Hostages were repeatedly threatened with hanging

 

The prison service's most serious siege ended peacefully despite many volatile and dangerous moments. Jim Cusack, Security Correspondent, recounts events as they happened

By JIM CUSACK

THE 53-hour siege at Mountjoy Prison began when two prison officers were overpowered in the recreation room in the top security separation unit at 6.20 p.m. on Saturday. Within minutes, two other officers in an adjoining room were also overpowered.

The alarm was then raised and two other officers, apparently unaware of what exactly was happening, came into the unit to give assistance. One of these officers was also seized.

The six prisoners then announced they were holding the officers hostage and would injure them if any attempt was made to storm the recreation room.

A senior officer went to the entrance to the unit and spoke to the hostage-takers through a window onto the landing which was broken by the inmates. The prison governor, Mr John Lonergan, was alerted at home and drove immediately to the prison.

At the outset, the senior prison officer on the landing persuaded the six inmates, as an act of good faith, to release one of the five hostages. They did this within 20 minutes of the siege starting.

The Department of Justice and the Minister for Justice, Mrs Owen, were also immediately alerted. A news black-out was imposed and an appeal made to prison officers not to tip off the press. This was observed for approximately the first four hours of the siege.

Mr Lonergan established a control centre at the prison and a second centre was set up in the Department of Justice. The governor had command throughout and worked closely with the trained negotiators who remained at the entrance to the separation unit, speaking to the inmates and, occasionally, the hostages.

The negotiators could see weapons, at least two lengths of heavy tubular metal taken from table legs and a syringe which contained a red liquid which was, probably correctly, presumed to be blood.

The negotiators' primary function was to establish a focused dialogue with the hostage-takers about their demands and to see how fare they could be met while maintaining the safety of the hostages.

The first 10 hours of any such siege are regarded as being the most volatile and dangerous. In this case, the first 10 hours passed by peacefully enough.

On Saturday evening, the inmates and hostages received food, and three of the heroin-addicted inmates received methadone treatment, as prescribed by a doctor who was called to the unit.

Four of the prisoners, Paul Ward, Eddie Ferncombe, Warren Dumbrell and Joseph O'Connor, wanted their names publicised, and it was apparently agreed that their names would go to broadcasting stations and newspapers.

However, the early afternoon hourly news bulletin on Sky News placed considerable emphasis on the fact that Ward was facing a conspiracy charge in relation to the murder of journalist Veronica Guerin. Ward interpreted the report as suggesting that he was guilty of the offence and flew into a rage.

At about this stage, it is understood, the first of a series of hanging threats was made by the hostage-takers.

The inmates showed they had constructed a noose from torn shirts and a television cable, which was attached to an electrical fitting on the ceiling. One of the officers was made to stand on a table with the noose around his neck.

It is thought that the governor then directed that a military explosives expert be brought to the unit to assess the best way to storm it should any of the hostages be injured.

The ordnance officer attached to the Army Ranger Wing satisfied himself that the unit door could be opened with explosives and the unit stormed. He then withdrew to stand by with the three units from the wing, comprising about 18 men in all. These units remained close to Mountjoy ready to move into the prison throughout the remainder of the siege.

Gardai operating from a control centre in Fitzgibbon Street station also collaborated with the negotiators, providing background information on the inmates. The Garda began assembling a large riot unit in case disturbances spread through the prison and control was lost by the prison authorities.

In the event, Ward was eventually assuaged and settled down later in the day. He received methadone treatment in the evening.

By Sunday night, hopes had risen considerably that the siege could end soon. However, the inmates settled in for the night and a resolution was allowed to be moved back until the next day, Monday.

On Monday morning, the inmates demanded to see newspaper reports of the siege and specifically demanded the Star and Irish Independent. However, the authorities were concerned about the coverage in the Independent. This included detail of the Army officer's visit to the unit and also the names of the two inmates who had demanded anonymity.

The governor decided the detail of the soldier's visit was potentially too dangerous to be seen by the inmates as it would almost certainly spark a panic. The negotiators delivered a copy of the Star, the Examiner and The Irish Times, but not the Independent, into the unit. This immediately became a contentious issue and the situation worsened during the early afternoon.

Hostages were forced onto the table another three or four times during the afternoon and the inmates began countdowns each time, threatening to hang the officers. Each time they drew back.

The situation was eventually settled after food and medication was supplied at teatime and the prisoners spoke directly to Mr Lonergan on the telephone for 45 minutes.

It emerged at this stage that the inmates thought the Independent coverage contained material highly derogatory of them. When they were convinced that the refusal of the paper was purely on security grounds, they became relaxed once more.

Mr Lonergan's telephone call was quickly followed by further negotiations about ending the siege. The men called for witnesses and it was agreed that their solicitors come to the unit.

Three solicitors, who represent all six inmates, agreed to come immediately and assisted in further negotiations.

As an opening gesture, the inmates released one hostage at 10.20 p.m. and then the other three an hour later.

The worst siege in the history of the prison service was over.