of the protest against criminalization, by Republican
political prisoners at Maghaberry, will strike a
chord deep within the hearts and memories of many
nationalists and Republicans. Twenty -five years
ago, ten Irish patriots gave their lives in an unequal
battle, resisting a British plan to brand them and
their country's struggle against British rule as
criminal. Now, even as we pay homage to the memory
of the hunger strikers of 1981, the British appear
to be marking the anniversary in their own peculiar
fashion, by attempting the same criminalization
policy which triggered so much suffering a quarter
century ago. Such measures will have undeniable
implications for the prisoners, their families,
the British government and for those nationalist
political parties which have endorsed the Stormont
The importance of criminalization is perhaps best
illustrated by the brutal measures undertaken by
the British to achieve the objective.
Following internment on August 9, 1971, the British
proclaimed that Irish suspects held without charge,
trial or legal rights were mere criminals and not
political prisoners. Republicans vowed to resist
being so labeled Legendary Belfast Irish Republican
Army commander Billy McKee led a hunger strike against
this policy after other protests were dismissed
by the British.
Ultimately the British conceded the principle, if
not the words. Special category status was created.
Conditions associated with prisoner-of-war status,
such as no criminal uniform, no prison work, association
with other political prisoners, etc, were awarded.
British policy makers however ,would not let the
issue be so concluded.
Having failed in the six counties, the British attempted
damage limitation by denying special category status
to Republicans who dared to bring the struggle to
England. Again Republican political prisoners refused
to allow themselves and their cause to be branded
After attempts at an honorable resolution were dismissed
out of hand by the British and protests ignored,
Republican prisoners including Marion Price, Dolours
Price, Hugh Feeney and Gerry Kelly began a hunger
strike. Two Mayo born Republican prisoners, Michael
Gaughan and Frank Stagg would join. Several weeks
into the hunger strike the British began a brutal
process of force-feeding that would last almost
six months. Michael Gaughan would die on a hunger
strike from the effects of force-feeding.
British medical staff would ultimately refuse to
sanction force-feeding. Britain would concede and
promise the Republican prisoners transfer to prisons
in the north, and recognition as special category
prisoners. Four of the Republican prisoners were
repatriated. The British reneged on Frank Stagg
and he would later die on hunger strike.
British administrators concluded that special category
was a severe setback. It became increasingly difficult
for even the most stiff upper-lipped of British
ministers to proclaim that there were no Republican
political prisoners merely criminals in Long Kesh
or Armagh, only to be challenged about the growing
numbers of Irish prisoners recognized as special
Commissions were empanelled and a strategy contrived.
British ministers announced new initiatives heralding
a new era of justice beginning with the end of internment.
Meanwhile the British devised Diplock courts and
constructed H-blocks. Behind the facade of justice
and rights the British devised a new strategy to
label Irish political prisoners as criminals, and
with them Ireland's long struggle against British
An artificial date of March 1, 1976 was designated.
Those jailed for actions taking place on or before
February 28, 1976 would be recognized as special
category prisoners, not wear a criminal uniform
and instead, granted all of the conditions of political
status. Those engaging in the very same actions
as part of the same struggle after that date, were
to be branded as criminals. They would wear criminal
uniforms and be confined in the H-blocks, as part
of the public acceptance of their new status as
criminals. Kieran Nugent became the first Republican
prisoner handed a criminal uniform. He shouted back
that his British jailers would have to nail it to
his back in order to force him to wear it. Alone,
he tied a blanket around himself and resisted every
attempt to bully, beat and break him into accepting
the garb of a criminal, and of course paid a terrible
psychological and physical price.
Hundreds of "blanketmen" would be held
in Long Kesh. The British tried beatings, brutal
searches, intimidation and loss of remission in
order to force a criminal uniform and criminalization
upon them. A steadily escalating campaign to break
them and the women prisoners in Armagh was resisted
by an escalating protest campaign by Republican
prisoners. Massive support for the H-Block-Armagh
Committee was provided by Churchmen, politicians
,human rights activists and individuals who did
not endorse the armed campaigns of the IRA or INLA
,but recognized that Republican prisoners were jailed
for actions which were politically motivated and
undertaken because of British rule in the north.
All attempts at honorable resolution were rejected
by the British. Ten Irish Republican prisoners led
by Bobby Sands MP would ultimately give their lives
on hunger strike rather than betray their struggle
by accepting criminalization. Thatcher was beaten
albeit at a terrible price. The world recognized
that criminals do not die such deaths for the freedom
of their country.
It is remarkable how little British strategy and
tactics have changed in the last quarter century.
The Stormont Deal was heralded by them as a new
era. It is being used much like March 1, 1976 as
a new artificial date to finally impose criminalization
on Irish Republican political prisoners. A criminal
uniform would be too obvious. Instead the means
of criminalizing Republican prisoners is to force
them into cells alongside and among criminals, without
segregation amongst political prisoners. An early
protest won segregation. The British then contrived
to make the block for political prisoners a virtual
punishment block. Those Republican prisoners who
demanded segregation would be locked up for 21 or
22 hours daily, systemically strip-searched, brutalized,
threatened and denied conditions and facilities
available to criminals. The aim of the British is
to break these prisoners into accepting places on
the criminal wing .
Republican prisoners are protesting. Will the British
escalate by further beatings and brutality? Is this
a British attempt to finally achieve Republican
submission to the very same British strategy of
There are crucial political implications. For Republican
political prisoners there is a challenge to endure
and resist British criminalization. There is also
a challenge to them and to their leaders, to be
pragmatic in building a strategy and campaign which
can unite Republicans and defeat the British.
If the nature of British rule has truly changed
,why do British administrators seek to reimpose
criminalization upon Republicans? Do the British
wish to persist in a strategy which risks inspiring
resistance and also exposing their rule in Ireland
as one that still inflicts oppression and injustice
upon Irish political prisoners?
Does the wider nationalist and Republican community,
wish to endorse a constabulary which makes them
complicit in a British strategy of criminalization?
Are not Republican political prisoners entitled
to support ,from quarters who may disagree with
the prisoners on the Stormont deal but recognize
that the same moral grounds which justified the
H-Block-Armagh support still apply?
Twenty-five years later, as we pay homage to the
memory of the hunger strikers of 1981, surely we
must not betray the very principle for which they
suffered and sacrificed so much.