Anthony McIntyre ⚱ looks back in admiration at the life of the man who spent longer on the blanket protest than any other person, alive or dead.
In an interview published posthumously Paul McGlinchey, the republican prisoner to have worn the blanket of protest for longer than any other person, explained to the Irish News:
They opened the cell doors at night and just fired the stuff around us … we could not breathe. Our eyes started to water and we had to smash the windows to get air.
His suspicions grew stronger when he spoke to a hospital consultant while being treated for cancer who asked him if he had ever been exposed to the military or police. The consultant revealed that she had treated former prisoners, which further fuelled his curiosity. His thoughts echoed similar concerns often aired by the erstwhile republican prisoner Jim McCann in respect of the detrimental impact CR gas had on the longevity of the lives of those subjected to it while incarcerated. Whether or not there were carcinogens in the chemicals used by the prison management there is no doubt about the brutality of the regime that Paul was forced to endure for five years of his life.
There are three things people quickly discover about courage when the need to tap into it arises, when they either find it or collapse from the effects of its deprivation:
- it is not always a dependable ally
- it is primarily social
- it is not finite - use up too much of it too soon and the stock will deplete.
While embryonic within individuals, courage is often nurtured from its slumber by other people within the same social group. When the blanket protest was in full throttle there was some sense of safety in numbers. Whatever was being inflicted on us, there was the certainty that everybody else on the wing was getting it too and that together we would somehow muddle through and come out the other end.
When Paul McGlinchey first came into the cages of Long Kesh in 1976, he was fresh faced with jet black hair and bright red cheeks: reserved but friendly. A charge of IRA membership on dates that spanned both the pre-March 1st cut off point for political status and the period thereafter where, magically, people became criminals overnight at the stroke of a British pen, saw him lose his political status upon being sentenced in a no jury Diplock Court. He was cast into the H Blocks, where the long dark night of the soul awaited.
On the blanket protest, life was endured not enjoyed. Truth Will Out is a must read of his trek through terror and tedium. There is every reason to stock it on bookshelves alongside others with the names O'Donovan Rossa, and Tom Clarke, embossed on their spine, each telling a story of bravery besting brutality.
He survived, was eventually released and went on to rear a family, invariably one of the most joyous triumphs over the death and desolation of the H Blocks. Life springing from empty cells.
While he was not implacably hostile to Sinn Fein and the direction it was moving in, he had grave reservations about the party opting to suck the truncheon of the PSNI. He sought to mobilise opinion against support for a renamed RUC by contesting an election, feeling that there was no way to polish a turd. In 2007 I spoke at a couple of events in support of his efforts.
As it proved to be, the most generous thing that can be said about Sinn Fein’s approval of the PSNI was what another blanketman, Tommy Gorman, had wittily termed Premature Capitulation. It was never about the state of policing, and had everything to do with ticking ballot boxes in the upcoming Southern election. As a measure of police reform, the PSNI has failed miserably in its attitude to the past, underscored by its reticence to tackle state “murder on an industrial scale” while pursuing former republican activists. It opted to arrest Gerry Adams but not Ronnie Flanagan. This was what Paul was anticipating when he threw his hat into the ring.
There was banter on the electoral road as well as gloom. We winded him up by calling him Rainbow Paul, after the mock politician Rainbow George. George had a penchant for standing in elections he hadn’t the slightest chance or intention of winning. Paul wasn’t always pleased with our dim view of his prospects. He didn’t expect to win but felt he could put in a good showing. But by then the Zeitgeist of Northern nationalism had changed. People would not be prepared to vote in such numbers for what they regarded as the bad old days.
Despite the many lows and let downs, it would not be regrets that ravished Paul, but cancer. It was a foe which even this old dog for the hard road would not overcome. Just as with the blanket protest, he turned it into a prolonged battle of defiance. It would wait a long time for its victory.
When two former blanket men came down for a drink in Drogheda a few years ago, we managed to get Paul on the phone from the bar we were in. When he was laid to rest, former blanketmen turned up to accompany him on that final journey.
Paul McGlinchey was a man of unquestionable tenacity, stamina and belief. He was also humble about it, never pushing his chest out. He was not someone who was destined to die from an attack of hubris. His journey was a memorable one, characterised by valour not vanity.