A Flaming Riot
The civil war in Northern Ireland between the pro-British, largely Protestant Loyalists or Unionists and the anti-British, largely Catholic Republicans has largely disappeared from international headlines. However, tensions between the factions continue to erupt, even within the controlled environment of prison life.
On the evening of Wednesday, January 14, 2004, Loyalists erected barricades within the Loyalist wing of Northern Ireland’s top security Maghaberry Prison, in protest of segregation plans. Various areas within the Bann House section of the prison were torched; windows were smashed, and prison facilities were destroyed. The following Monday, 35 prisoners involved in the disturbance were placed on ‘Rule 32′, which restricts a prisoner’s freedom of association. Authorities charged the Loyalists with offences against prison discipline.
It was the latest violence in response to Republican prisoners’ demands for segregation, in line with earlier protests such as the ‘no-wash’ protest or ‘dirty protest’ during the days of ‘The Blanketmen’  (1976-81). Loyalists believe that segregation in the prison system would result in the re-granting of political status to the Republicans (RIRA/CIRA). The Unionists, however, view segregation as an unnecessary weakening of the British Government’s position, and possible dilution of the Unionist’s own power both within and outside and the penal system.
Following the protests, the prison authorities agreed to establish a Republican wing separated from cells occupied by pro-British paramilitaries (Loyalists) and non-political prisoners – often officially referred to as ODCs – ordinary decent criminals. The ‘Northern Ireland Prison Service’ announced its decision in a document titled ‘Compact for Separated Prisoners’.
I recently received a communication in which Republican prisoners outlined their adverse response to the ‘Compact for Segregated Prisoners’. They ask that public attention be drawn to their concerns. According to the Republican prisoners’ viewpoint, there is always a tendency by the British authorities to act in bad faith when implementing concessions made in response to protest actions. The Republicans therefore must look upon the recently proposed regime of segregation with caution.
The communication I received emphasizes that, following the January 14 barricade, the prison authorities “agreed reluctantly” to provide a Republican wing, even though this action of segregation is in line with the government-sponsored Steele Review, a commission seeking to improve safety conditions at the Maghaberry Prison for both inmates and staff.
Along with the concession to create a separate Republican wing, the ‘Compact for Segregated Prisoners’ document will allow prison authorities to deny prisoners participation in normal everyday activities such as education, recreation, physical exercise, canteen facilities and regular association. The prisoners also claim, “Even religious practice to prisoners on Republican wings” might be denied.
According to the Republican prisoners, the denial of these rights (which the authorities assert are really privileges and not rights) is to be accompanied by daily cell and full body searches. While the former might be viewed as understandable and sometimes even a necessary routine, the latter is both upsetting and degrading for those subjected to such actions. These proposals amount to no less than punitive sanctions against those Republicans who choose to reside in the safety of their designated wing.
One should keep in mind that before the Steele Review, Republican prisoners were heavily outnumbered and were subjected to frequent, often very serious physical assaults. These sparked protests, both inside the jails, and on the streets, amid intense ‘behind-the-scenes’ lobbying of leading clerics, politicians, journalists, statutory bodies, the Northern Ireland Office, and prominent civil rights veterans, etcetera.
A new Criminalization Plan?
Of equal concern to prisoners, as well as human rights and civil liberties’ groups, is the prison service’s intention to enforce a rehabilitation scheme under the title “The Home-Leave Resettlement Boards”, as a pre-condition to successful parole applications. This is not a voluntary scheme, as its operations will require prisoners to undergo formal risk assessments, which will rely upon input from the ‘Northern Ireland Prison Service’ authorities. The Probation Service and clinical psychologists will also look for evidence that the prisoner has been “addressing his offending behavior while in jail”. Republican prisoners view such plans as another attempt to criminalize them and their political ideology.
The claims that these proposals amount to a new “criminalization plan” go hand in hand with the fact that this program is currently already mandatory for ordinary criminals and sex offenders. Thus, from the point of view of Republican militants, this “is no less than a calculated insult to political prisoners who know full well they do not need to be rehabilitated from anything.”
Today’s Republican inmates in Maghaberry and elsewhere, are highly conscious of past prison struggles like the hunger strikes of 1980/1 that left ten Republican prisoners dead. In response to current thinking and planning by Northern Ireland’s authorities, the Republican prisoners vigorously assert, “In keeping with our integrity as Irish Republicans, the well-being of future PoWs, not to mention the sacrifices of past PoWs on our behalf, we reject the ‘Compact and Separated Prisoners’ document”.
As a result, members of the real IRA, a faction of ‘Oglaigh Na h-√É‚Äù√É¬∏√é¬©reann’ , have instructed its ‘Volunteers’ not to sign any document in relation to the “Compact Proposals”.
New Transportation Plans
In addition to the Steele Review recommendations and the subsequent ‘Compact for Segregated Prisoners’, plans emerged for the transportation of ‘disruptive’ prisoners – not this time to the West Indies or Tasmania- but “across the water” to England and Wales.
The new powers for the Northern Ireland Prison System authorities are contained in the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill, which is currently being debated at Westminster.
The Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill, Clause 13, Transfer of Prisoners, reads:
2A If it appears to the Secretary of State that-
(a) a person remanded in custody in Northern Ireland in connection with an offence, or
(b) a person serving a sentence of imprisonment in Northern Ireland;
should be transferred to England and Wales in the interests of maintaining security or good order in any prison in Northern Ireland, the Secretary of State may make an order for his transfer to England and Wales.
The local October Fifth Association , comprised of 1968 civil rights veterans and supporters, is of the opinion that when this is passed into law any resistance by prisoners to this punitive regime could result in their removal from jails in Northern Ireland. Such action would result in major economic and psychological blows to the loved ones of prisoners and their friends in particular. European and international conventions strongly recommend that prisoners be located within, or near their own communities.
Onus on Authorities
The onus is now on both British and Northern Irish authorities, primarily the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Prison Service, which fall under the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to create a dialogue whereby arrangements can be made that will avoid history from tragically repeating itself.
1. ‘The Blanketmen’ – 1976-81 – ‘No wash’/Dirty protest’ – Republican PoWs refused to wear a convict’s uniform – wore only a blanket – confined to their cells for non-compliance, they remained there, year in, year out, their urine flowing through the doors and human waste being spread on the walls. Protest began after political status was abolished in 1976.
2. RIRA-Real Irish Republican Army – created 1996; CIRA – Continuity IRA – 1986
3. Of those killed, seven were members of PIRA – Provos/Provisionals – 1970 – split from ‘Official IRA’. Of those killed, three were members of INLA – Irish National Liberation Army – 1974
4. Splintering of Oglaigh Na h-√É‚Äù√É¬∏√é¬©reann – Army of the Republic – created in 1916 – Easter Week Rebellion
5. October Fifth Association – email@example.com – Links include – www.ia-pl.org
Northern Ireland Prison Service