Belfast Telegraph

Prison sentence proved no bar to degrees for loyalists

Protestant paramilitaries learned their lessons well at Her Majesty's Pleasure, writes William 'Plum' Smith

Loyalist prisoners piloted the way ahead in education inside the prisons. Quite often myth and inaccuracies can be moulded into history until they are wrongly accepted as the truth.

None can be more erroneous or misleading than the myth that loyalist prisoners wasted their days behind barbed wire while republicans conveyor belted their exit from imprisonment tripping over their graduate gowns.

I remember clearly entering into Long Kesh camp as the first loyalist prisoner in 1972 surrounded by hundreds of republican prisoners and internees. Soon more loyalist prisoners followed and then Gusty Spence was recaptured by the Army and returned to prison.

From the moment Gusty Spence entered the prison he impressed upon us the need to spend our time in prison in a meaningful and worthwhile way. The education system offered by the prison at that time was mediocre and useless. Through the determination of prisoners we challenged the prison authorities. We refused to accept their minimum efforts to offer us low level standards of education and set up our own system of self education which was more practical and rewarding.

The Open University took a chance and agreed to provide prisoners with its services. Although the Open University was very co-operative, the prison structures and sabotage of correspondence made it much more difficult for prisoners to study than students on the outside.

The first take up of students/prisoners were Ronnie McCullough, William Smith (UVF/RHC), William Bratty, Harry Black (UDA) Brendan Mackin and Martin O'Hagan (Official IRA). The Provisional IRA prisoners boycotted the OU at first because they were overly suspicious that the state was somehow involved. The first loyalist to achieve his degree while in prison was William Strain from Bangor, who attained this credit in 1975. Thereafter, a steady stream of successful loyalist prisoners emerged. This example of the positive usage of prison time permeated the prison and many other loyalist prisoners underwent training in other fields and disciplines that followed the successful venture of the Open University.

Many who attained their qualifications have merged into wider society, contributing positive and valuable services to the community. Some are educationalists teaching in various centres throughout the world, others are involved in high-quality projects delivering great and beneficial experience to communities.

The success of loyalist prisoners in prison has mushroomed throughout the political world and influenced presidents, prime ministers and governments. The five-man PUP delegation in the Good Friday talks included four ex-loyalist prisoners. They debated and negotiated with governments, statesmen and volunteers with confidence and candour.

Other loyalist ex-prisoners emerged from prison with a foundation in education that they were able to further pursue in freedom.

The myth that loyalist prisoners did not pursue worthwhile disciplines within the confines of their incarceration is a proven falsehood because they fought and campaigned for every comma, colon and full stop.

However, society and Government have still not acknowledged the worthwhile contribution of loyalist prisoners.

Even in the final hours of the Belfast Agreement loyalist prisoners maintained the principled position of 'Country First'.

Loyalist prisoners have never expressed the view that they should be treated better than anyone else, only that they have a level playing field and the right to live free from harassment and discrimination.

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