Once upon a time I was in prison. Truth to tell I was in prison a few times. That experience stays with you. Even now I occasionally have the sense of being a lapsed prisoner. Though not in any serious way. I suppose I say that only because I think it is a funny thing to say. I don't seriously believe I could end up back in prison. But never say never. We live in a funny old world. Anyway prison never did me any harm. I met many interesting people there. Some of them were prisoners. Some were prison officers.
Some of the ones who were prisoners were Trusties. ODCs. Ordinary Decent Criminals. Jimmy was one of these. That's not his real name. The ODCs emptied the rubbish. Worked in the kitchen. Or the hospital. The ODCs wouldn't have much truck with us anyway. Especially the ones from loyalist neighbourhoods. Jimmy was a loyalist. Or at least that was his background. How do I know that I hear you ask. He told me so himself. The Ordinary Decent Criminals didn't consort much with republican political prisoners. Probably afraid to. Not that there were many points of contact between us anyway. Especially with the loyalists. By the way there were quite a few ODCs from nationalist neighbourhoods as well less I am accused of caricaturing loyalists.
Jimmy worked with the prison doctor. I was over one day chancing my arm looking for a milk ration. Getting a milk diet was a good way of avoiding some of the worst of the prison food. Jimmy noted down my details. There was no one else in the waiting room. The Doctors was in a little wing of its own. A small cell. There was a slightly bigger one just beside where the doctor had his office. Jimmy and I were in the small cell. Just me and him.
'How you getting on?' I asked.
He was a little bit surprised. Looking up from his folder - my folder - he asked ' Who me? You talking to me?'
'I don't see anybody else here.'
'Oh I'm dead on. Just not used to one of youse talking to one of us'. He looked around anxiously. ' I'm not of your sort. I dig with the other fut.'
'Good man' I replied 'what's your name?'
'Jimmy' he said ' and I know who you are.'
I stuck my hand out. He shook it firmly.
'You smoke?' I asked.
'Yup' he said ' like a train. Nothing else to do in this kip'.
I gave him a few cigarettes. He smiled warmly at me.
'Thanks mate. I appreciate that.'
'I'm giving them up' I said. 'Again.'
'Wait there' he ushered me into the bigger cell. 'the doctor will call you in a minute'.
When I finished with the doctor and returned to the small cell Jimmy was gone. But I saw him again the following week. My milk ration had to be prescribed on a weekly basis. I didn't mind that. It got me out and about. Getting a ration of milk every day was a big deal. And getting out to the doctors was a break in the monotony of prison life. So was meeting Jimmy. He and I became friends. I would bring him a few fags. He would slip me a newspaper or a bar of chocolate. That might not sound like a big deal but when I was on punishment a square of Cadburys was a feast and getting a newspaper was like a visit to the library.
Jimmy was also taking a chance giving me this stuff. He could have got into trouble. Loss of his privileges. Maybe even loss of remission. Me? I was in trouble anyway. On a Red Book. So it didn't really matter to me. Most of the time I was in with a bunch of other political prisoners. We looked after each other. We didn't have that much contact on a daily basis with the prison system. Or as I've mentioned, with the Trusties. That wouldn't be approved of. By the prison regime. Or maybe by our own ones as well.
But as luck would have it Jimmy and me never got caught. These weekly encounters became part of our routine. We would only be together for a few minutes. Even less. But we liked chatting to each other. Jimmy chatted a lot. So after six months I knew he started his gaol career for stealing drugs from a chemist he worked for. He said he was pressured into doing it. That's how he got to work with the prison doctor. Because he used to work for a chemist. He said he was a young man at the time. Now Jimmy was married and had two kids. But since his first stint he was in and out of prison a good deal. Just for a few months or a year or so at a time. Nothing too big. Mostly bits and pieces of fraud. Once for assaulting a peeler.
'What type of loyalty is that? I scolded him.
'I'm also fond of a wee drink' he confessed to me.
One day as we discussed his release. It was only a month off. 'Drinks a curse if it gets to you' he proclaimed. 'I'm gonna give it up'.
'Well' I said ' You have a lot going for you. A wife. Two babies. You gotta think of them'.
'That’s okay for you to say that. Your side has everything going for you'. He replied.
I burst out laughing.
'Would you ever catch yourself on' I told him. 'I'm stuck in here. No charges. No trial. No release date. You're out next month. I'm sure there will be a wee rehabilitation job waiting for you. There is no reason for you ever to be back in here again. If you mind yourself. Remember if you can't do the time don't do the crime'.
'That's not what I mean!' He retorted. 'You know that. I mean your side are getting everything that's going. All the oul shite about discrimination is paying off. You really think our side has all the good jobs and the nice houses? We have nothing. Not where I come from.'
'Well do something about it' I said. 'Don't blame me. I don't blame you. I don't believe in this two sides carry on. Who does that suit?'
We left it at that. But when I was leaving a few minutes later he slipped me a packet of Polo mints.
'Your breath is stinking' he smiled.
We parted on good terms. He, a few weeks later, out to East Belfast. Me back to solitary. I missed our weekly engagements. Then eventually I got out as well. Years later up at Stormont I was on my way into Martin McGuinness' office one day when a man detached himself from a group of visitors and hailed me. It was Jimmy.
I was delighted to see him. He was delighted to see me. We shook hands warmly.
'You've come up in the world' he exclaimed.
'So have you' I said.
'I'm taxi-ing' he told me 'showing these French visitors around. Giving them the real history of our wee country. Will you get a photo with them? '
'Sure' I agreed ' if you come in and say hullo to Martin'.
So we did. Martin was as gracious as ever. I told him about me and Jimmy and our gaol soirées. Jimmy insisted on getting a photo with Martin. As he looked around his big office he turned to me.
'Didn't I tell you your side is getting everything that's going?' He laughed.
'And didn't I tell you that I don't believe in this two sides nonsense. We disagree on things but we're all the one'.
'That’s my position too' Martin said. 'You won't be surprised to hear!'
'Ask my brother am I a liar? Jimmy smiled. 'Seriously Martin you're doing a great job with the peace process'.
'You never said that to me' I chided him.
'I get the credit' Martin laughed ' he gets the blame. Now if you two aul jailbirds get out of my office I'll get back to my work'.
So we left him. Jimmy and I parted in the Great Hall. As he went out with his group he slipped me another packet of Polo mints.
'Your breath is still stinking' he told me.
That was Jimmy. We arranged to meet again but we never got round to it for a while after I became a TD for Louth. Then he came down to Dublin for a Bruce Springsteen concert and I got him - Jimmy that is not Bruce - to come into the Dáil for lunch and we had a great session together.
When we were parting he told me he hopes he never goes back to gaol again. I hope so too. Jimmy is a decent man. He has learned his lesson. If he does end up in clink again that would be a disaster. Especially if I was there as well.