Gassing the Truth
Gassing the truth - Anthony Neeson Continuing our series on victims, in conjunction with Relatives For Justice, Anthony Neeson speaks to former Republican prisoner Jim McCann who is concerned about the growing number of ex-prisoners who took part in the burning of Long Kesh in 1974 and have since died from cancer.
Former republican prisoner Jim McCann has one question he can’t find an answer to. Why have so many of his former comrades either died from, or are dying from cancer?
The answer to that question, he believes, lies in the events of the morning of October 16 1974, the morning after the cages in Long Kesh were burnt to the ground by republican prisoners. After herding republicans into one section of the prison, the British Army regained control of the gaol,which housed over 1,000 republican and loyalist prisoners by dropping CR gas from a helicopter on republicans below.
New to the British Army at the time, CR gas is a weapon of the last resort, and one which the British government refuses, to this day, to admit that it has ever used.
It was widely reported at the time that the British Army had used the new experimental CR gas on the prisoners, and according to those who had suffered its consequences - both loyalists and republicans - it was something that they had never experienced before. In 1998 John Spellar, Minister for the Armed Forces, in a written answer to Labour MP Ken Livingstone denied that CR gas have ever been used “operationally.” Then after promptings from Jim, former shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Kevin McNamara asked the same minister what quantity of CR gas was used on the prisoners of Long Kesh on October 16 1974. Again Mr Spellar denied its use, but significantly said that as far as he could ascertain “some 200 hand held spray devices containing 0.05 per cent CR were held at HM Prison Maze at the time.”
CR refers to the chemical agent Dibenzoxazepine and is ten times higher to the human sensitivity than CS Gas. Jim recalls that within weeks of regaining control of the gaol Ministry of Defence doctors took blood samples from hundreds of prisoners. The question remains, why? And if it was common knowledge at the time that CR Gas was used, why the denials now?
According to Jim he knows of at least 30 prisoners from that time who have died of cancer. He has been in contact with loyalists, officials and republicans and the answer is the same, a high percentage of men between the ages of 45-55 who were in Long Kesh that morning have died, or are dying from cancer.
“We burned all but three of the cages on the night of October 15,” recalls Jim. "We burnt everything, including most of the loyalist cages. We told them to get out, everything was going up.
"I’ll never forget the next morning, thousands of Brits were called into the area surrounding the gaol and then they began firing CS Gas and rubber bullets and we had running battles all morning. On occasions we would have captured some of the Brits and they’d have taken some of us, but it was all-out war and no quarter was given, and it seemed to go on for ages but it was a tiring business and they managed to hem us into one area around the football pitch and then a helicopter appeared from above.
"It fired gas in clusters, which scattered in mid air, so as to spread the gas over a wide area. By that time we had all been used to CS Gas. It was fired in a large canister and although it was pretty bad if you were caught up in it, it was relatively easy to escape from, because it had a small epicentre. “My recollection of that morning is afterwards finding these small cylinders which had CR Gas and MoD clearly marked on them.”
Jim say the majority of the prisoners had never experienced anything like it before. “It was totally effective,” he says. “Gerry Adams’ memory of its effect was a feeling that he was drowning. I, on the other hand, thought I was on fire. Grown men were shouting for their mothers, we thought we were dying. They didn’t need to use it because anyone could have seen that after the rubber bullets and CS gas we were on our last legs. It was as if they were using us as guinea pigs and that’s why they came back to take our blood samples. Everyone from loyalist, official to republican will verify that happened.”
Along with the other members of Ts Nua, an ex-prisoners’ support group in the Upper Springfield area, Jim is trying to find out the facts of what happened on October 16. The group is becoming increasingly concerned about the numbers of men who were in Long Kesh at the time who have since died of, or are currently battling against cancer.
“A serious breach of both civil and human rights was perpetrated against men that morning,” says Jim. "And we are concerned about the health and the future health of the prisoners of that time who were subjected to CR gas.
"I seem to be spending more and more time going to funerals of men who were in the Kesh back then. All of whom are relatively young - 45-55 years-old - and all have died from cancer. It is worrying, because everytime you’re not feeling well or you get a pain you begin to wonder if you’re next.
"But if our figures are correct then nearly a fifth of the men who were in Long Kesh 26 years ago have died from cancer. "Now tell me that’s just a co-incidence