Union flag protester Jamie Bryson has spoken for the first time about his five weeks in jail — saying he “would do it all again”.
The 23-year-old Donaghadee man is under strict bail conditions banning him from speaking to the media about the City Hall union flag protests which he helped organise — but he can talk about his stint in Maghaberry.
Bryson was arrested in Bangor at the end of February and was questioned for several days by police before being charged with six offences relating to the flag protests and transported to prison.
The loyalist admitted to “some nerves” on his way to jail for the first time.
“Part of me was still in shock at all that had happened, he said.
“People have asked me that when I was in the back of a van on my way to Maghaberry if I was sitting regretting anything but most definitely not — my convictions were the same, in fact stronger than ever.
“I suppose it was the unknown — going somewhere you hadn’t been before and not knowing what it was going to be like, but in no way whatsoever did I have any regrets.”
For the first four days, Bryson was locked up alone for 23 hours a day, only leaving his cell for a shower. On the fifth day, fellow flag protester Willie Frazer joined him.
Bryson said: “I heard a knock on the cell door and a flap opened, instead of dissident republicans shouting abuse at me it was Willie Frazer.
“It was great to see him and a relief, and it was good to see he was in the same mind frame as me — he wasn’t broken or downhearted.”
Bryson said that while there has been talk of a rift between him and Frazer, the pair remain close.
“Willie’s a very interesting man with a lot of stories,” he said.
“He’s had a very difficult time with his family but listening to Willie and his experience of life you can see there’s a lot of depth to the man.
“People paint him as an eejit but he’s not, he’s a very intelligent man.”
“I viewed myself as a loyalist political prisoner,” he said.
“I was having to spend a lot of time in my cell by myself because of republican threats so I wanted to go to the safety wing.
“The prison service sorted it, they get a lot of abuse but in the time that I was there I would have to commend them 100 per cent.
“They were fantastic and they looked after me and Willie very well.
“All the guards treated us with the utmost respect.”
During his time at Maghaberry, Bryson grew close to convicted UDA Milltown killer Michael Stone who he says is a “very smart man”.
“A lot of unionist politicians are afraid to speak out in support of loyalist prisoners but regardless of what some of the people I met may or may not have done I found them all a good bunch of lads,” he said.
“These men are good decent men who looked after me well so I’m not going to lie about it.
“A lot of the older guys with experience took the time to check in on the younger fellas all the time.
“Michael has his history and it suits sections of the media and middle class unionists to portray him as a lunatic but he’s not.
“Michael Stone is a very smart man with a good political mind and I enjoyed spending time with him talking about his politics and mine which aren’t too far apart.”
Bryson said older prisoners like Stone advised him on how to fill his days.
“You have a lot of time to kill,” he said.
“A lifer passed on some wisdom to me — he said that if you lie on your bed all day you very quickly slumber and your mind can drift.
“You need to be busy — going to the gym, playing football, talking to other people and that’s what I did.
“I told myself that I was a political prisoner and I was there for what I believed in, so I got up every day and tried to fill it as much as I could so that when it came to lock up at 7pm I was tired and actually wanted to go to sleep.”
While he said he “made new friends” in Maghaberry, Bryson admitted that jail wasn’t a walk in the park.
“You’d be a liar if you said you didn’t have any dark moments, he said.
“If anyone says they go into jail and sail through it because it’s easy then they’re a liar. There’s people in there doing life who would tell you it’s still not easy.
“You have good craic with the lads and you get your day in but at 7pm that cell door still slams shut and you don’t see your loved ones and your freedom is taken away from you and that’s what it boils down to.
“You miss your partner, your family and your friends but I missed being able to politically do what I enjoy doing for my community.”
Bryson said it was the support of his family, friends and his faith in God that helped him through. “There was a person who took the time to write to me every single day,” he said.
“That doesn’t seem a lot from the outside but when somebody
takes that time to support you in that way it creates a bond for life.
“My family were a fantastic support and individuals from unionist parties supported me but in the main the PUP, especially Winston Irvine who supported me 100 per cent from the moment I went into jail until I got out and never wavered.
“Not for political or personal gain but out of doing what’s right for his community.
Referencing First Minister Peter Robinson’s labelling of his political opponents as “a tribe of Jeremiahs”, Bryson said: “When a man believes before his God that he’s doing the right thing, you will never ever break a man like that. They could have locked me up for the rest of my life — but I’d rather be a Jeremiah in jail than a Judas in government.”
Weeks on from his release, Bryson said it was hard to leave Maghaberry at first, but he insists he should never have been in jail in the first place.
“Once you’ve spent four weeks in prison with someone it almost feels like a lifetime — you really create a bond with those people.
“They had become your friends, your life, and you lived in each other’s pockets all day.
“To be leaving and seeing them having to stay there for a long time was tough but I should never have been there,” he said.
“I was a political prisoner, a prisoner of conscience. People asked if I wished I had done things differently — absolutely not. I would do it all again.
“I’m not painting myself as some kind of hero because I spent just under five weeks in jail — that’s not the case.
“Five weeks is nothing in the grand scheme of things, there are men who have spent 15 or 20 years in jail for what they believed in.
“I’m just the same as any other fella who’s suffered for his beliefs.”
Now wearing an electronic monitoring ankle tag, Bryson said he feels “oppressed” by his strict bail conditions which ban him from being a mile from any public protest, owning a mobile phone or being on the internet.
“These conditions were set to shut me up,” he said.
“I just think the bail set has to match the alleged crime.”