A republican hunger striker granted early release under the Good Friday Agreement has said IRA prisoners never wanted to be pawns in the peace negotiations.
Pat Sheehan, now a prominent Sinn Fein politician, said he and fellow inmates made clear they did not want the republican leadership to be “held over a barrel” just to secure their freedom.
The 64-year-old said prisoners were more concerned that the talks found resolution to what they considered the main causes of the conflict, with their own liberty only a secondary issue.
Mr Sheehan spent 55 days on hunger strike in 1981 and was said to be only days from death when republicans called off the protest. Ten prisoners died on hunger strike and he was set to be the eleventh.
“We had been following every twist and turn of the peace process,” he told the PA news agency.
“It was obvious that there was something happening on the outside and as time went on it became more clear that there was something of a very serious nature happening on the outside and we were following all that within the prison,” he said.
“I have to say, the night before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement I went to bed, after having listened to all the commentators, believing that there wasn’t going to be a deal.
“But when I get up the next morning, low and behold the deal had been agreed.
“I have to say at that time there was a lot of debate and discussion within the prison, there were some people who were very sceptical about the peace process but, by and large, the vast majority of us were in favour of it.
“We had been briefed, our leadership in the prison had been briefed by the leadership on the outside about what was happening.
“So no one was taken by surprise, no one was hit with a bolt from the blue about what was happening. And we had always been clear in the lead up and during those negotiations, that prisoners weren’t to be used as a pawn, we understood that the negotiations weren’t about getting prisoners out of jail, it was about dealing with the causes of the conflict.
“And we didn’t want the leadership to be held over a barrel over prisoner releases. At the same time, I would have to say there would have been a sense of anticipation that if the causes of the conflict were dealt with, if there was a political agreement negotiated, that prisoner release would have been part of that agreement.”
“The second time I was sentenced to 24 years imprisonment, so if it hadn’t been for the Good Friday Agreement, I would have been in prison for another eight or 10 years,” he said.
The now MLA for West Belfast said while he was optimistic about what the future would hold outside, he had a feeling of apprehension about being released.
“I was coming out to a different situation,” he said.
“My mother and father had both died when I was in prison on the second occasion. So, I was going out to changed family circumstances.
“I was also going to have to face up to having to earn a living, but I was totally committed to the peace process and I wanted to become involved again, and I became involved in the struggle in a political way.”
Mr Sheehan insisted prisoners who were released early were mindful of the upset the move caused for victims of the IRA.
“I can absolutely understand that, and we were conscious of that in the lead up to the prisoner releases,” he said.
“We asked everyone who was going out of prison to go out and leave the prison as quickly as possible, not to be grandstanding outside the prison and things like that and, by and large, that’s what happened.
“There were times when there were large numbers of prisoners being released at the one time, and therefore big crowds of families and friends were in the car park waiting on them. Sometimes it did appear, as if, you know, it was almost a party atmosphere. But that was beyond our control.
“We were conscious of the people who had been victims of the IRA in particular.
“But, having said that, there were many prisoners who were also victims, you know, who had relatives killed by the state, and the killers of those family members had never served a day in prison, had never been held accountable for their actions.
“So, while we were conscious of victims of the IRA, we were also conscious of our own comrades and our friends who had people killed by the state and their proxies in the course of the conflict.”
“For me, it was worth it,” he said.
“I mean if you look at the society we live in today and I know many people are cynical now about the Good Friday Agreement, but if you compare and contrast the society that we live in today compared to what was happening in the 70s, 80s and 90s, I mean it’s just completely transformed.
“Internationally, the Good Friday Agreement is held up as the gold standard of peace agreements throughout the world. Everybody’s envious of the agreement that we have here.”
He added: “When I joined the IRA, it was because I didn’t believe at that time that there was any other way of bringing about change.
“As an Irish republican, I want an end to partition, I want an end to the British interference in affairs in Ireland, and nationalists in the north had come through the injustice of partition but layered on top of that was the injustice of discrimination, institutionalised sectarianism, the denial of civil rights, and then the abuse of human rights when peaceful protests were attacked by the state.
“So, I had come through all of that as a child and as a teenager.
“I lived a couple of hundred yards from where the Ballymurphy massacre occurred (shootings involving the British Army in 1971), I witnessed internment, Bloody Sunday, all of that.
“And I believed the only way to bring about change was through armed conflict. What the Good Friday Agreement did was created for the first time a peaceful way by which I as a republican could achieve my objective of an independent united Ireland without having to resort to any force.
“And it also created a political architecture where one community could no longer dominate over the other.
“So, you know, for all those things, I was optimistic, although apprehensive in a personal way, I was very optimistic about the future and about the future here on the island of Ireland that we were going to live in a transformed society and thankfully I have been proved right on that.”