John McDonagh (JM) and Martin Galvin (MG) speak to former Irish Republican political prisoner and blanketman Thomas ‘Dixie’ Elliott (DE) via telephone from Doire about his background, his time in Long Kesh prison during the 1981 hunger strike and his thoughts about the film, Bobby Sands: 66 Days. (begins time stamp ~23:38)
JM: But we have on the line – and you maybe could give some of his background but we should get Dixie to explain how did he end up in Long Kesh with Bobby Sands?
MG: Dixie, are you with us? Dixie, are you with us?
DE: Yeah, I’m with you. Is that Martin or John?
MG: That is Martin but we’re going to go to John in a second. Dixie, we want to start out – we’re talking to Dixie Elliott from Doire who I found out because he was able to quote the programme from four weeks earlier when I gave the Brendan Hughes Lecture, but Dixie, tell us a little bit about how you came to be in Long Kesh, how you came to be a cellmate of Bobby Sands and another hunger striker, Tom McElwee – and well, just start out with that – your background and how you came to be a Republican prisoner in Long Kesh on the blanket.
DE: Well I joined the Republican Movement when I was about sixteen and that would have been about the average age of people when we were joining up. We were young lads running around the streets throwing stones at the Army and everything else would have been a regular occurrence – there was not much work to do and everything else and I then became involved with the IRA. And I gradually, I was originally in Na Fianna and then got into the IRA and then of course we were, I was eventually arrested, taken to Strand Road barracks where I was tortured and I admitted to firing shots at the British Army on the Racecourse Road and IRA membership and hijacking a van and in September 1976 I went into the Crumlin Road Jail. And I was sentenced on June 1977 and I went straight onto the blanket protest.
MG: Alright, and we should tell our readers, if you had been arrested on February – sorry, our listeners – February 28th of 1976 you would have gotten special category status, you would have been in a separate wing, you would have been allowed to wear your own clothes, have association, all of the things that the blanket protest was about. But on March 1st of 1976 the British, Margaret Thatcher’s government, said that anybody who’s arrested after that date is a criminal. Now why was that issue, wearing a criminal uniform, so important to you, to Brendan Hughes, to others who were on the blanket protest?
DE: Well is was actually the British Labour Party that brought criminalisation in; it wasn’t actually the Tories at the time. It was Thatcher, when they had came into power before, about ’79 before the hunger strikes, but it was originally the Labour Party that brought it in. And they had effectively made the decision that they were going to criminalise the struggle, they were going to try and make it look as if the police was operating as a normal police force and that we were effectively criminals engaged in a criminal conspiracy, shall we say? Whereas like you know we weren’t criminals at all. We were Republicans. We wanted to free our country. We were soldiers and we weren’t enlisted soldiers like their soldiers. We were a little different. We were fighting for our country. It was occupied by the British and we wanted to remove the occupation. So we weren’t criminals. But if it hadn’t been for the struggle and the British occupation we wouldn’t have been in jail at all.
MG: Alright, and what were some of the things that were done to you and to the other prisoners in order to make you wear that criminal uniform and dress up in that criminal uniform?
DE: Well it wasn’t actually what they done to us it was actually the thing that they were forcing us to wear the criminal uniform. We were not criminals. It wasn’t that they had actually beat us or tortured us or anything like before that it’s when we were sentenced and went up to the H-Blocks they had said to us: Right. There’s the uniform – let’s put it on. We said: We’re now criminals. We’re not wearing the uniform. And that’s effectively that because that makes us criminals. So we wouldn’t wear the uniform – it was us that refused to wear the uniform. And then from then on out things drastically got worse and worse, you know?
MG: Well that’s what I mean – what did the British do to you when they saw you weren’t wearing a criminal uniform, when they saw you were on the blanket – what did they do to make you wear one?
DE: Well they beat us, of course, like they would have beat us and they would have said: Wear that and we wouldn’t have worn it. They would have beat us to try to force it onto us. And when it was obvious that we weren’t going to do it they threw us into a cell with just wearing a towel, a blue towel, wrapped around us and there would have been nothing…
MG: …And then…
DE: …Go ahead.
MG: Well just get to the point: You were beaten, all those other things, you’re on protest – how did it come about that you got to know Bobby Sands?
DE: Well I was in the cell originally with Tom McElwee in H-4 and in February 1979 the authorities decided that they might be able to break the protest by removing the leadership in the camp or the blocks to a separate wing isolating them from the rest of the protest. Now me and Tom McElwee was moved – now we weren’t on the leadership – but I believe that they moved us because we were constantly – if they hit us we hit them back – me and Tom – well, it was mostly Tom was doing that like and I was in the cell with him and they moved us – so it was then that I got to be on a wing with Bobby, February 1979, as I said and The Dark and Bik and others like that – we were all on the one wing. And then they moved us back to H-3 in about August 1979 and when they moved us back I was put in a cell with Bobby – then I was actually in the cell with Bobby. I was in the cell with Bobby for a couple of months in 1979 and I was moved out of the cell but I remained on the same wing as him until, effectively, well – after he died I was effectively with that wing until the end of the protest.
MG: Alright. And the song, Back Home in Derry…
JM: …No, no, go ahead. Dixie, unfortunately we only have about I would say twenty-five minutes left and being what’s now that you were involved in – you said the Republican struggle as being now classified as a thirty year crime wave. But things about the hunger strike – there’s been Some Mother’s Son, there’s been Hunger, there’s been plays and now this. Explain to our audience what you thought of the documentary and how did you feel it betrayed what you were personally involved in?
DE: 66 Days?
DE: Yeah, well I think 66 Days, the way it came across to me as trying to make out that Bobby Sands’ death bought about the peace process and what we have today. Whereas Bobby Sands definitely wouldn’t have died for peace – that’s absurd. You don’t go into jail for peace, you don’t fire guns or plant bombs for peace, you don’t die on hunger strike for peace – that’s absurd. And I doubt that Bobby Sands knowing that some day down the line that Martin McGuinness would be toasting the Queen and Gerry Adams would be shaking hands with Prince Charles that he would have died on hunger strike – I clearly wouldn’t have fired stones for that. You know so for the film to be trying to make that out, as it was especially towards the end, was absurd to say the least, it was totally absurd. And the thing about it which annoyed me more so was Laurney McKeown’s venomous attack on Brendan ‘The Dark’ Hughes, someone who’s no longer around to defend himself, when he had said that Bobby said that The Dark had ‘effed up’
And when I heard that I said to myself: That’s the first I heard that. I never heard that. As I explained, I was on the wing with Bobby. I was on the wing with all of them. I never heard that used by Bobby at all. In fact at that time, around coming up to the end of December, I remember Bobby leaving the wing and we were all hyped up. We thought this was it. It was coming up to Christmas, they weren’t going to let men die and it was over. And Bobby left the wing and I remember hearing the van coming back. My cell looked out onto the courtyard of the box and I looked out and I seen the van coming in, I seen Bobby getting out and his head was down and his shoulders were slumped and I knew – that wasn’t Bobby Sands. No matter what Bobby always walked with a spring in his step and when I seen him I slipped down the wall and my cellmate says: What’s wrong? And I used a lot of expletives which more or less said: We’re bit.
And Bobby came up the wing and his words was: ‘Ní fhuaireomar faic’ – ‘We got nothing.’ And I never heard him say anything about The Dark or anything but what we later learned – and now this is the thing – if Laurney McKeown is going to come off with stuff like this and everything else – what we later learned, especially those of us who was in that wing, was that the hunger strike fell apart because there was men told The Dark they were coming off it – men that was on the hunger strike. There was those of us who knew it wasn’t just that we had learned at the time – it was literally that Tom McFeely told people, told everybody, how it ended it. In fact, so much so, that a guy I know who was in jail in later years – we were talking about it and he said to me: That’s right. Tom McFeely told me that such and such and such and such was putting pressure on The Dark. It wasn’t all the men on the hunger strike it was ‘certain people’ and these ‘certain people’ keeps coming along with this narrative that they made an offer and they reneged on it. As a matter of fact, Laurence McKeown’s claim that Bobby said The Dark ‘effed up’ actually undermines the Adams/Sinn Féin position where they say the Brits had made an offer which they later reneged on. If that was so how had The Dark screwed up if the Brits had made an offer? So he’s undermining the narrative of Adams, and Patsy – him and Raymond McCartney and all of those who are saying they made an offer in this. As I say, we knew what happened. We knew that the men, that that hunger strike was falling apart and that’s what it was.
MG: …but Dixie, let me…
DE: …and what Laurence McKeown was effectively doing was he was doing it for his leader.
MG: Dixie, let me just bring our audience up: There was a first hunger strike that began in October 1980 and what happened at that was everybody, or a number of people, went on hunger strike at the same time and Brendan Hughes, who was the leader of the prisoners, was one of the people on hunger strike. So as it came to late December, Seán McKenna was very ill. There were some hope of movement, there were some suggestion of movement but then a number of prisoners, as you say I’m not going to specify which ones, said that they would not, did not want to die – that it had to be called off.
Brendan Hughes, in that position on hunger strike himself, knowing that he was stronger than some of the prisoners, would not be the first to die, called off the hunger strike. But I’ll tell you on the outside I got a call from Joe Austin of the Belfast Press Centre and I was told that Bobby was jubilant – they read this statement to me a number of times – that Bobby was jubilant – that there had been an offer, that this was accepted and that now their own clothes were going to come in. And it wasn’t until much later, years later, that I was informed of what happened and it seemed strange to me. I kept going back and saying: Look, are you telling me the truth? I’ve never lied to people, I’ve never lied to the American public but they were saying that that is what was happening, that there was a statement that was prepared and read at that time to put that out and Brendan Hughes, in that terrible position, had to agree to save the life of Seán McKenna and the others and hope if the British would have said if we have an opportunity – we’ll move, we’ll make all the concessions and instead they came in, they became hardline again and that’s what would lead to the next hunger strike. Is that a fair…?
DE: …Well effectively the British never – the British had sent a document which was delivered by a Father Meagher to Gerry Adams. Gerry Adams had received this document by the time the hunger strike had ended – the hunger strike had ended when he’d got it. Now what this document contained – this document contained nothing – it actually says that we, the prisoners, could wear civilian-type clothing during the working week. Now civilian-type clothing – they didn’t renege on that, they tried to give us the civilian-type clothing which was a garish form of clothing – it was even worse looking than the denim gear which was the prison – it was all bright colours and stuff that. It was thrown back out at them. They didn’t renege on it. They weren’t giving us nothing or anything else. But this wasn’t known. Now when Bobby got this document down and he looked at it and we heard him discussing it on the wing and he said: We can use this against them. We can say they made an offer and they reneged on it and we can use that to start the second hunger strike. As Jim Gibney said himself, and he messed up by saying it, he said Bobby Sands, the next day that they got a letter from Bobby Sands, saying the second hunger strike was starting. Now, ask yourself – if the Brits had made an offer why would Bobby Sands have come – now men that was on the brink, men that was totally depressed and everything else and tell them straightaway: We got nothing. He could have said: Oh, there’s something in the pipeline where we don’t know yet what’s happening. He told us straight out as soon as he got back: We got nothing. He sent word straight out that another hunger strike would be starting and that he would be leading it.
DE: …Not only that, not only that – the second hunger strike he changed the tactics. He said because the way the first hunger strike fell, collapsed, because men decided they were coming off it that it wasn’t going to happen in the second hunger strike that’s why he staggered it – he went first then Frank Hughes and so on at different periods – this is why, he changed tactics. And he was using that document – it was him actually came up and said they had made an offer and they reneged on it. They didn’t make an offer. There was nothing there. Do you understand?
JM: And Dixie, while you’re doing the battle and you see what’s going on – you have no radio, no television. Had you any idea of what was going on on the outside anywhere in the world, never mind say The States or Australia, but in Belfast or in Doire? How were you getting your information? Because now here you are, at the coalface, fighting the state within the prison with whatever you had left – which was literally at that stage your body. Did you know about anything that was happening on the outside?
DE: Oh, yes. First of all on a lot of the blocks, we had at least one on a lot of blocks was a small, miniature – it was an ingenious device like whoever created it – it was small, miniature radios and we were getting the likes of the news and stuff like that off it. The guy would be listening, the boy who was in charge of it, he would listen and get news and stuff like that. But we were also getting the likes of An Phoblacht – and it was shrunk right down, you know, miniaturised? And articles out of papers which would have been cut out of papers and smuggled in wrapped around the tobacco and the other – pens and stuff like that there – in what we called the barges. And of course people would have passed on information through the visits. You know you would have got a lot of lies through the visits in order to keep your morale up – there was ten thousand people was marching here and there you know – and there wasn’t. But in a lot of cases we got articles on. They were read at the doors and stuff like that you know so this is how we were getting. We were getting comms in which was getting read out about strikes on the docks in New York and those strikes in Liverpool maybe or stuff like that and protests and all – we were getting that in through comms from the outside and they were telling us, you know, what was going on in the outside world.
MG: Alright Dixie, we’re moving along – I know that one thing that you’ve been very involved with is Richard O’Rawe’s claim that – a book and now it seems to be a well-documented claim – that there was an offer. I know you were very close to another of the hunger strikers who died, Tom McElwee…
DE: …that’s right…
MG: …Richard O’Rawe had claimed, said and stood up to any criticism or question that there was an offer which both he, as an officer, the PRO (Public Relations Officer), and one of the leading officers of the prisoners in Long Kesh and Bik McFarlane at that time wanted to accept, recommended acceptance and should have satisfied the essential demands and beaten criminalisation. What’s your position on that?
DE: Well I remember at the time we heard the rumour that the Brits was moving and that Joe McDonnell wouldn’t have to die. We heard that rumour. It came from those in the cells up around the side back – I was down at the other, by this time, at the other side of the wing but those who were closest – some of them has come forward and probably one of them has publicly stated that he heard it. He heard them taking at the window. (It was the only way you could converse. You had to talk out the windows in Irish.) They overheard them saying, talking about it and they passed it on. The thing is, you have to understand, Richard O’Rawe was the shoulder that Bik leaned on. We all knew that. Richard O’Rawe was then, as now, a highly intelligent person. Bik did nothing without passing it to Richard O’Rawe first, asking his opinion and everything else, taking his advice. Richard was the man, above all else, in probably the whole camp. And then you have the likes of Danny Morrison saying: Richard O’Rawe wasn’t in the hospital and Richard O’Rawe wasn’t here and Richard… – of course he wasn’t. But when Bik was coming back from the hospital they told Richard O’Rawe everything that was going on. He brought this to Richard, this offer from the British, and he sent it up the pipes to him and Richard got it and looked at it and said: There’s enough there to end it. Because ‘enough there to end it’ was the clothes. It was always – as I was saying before – the clothes. If we had have gotten the clothes before the hunger strikes nobody would have died. And that offer contained our own clothes. Now, the thing about Richard as I said, that no one on that wing other than Bik – now listen to this: No one on that wing, other than Bik, has said that Richard O’Rawe was telling lies. People have come forward and backed him, both one publicly and me and others, privately. But no one, and I’ve challenged them to find anyone, no one has come forward and said Richard O’Rawe is telling lies other than Bik. So I think that tells it all on its own. If he had have been telling lies you would have had people coming forward. People who is with Sinn Féin today, there’s one particular person and he was also an adviser to Bik, and I asked Richard, I said to him: Why did he never come forward and say you were lying? He said: Because he knows I’m telling the truth and he knows the cat’s going to get out of the bag one day and he doesn’t want to be involved.
JM: (station identification) And we’re discussing a film that will be shown at The Film Forum from November 30th to December 13th at 209 West Houston Street called Bobby Sands: 66 Days.
I want to play a little video clip of someone that’s near and dear to Dixie Elliott’s heart in Doire and that is of Martin McGuinness. And when you talk about rigged elections there was no more of a rigged election than in 1986 when there was a debate at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis down in Dublin. I want to play just a couple of minutes – if you just type into YouTube ‘Martin McGuinness speech’ you can hear the full of it. We’re only going to play two minutes. And I wanted to get Dixie’s reaction to Mr. Martin McGuinness, MP, MLA, Councilman – he’s got more titles after him than the Queen at the moment. Go ahead…
Audio: Portion of Martin McGuinness’ speech at the Sinn Féin 1986 Ard Fheis is played.
JM: And that there is Doire tour guide at Westminster, Martin McGuinness, who has a lot of initials after his name at the moment. Dixie, you know, just speaking to you we know when you were in Long Kesh you were not fighting to administer British rule in Ireland but the lies really were being told at that ’86 Ard Fheis about how everything was going to continue on ’til the British left. I mean, how do you feel how the struggle has ended after thirty or forty years now?
DE: Well Martin McGuinness has went from that speech to allow actually making the Queen and her family acceptable to Nationalists. Let’s not varnish what this is all about – all this praising the Queen, a friend of the peace process and everything else – it’s making the royal family, the most repugnant aspect of British imperialism, acceptable to Nationalists. This is what Martin is doing now and Gerry shaking Prince Charles’ hands and everything else and you must not question us here – they were saying not too longer ago about standing up fighting Tory cuts and everything else and here we have the Queen was given three hundred and seventy million pound to upgrade Buckingham Palace. The so-called socialists of the Republican Movement, Martin McGuinness, hasn’t said a word – not one word! They say: Stand up to Tory cuts and then they’re not now out saying: Hold on. You’re cutting all these peoples’ benefits – you’re taking from health and you’re doing this and everything else – nothing about all this money being given from the public purse to the Queen, a multi-millionaire who owns Jersey Island, nothing -not a word at all. Not a word at all. Not a word about how much money is getting spent on Trident missiles and everything else while the cuts – but they’re sloganising, they say: Oooh, we need to stand up to Tory cuts. Oooh, we need to do this.
Raymond McCartney is actually saying at the minute now this thing – we need to stand up for the A6 and the A5, these roads leading from Doire to Dublin and the other to Belfast. This has been going on since the 1960’s – they’re fighting for this road from Doire to Belfast – they’re still fighting for it. When twenty miles up the road in Coleraine there’s a duel carriageway almost completed which will link Coleraine, a provincial Unionist town with the other Unionist town, Ballymena, and Ballymena is linked in by the M2, it’s already linked by the M2 motorway, to Belfast…
JM: …and Dixie…
DE: …And they’re still – Martin McGuinness, as Deputy First Minister, and this is nearly completed while the road to Doire, after all these years, is still not even started.
JM: And Dixie, Martin McGuinness has had a pretty charmed life. I mean we just had the death of an informer over in England who every Republican in Doire was named by him except Martin McGuinness. And he was never named and picked up in the supergrass trials with Raymond Gilmour. He’s lived a very charmed life. We’ve had other people on from MI5, Ian Hurst, saying that he was a ‘protected species’ as he called him – that he was not to be touched or arrested.
DE: Yes, you’re correct. Martin was not only at the time around Raymond Gilmour but Martin was going around and attending the court cases – walked in and attending them from the street. Here was a man, the whole IRA in Doire was in jail and Martin was walking in without any fear that Raymond Gilmour was going to be pointing him out saying: He’s the man that was the leader. He was the OC in Doire. He’s the man that was the leader. Doesn’t have to worry about that. But the fact is, too, in February, just before the criminalisation policy started, the only time Martin spent in jail in The North was a couple of weeks on remand. He was charged with IRA membership. I have a newspaper clipping here – and after about two weeks he was taken to court and the Crown prosecutor stated (Dixie reads from newspaper) :
I have been instructed not to proceed with the prosecution due to insufficient evidence therefore I have been instructed not to proceed.
Now, Martin says in the article his release came about as some surprise but the article also tells us there was a car waiting outside to whisk him off the Falls Road. So how was his release ‘as some surprise’ when there was a car waiting? The thing is: Who instructed the Crown prosecutor in those days? That’s the question I’m asking. Also, it’s says ‘due to insufficient evidence’. There’s two videos that are still out there on the internet and one was when the Official IRA called a ceasefire and Martin was interviewed and he spoke on behalf of the IRA and the other was the famous Tom Mangold interview where he’s walking down Stanleys Walk and Tom Mangold introduces him as the Officer Commanding of the Doire part of the IRA…
JM: …Alright, Dixie…
DE: …there was all the evidence that they wanted and this was during the height of internment – sorry – this was during the height of internment 1972.
JM: (station identification) And we’re really talking about, there’s a documentary that’s coming out called Bobby Sands: 66 Days. It’ll be two weeks here in New York City – November 30th to December 13th at 209 West Houston Street just west of 6th Avenue. Dixie, should people go see it?
DE: Yes. Of course they should. Of course they should, yes. You can’t say no. You can’t censor. Although at the same time, I’m not sure – I couldn’t be a hundred percent, I’ve asked Brendan Byrne by email – he hasn’t answered me…
JM: ….and that’s the director…
DE: … but there’s a quote in the film (inaudible) and I was waiting on it because me and Richard O’Rawe went to see it in Belfast and there was a lot of members of Sinn Féin there and I knew the quote was coming up – and it’s a famous quote of Bobby’s:
They will not criminalise us, rob us of our true identity, steal our individualism, depoliticise us, churn us out as systemised and institutionised decent, law abiding robots. Never will they label our liberation struggle as criminal.
Now what took my eye away from the screen was looking towards the likes of Gerry Kelly to see how they would take the ‘churn us out as systemise and institutionised decent, law abiding robots’ and I didn’t hear it.
JM: Well Dixie…
DE: ….Things happened that quickly that I said to Richard: Did you hear it? Did they cut that part out? You know and I asked Brendan and Brendan didn’t answer me. I sent him an email and he didn’t answer me. I asked him was it him who censored him, censored Bobby’s words, or was it done before? Though I haven’t seen – I would ask people to look, if they go to the film and look. If I’m wrong I’ll apologise. I will apologise publicly. But I did not hear it – those words.
JM: Alright, Dixie, we’re going to cover another story when we get you back on: The history of Back Home in Derry which is covered by every Irish Republican band throughout the world, written by Bobby Sands but influenced by someone from Doire – who might be on the phone right now – but we’re going to play The Druids singing that. And Dixie, thanks for coming on and thanks for listening over there in Doire on wbai.org. (ends time stamp ~55:28)