf, wrote to the NIPS and requested a copy of my medical records for the period 1973 until 1979. These records were sent to Madden and Finucane, except my records for 1974, which were missing. No reason for this was given. I sustained more injuries on October 16, 1974, than all the other years of my incarceration combined.

In the course of this research I met with an ex-member of the prison administration who had joined the prison staff after the fire of Long Kesh. We were talking about our experiences in the prison. I told him of my experiences during the fire. I mentioned about my dealings with the NIPS and of their denial of blood samples being taken. He explained to me that “it was common knowledge in the prison that a large number of files went missing.” The identity of whoever removed them isn’t known.

Given that Long Kesh/Maze Prison was, according to the then Secretary of State Merlyn Rees, “the largest concentration camp in Western Europe”, then I think it is fair to say that either the MoD or one of its security branches must be aware of the whereabouts of these files. Consequently, when the NIPS informed me that they had “no records of blood samples being taken”, I believe what they really mean is that they haven’t got them any more.

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