After long history of resistance and broken agreements the prisoners embark on 'dirty protest'.
Maghaberry jail is where Irish Republican prisoners in the Six Counties who did not agree with the Good Friday Agreement remained while the Provisions walked out under the terms of the Agreement. Subsequently their numbers have been swelled by others also opposed to the GFA. Although the British and the Northern Ireland Executive's Justice Minister deny they are political prisoners, they call them "Separate" because they are separated from non-political prisoners within the jail. After broken agreements, ongoing harassment and violent and physically intrusive body searches, the prisoners now escalate their protest campaign.
A few weeks ago prison guards in riot gear entered Roe House in Maghaberry Jail with dogs and truncheons and attacked the political prisoners, injuring many.
This news will surprise some in Ireland and many more abroad, as some have been going around for years saying that with the Irish “Peace Process”, the Republican political prisoners left the jails. On a Youtube video (link below), one of the Belfast tour guides from Coiste (group of ex-prisoners associated with Sinn Féin) may be seen repeating this line; even a spokesperson for Etxerat (organisation of Basque political prisoners’ families and friends) has been seen and heard saying it in the video of their demonstration on 12th June in Bilbao. BUT IT IS NOT TRUE.
What is true is that those who follow the ‘Provisional’ line in the Republican movement were released on licence. The majority of the Republican prisoners of those days, certainly, but not all! Those prisoners who belonged to groups which did not support the line of Provisional IRA or Sinn Féin remained inside.
Later, others entered the jail as political prisoners, so that now there are around 60, two-thirds in Maghaberry (in the Six Counties), and the other third in Portlaoise (in the Twenty-Six). These are those convicted or accused of belonging to INLA, the Continuity IRA, the Real IRA, Republican Network for Unity and others. They belong to those groups which many call “dissident” although they themselves reject that term, saying that it is not they who have abandoned the fight for national liberation and socialism. There are also those who are accused of breaching the terms of their ‘licence’ (by associating with ‘terrorists’ or commiting some other offence), such as Marian Price and Brendan Lillis, and also McGeough, an ex-Provisional convicted recently of attempted murder of an RUC man back in 1981.
Not only are there political prisoners but they are now in struggle for their human and political rights. These prisoners are not given the ‘political status’ which was won by the sacrifice of ten hunger strikers (seven from the IRA and three from INLA) in 1981, because that was given up by the Provisionals as part of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
The prisoners are currently demanding free association among the prisoners in the mornings and afternoons up until 8.30pm and an end to the invasive body searches.
Previously the prisoners had been on a “dirty protest” in resistance to the campaign of the guards’ harrassment of them and their families. The responsible Ministry came to an agreement through intermediaries to cease the harrassment and to permit the prisoners to remain in free association until 8.30pm. Nevertheless, the Governor of the prison, saying he had insufficient officers, decreed that the association period should end earlier and the guards ordered the prisoners to their cells before 8pm. The prisoners refused and in came the riot squad, who had been in readiness nearby. Since then the prisoners had been on protest and were kept in their cells for most of the day (although visits from outside continued as normal).
After many protests an agreement had been reached between the prisoners and the Justice Department and Maghaberry management on 12th August 2010. The agreement was divided into three distinct phases:
In September 2010, the prisoners would finish their protest and the prison administration were to begin changing their procedures, including ceasing the intimate and invasive body searches, installing instead the ‘Boss chair’ which uses X-rays; in December 2010, free association between the prisoners in the Roe House block would be permitted; in the third phase a prisoners’ forum would be established to find ways to address any other issues that might arise.
Much of the agreement was broken, such as the free association until 8.30, while some parts have never been activated, such as ceasing the intimate body searches.
Each time a prisoner leaves the Roe House block and again when he returns, he is required to submit to the body search, including looking under his testicles, inside his mouth, inserting fingers in his anus. The prisoners see this as an attack on their dignity which has nothing to do with security, they refuse to cooperate and they resist and for this reason the procedure is always violent. The guards carry out this violent and invasive procedure even though the prisoners had no contact with anyone from outside. One prisoner, Colin Duffy, recently attended court clad only in his underpants; earlier that morning the prison guards had handcuffed him to a pipe in the bathroom while they cut his clothes off with scissors. Though they have the ‘Boss chair’ now, they never use it.
There is a long history of prisoner resistance to the regime at Roe House in Maghaberry Jail; a highly politicised regime for a group which the authorities deny are political prisoners but which they call “Separate”, by virtue of the fact that they are separated from the non-political prisoners. There was a long period when prisoners’ visits were being terminated on “suspicion of carrying drugs”. The “sniffer” dogs were being walked around the waiting visitors and whenever a dog stopped and sat down near someone, that person had to leave, as well as anyone with them and the meeting was terminated. No drugs were ever found on the political prisoners or on their families, who allege that the guards in some way signaled their dogs to sit and then used that to terminate the visits. Prisoners stopped that form of harassment eventually by a campaign of protests with the support of their families.
Not only do the prisoners suffer harrassment and assault but also, for resisting, they lose their sentence remission, so that their sentence is lengthened. The prisoners find themselves in a very difficult situation and there is a fear that one day they will see no alternative but the hunger strike to the death.
On the 29th June, the Commandant of the CIRA prisoners, in a statement distributed by supporters on Facebook, denounced the harrassment and that the agreements made had not been adhered to and announced that they were then going on protest. Since it is understood that they were already on a protest, this was taken to mean an escalation, probably a ‘dirty protest’. This is when the prisoners refuse to carry their urine and faeces in the chamber pots to dispose of them in the communal toilets but instead throw them out on to passage ways under the cell door. Should the guards put material there to block that, then to throw them out the windows. Finally, should the windows be blocked, the waste is spread on the cell walls. This was the stage reached before the hunger strikes at the end of 1980 and then of 1981, in which 10 Republicans gave their lives.
On June 30 a serious fire destroyed the dining area of Roe House and since then the prisoners have been locked in their cells 24 hours a day. A statement on the Cogús site (subsection of the RNU site dedicated to prisoner welfare and solidarity) announced that the prisoners are now on dirty protest.
The prisoners are isolated not only from society in general, for being republicans and because of the censorship of the mass media, but also from parts of the Republican and socialist movements as well, because of being “dissidents”. The majority of people who are in favour of the Good Friday Agreement do not wish to admit that political prisoners remain in jails in Ireland. Sinn Féin didn’t mention them for years and its spokespersons denied that were any political prisoners in Ireland.
This denial of reality has had an echo outside the country too, where Irish solidarity groups have had many years of good relations with Sinn Féin, or where liberation movements are considering a similar process to the Irish one for their own countries. They also contribute to the isolation; they do not mention the prisoners or they repeat the untruth that “the Irish Republican prisoners were released during the Process”.
Against this isolation, the “dissident” groups, including those who have no supporters in the jails, have united in a number of marches in the Six Counties, the most recent being on the 5th of June. There have also been protest pickets there and in Dublin too. Independent activists have also begun to attend these protests.
Pressure has mounted on Sinn Féin, externally and internally, to take a public stand on the issue. Recently one of Sinn Féin’s members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (the parliament there), Jennifer McCann, called on the Justice Minister to ensure that the prisoners were being treated correctly, although she spoke in terms of human rights rather than political rights. Very recently, a SF delegation including ex-prisoner Raymond McCartney has visited Maghaberry and called on the Minister to honour the agreement reached with the prisoners and to treat the prisoners properly. But what will the party do about this, rather than make statements? After all, a few of its members are actually Ministers of that statelet’s Executive, including one who is Deputy First Minister.
It is the growing unity of the Republican groups in solidarity with the prisoners, the increasing support of independent activists and of course the resistance of the prisoners themselves that give rise to the prisoners’ hope to break out of that isolation and to win respect for their human rights, without mentioning for the moment the concession that recognises what they are and for which so many have fought previously, including ten militants to the death – the status of political prisoner.
POLITICAL PRISONERS IN MAGHABERRY (ROE HOUSE)
(It is difficult to be certain about these numbers and an error of one or two is possible)
Group Politically affiliated or near to Numbers
Republican Network for Unity 16
CIRA Republican Sinn Féin 9
RIRA 32-County Sovereignty Movement 5
Special unit of the jail (Colin Duffy y companions) 3