Terrorist study cells

January 7, 2000

The Open University has helped transform both Loyalist and Republican prisoners. Anne McHardy reports on the lifers earning degrees.

Lawrence McKeown and Garnet Busby have more in common than the outsider to Belfast might expect, given that one works on the Catholic Falls Road and the other in Protestant Sandy Row on rival sides of what is still a vicious sectarian divide.

Both took degrees in sociology while they were serving life sentences under the Prevention of Terrorism Act through the same Open University tutor, Jenny Meegan. Both completed their PhDs at Queen's University. Now McKeown works with former IRA prisoners in the Coiste na n-Iarchimi and Busby with the Sandy Row Residents' Committee. Both are middle-aged men whose youth was spent in prison.

McKeown was one of the Provisional IRA prisoners who took part in the 1977 dirty protest at the Maze prison, outside Belfast, and then the hunger strikes of 1981. His doctoral thesis, Unrepentant Bloody Fenians, is about the political commitment of Republican prisoners. Busby, whose thesis is on physical exercise and prisoner morale, was an Ulster Volunteer Force prisoner who spent 18 years in jail after receiving six life sentences for bombings.

The extraordinary role of Open University degrees in furthering the peace process in Northern Ireland is acknowledged throughout the Republican sector as well as by the smaller Loyalist political parties whose support for the Good Friday agreement of 1998 and for the 1999 Northern Ireland Executive is vital.

The importance of ex-prisoners can be judged by their numbers. In a population of 1.5 million, 1,500 have served prison sentences, many of them long. Of the long-term prisoners, about 5 per cent, 40 or 50 a year, studied with The Open University. If the conviction figure is translated into working-class areas such as Sandy Row, the Falls and the Shankill roads, the percentage soars. "You cannot walk down this (Falls) road without bumping into other ex-prisoners," explains Rosie McCorley, a Republican whose first-class honours degree was gained while she was serving 22 years for the attempted murder of a policeman serving in the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

The OU moved into the Maze prison at Long Kesh when there were still compounds housing ordinary prisoners together with prisoners from different paramilitary groups within huts organised by commanding officers. The belief was that the compound system was a university of terrorism, which was one reason the British government replaced it. The Terrorism Act prisoners were re-housed in new segregated cell blocks, the H-Blocks, built in 1976.

But the education that the prisoners seized on was what most had missed at school - particularly Loyalists, who are almost all 11-plus failures. In the compounds the Loyalists were disciplined into learning. David Irvine and Billy Hutchinson, NI Assembly members for the Popular Unionist Party, are Loyalist OU graduates from the compounds.

Meegan, a sociology tutor, is the English-born daughter of a Methodist minister who went to Queen's University in 1969 as a postgraduate. She began tutoring prisoners by chance in 1983. Someone asked her if she would like a teaching job but warned she might not like the classroom. Judging by the way her face and that of her senior tutor, Heather Laird, light up, both love it. Both teach in all the Northern Ireland prisons and in the Irish Republic, too.

There have been oddities. It took Meegan a while to realise that the funny mark on the toast the men gave her was from ironing it. Laird had other problems. As a science tutor, she found the security system disliked her science kits. Modems were banned in the Maze. Chemicals were banned in all prisons. But Laird still wonders about the holly leaves that she had to fight to get in for one course.

There was political tension in the prison when Meegan started in 1983. It was easing when Laird arrived five years later, although both encountered odd pockets of difficulty, sometimes from prison officers. That was solved when the Northern Ireland Office agreed to fund degrees for warders, too. The women have tutored prisoners and warders on the same courses, although not in the same study groups.

The paramilitary organisations have had different approaches to education. The Republicans were always disciplined and saw education as a way of keeping IRA prisoners together as coherent political groups. During the hunger strikes, IRA prisoners refused education. Once the protest was over they insisted on it. The Loyalists were organised educationally by their commanders in the compounds. In the H-Blocks, they reverted to a more individual system, and many found studying more difficult.

McCorley, who was a 33-year-old housing officer at the time of her arrest, explains the Republican attitude. She was mentally prepared, she says, to use education when she was arrested. "We would have been aware of the need." She had A levels, but outside prison she might never have returned to education. She was not sure she had the ability.

Outside prison, Republicans and Loyalists alike rely on their degrees to help find work in an environment that is hostile to criminal convictions. The degrees and the confidence they give are the basis of the community work most released prisoners do.

Jim Watt, like Busby, a UVF prisoner, left school for an apprenticeship as a fitter. A degree would have seemed beyond his scope. Now he has a first-class degree in maths and runs an IT training centre on the Shankill Road. "The OU made learning enjoyable," he says.

Busby sums up for them all. "People who have come through theI prison system seem better educated and more confident. They have more self-esteem, more confidence, less deference. I'd have felt myself to be very deferential to authority before."

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