Sinn Féin News

Prison visits, a driver's tale: BY LAURA FRIEL

As part of An Phoblacht's new 'Living History' series, exploring the lives and experiences of republicans involved in or touched by the conflict, An Phoblacht's LAURA FRIEL talks to THOMAS McGUIGAN, from the Short Strand in Belfast, who drove the families and friends of republican prisoners to and from jails throughout Ireland for over a quarter of a century.

Without the handful of dedicated drivers who over many years manned minibuses in all the major nationalist cities and towns, in Belfast, Derry, Lurgan and Armagh, many families would never have been able to attend the jails regularly and give their sons, daughters, husbands and wives the support they needed.

"I guess I started around 1976 and finished when the Kesh closed and the prisoners were released as part of the Good Friday Agreement," says Thomas.

"I offered to drive the bus to Armagh jail initially because my niece Ellen was a POW there," says Thomas. "She became active after the death of my only sister, who was killed by loyalists."

Thomas drove families to Crumlin Road, Long Kesh, Armagh and Portlaoise. "In Belfast, there were six minibuses and we'd drive families to the Kesh two or three times a day. Sometimes the demand was very high. After the first group of families arrived at the jail, we'd return to fill the buses again and drive back to the jail, picking up families returning from visits in the interim. It was very busy."

Each minibus held around 14 passengers and in the early days, the vehicles had been pretty ropey. "It was a challenge to keep the buses on the road," says Thomas. "They were constantly breaking down and some were so leaky that if it rained during the journey the passengers put up their umbrellas inside to keep dry." But as time went on, the quality and reliability of the vehicles improved.

By 1986, Thomas had become a full time driver for the jail runs. "I got to know all the families and watched many of the children growing up. Despite the many hardships faced by prisoners' families on the bus, at least there was always a bit of craic," says Thomas.

"I remember one woman in particular because she had five children and they'd all be standing patiently waiting for the Portlaoise bus at six thirty in the morning outside the Sinn Féin centre on the Falls. She must have been up so early to have all those children washed, dressed and fed in time. Many women visiting the jails had two or three children."

And the journey of three and a half hours from Belfast to Portlaoise was long enough, made even more so by constant Crown force harassment. "We were always stopped and searched, sometimes by the RUC, other times the UDR and the British Army," says Thomas. And it made no difference which jail they were visiting.

"We could be held at a checkpoint or pulled over to the side of the road for as long as two hours. It was very hard on the children. It was freezing in winter and too hot in summer," says Thomas.

Thomas remembers the visits to Portlaoise as the worst. "The visiting room was like a long corridor with a bench partitioned into cubicles. In front of the prisoner there was a wire grill from floor to ceiling and in front of that a Perspex barrier and then another grill in front of the visitors," says Thomas. "It was tough on the families, particularly those with children. Later, the visiting conditions improved."

John Davey, in the days before he was elected as a Sinn Féin councillor, drove the Lurgan bus and Thomas remembers John describing a particular incident on the way to the Kesh.

"The Brits stopped the bus and told John to pull the vehicle to the side of the road. The soldiers were waving the other traffic on and John suddenly saw red. He threw the bus across the road, blocking all the traffic and when a soldier demanded the ignition keys he threw the keys into a field," says Thomas.

"I asked John if he was afraid he'd be stuck there for hours with the keys lost," says Thomas. 'Don't be daft,' said John, 'I had a spare set in my trouser pocket'."

Fra Toner from Ballymurphy organised the minibuses. He was also a driver. One afternoon a loyalist sniper set up an ambush.

"It was just past the West Circular Road, outside the Orange Hall. Fra always drove past around 2pm so he was an easy target. The gunman opened fire and shot Fra several times at the wheel. He survived but one bullet was lodged too close to his spine to be removed. He was always in pain after then, never the same, and he died a few years later."

In another incident, women and children waiting to be picked up outside the centre were threatened by loyalists in a passing car. "After that, I always picked families up at their homes," says Thomas. "In a more serious incident, the Armagh bus came under fire and a number of women and children were injured. Luckily, no one was seriously hurt."

Thomas remembers driving the bus to the Kesh during the no wash protests and hunger strikes. "The visitors always tried to keep their spirits up with a chat but the atmosphere was different. You could feel the tension and the worry on their faces."

But it was all smiles on the day republican prisoners were freed under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Thomas and some of the other drivers drove to the Kesh, just in case anyone needed a lift home. "All the families organised cars, so the minibuses weren't needed. It was a glorious morning, just right for the occasion. I knew all the families and it was wonderful to watch their faces as their fathers, husband and sons were released," says Thomas.

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