`And the Gates Flew Open’, Jim McCann remembers the night of 14 October as the kind which “follows a pleasant autumn day. The sky was a deep blue, splattered with stars.” After the initial burning of the camp, which was done with “disciplined efficiency”, inside the Cages it was strangely quiet. A silence only broken by the endless drone of British army troop carriers bringing thousands of soldiers to the Kesh. The proverbial lull before the storm. “It was surreal,” says Jim.
The situation unfolding before the prisoners was daunting. Overwhelmingly outnumbered and virtually defenceless, the odds against surviving, let alone putting up a fight, were slim. But there they were, the vast majority only teenagers, dressed in jeans and Ben Sherman shirts waiting to take on the might of one of the most brutal imperialist armies in the world.
As they waited, the arrival of comrades from the internee Cages provided a welcome distraction as old friends were reunited. “We sat in the Prison Hospital, which was close to the recently liberated cages and even more recently charred remains of Long Kesh, reminiscing,” recalls Jim.
Having secured the perimeter of the jail, the British army waited until dawn before launching their offensive. As they massed at the entrance, one Volunteer was sent to offer negotiations to a British army officer. “Tell your OC we’ll see him on the football pitches,” came the terse reply. “When they finally came in,” says Jim, “they came in from every direction.”
On the football pitches, hundreds of rubber bullets were fired and thousands of canisters of CS gas were released by the British army as the soldiers and POWs fought hand to hand. “For hours the battle was intense,” says Jim. “The Brits gained ground then lost it just as quickly.”
Suddenly, the British soldiers donned face masks. The Volunteers, already exhausted after hours of fist fighting, were drenched with CR gas. “It was dropped by overhead helicopters,” says Jim. “The canisters were like cluster bombs exploding into pellets which released the gas.” Many of the prisoners had experienced exposure to CS gas in riot situations prior to their capture. No one was prepared for the impact of CR gas. “I thought they were using flame throwers and I was on fire,” says Jim. “Everyone who could was screaming.”
The gas induced an intense burning sensation to any exposed skin. The pain was overwhelming. “I could hardly breathe,” says Jim, “and felt like vomiting.” Those exposed to CR gas describe being totally immobilised and a sensation of intense disorientation. “I was paralysed,” says Jim. “It was as if time stood still.” The British army regained control of the camp. Captured POWs were beaten, brutalised and humiliated. Later the British government denied using CR gas.
A junior MoD minister, in a written answer to a question tabled by Ken Livingstone, claimed CR gas had never been used. But republicans imprisoned in the Kesh at that time insist that CR gas was deployed against them by the British army. Clearly marked canisters littered the pitches. “A few weeks later, medical teams were sent into the jail and blood samples were taken from the prisoners,” says Jim. “We were never told why and the results of those blood tests have never been released.”
For many, the secrecy surrounding the deployment of CR gas is telling in itself. “Do the British have something to hide?” asks Jim. Some suspect that CR gas was developed as a combat rather than as a riot control weapon. “Did the British deploy a chemical weapon against unarmed prisoners?” asks Jim.