people who voted for the Agreement, which included
the desperately difficult issue of the early release
of paramilitary prisoners, did so on the basis that
there would be no place for anyone who would use violence
to achieve political ends.
were the words of Security Minister Jane Kennedy on
September 8th denouncing any possibility that segregation
on the grounds of political affiliation would not
be happening now or in the future.
A mere three weeks later we have learned that segregation
is now separation and is not the same
as the installation of special category or political
status and is most definitely not a return to the
paramilitary wing days of Long Kesh. That is, according
to Jane Kennedy.
Following on from her original statement Kennedy then
vowed that society must be protected from those who
refuse to accept the non violent path. The truth of
her governments approach has however been somewhat
Whilst the Labour administration have demonstrated
a verbal determination to indemnify those outside
the acceptable paramilitary structures, little has
actually been done to give so called dissident republicans
and loyalists any solid political reason to cease
Thus far the Belfast Agreement has hardly been the
standard bearer of a new and improved Northern Ireland,
and has actually succeeded in providing dissident
paramilitary organisations with pseudo justification
for continuing attacks.
deplorable as this violence has been, the answer from
the British and Irish governments has been to jail
them en masse, north and south of the border. Given
the fact that these prisoners are considered to be
the hard-liners of their respective ideologies, then
clashes between enemies incarcerated at close quarters
was totally inevitable.
Leaving aside the crime versus political activity
argument, at a social level, the governments are reaping
the whirlwind of sidelining anyone that dares go against
the grain of the Good Friday Agreement.
The heinous act of barbarity in Omagh is tribute to
the need to end this activity once and for all. But
the demonisation of all dissenting opinion is another
With the acceptance of the Steele recommendations
on separation of Republican and Loyalist
inmates from each other and on a voluntary basis is
a reluctant and thinly disguised return to something
approaching the system that for so long operated in
Long Kesh. We all remember that its denial had deadly
consequences for many inside and outside that jail.
There are certain criteria that a prisoner must fulfill
before they can be separated.
Firstly, the wings will not be under the control of
the incumbents as they were in Long Kesh; prison officers
will still have full autonomy.
This at least is the theory.
The nature of the offence, the PSNI assessment of
affiliation, previous custodial terms, community background,
a risk assessment of any likely threat to that individual
or from that individual to others, the acceptability
of the candidate to their chosen grouping and whether
or not they are over eighteen years of age, must be
taken into account, and this is after the person has
volunteered to undergo such scrutiny. The failings
of this system are at once plain, but better than
the current situation.
The trustworthiness of PSNI assessment of an individual's
political or paramilitary proclivity is highly debatable
to say the least, especially when based on the benchmark
of community background, and the biased nature of
the police service. The former and current activities
of the PSNI Special Branch in such matters should
ring alarm bells for every human rights group in operation.
Although hypothetical what would happen if a non affiliated
prisoner found themselves physically threatened because
of their religious background and opted for separation
and were accepted into a paramilitary wing without
actual membership of that organisation?
Is it likely that they would remain untainted by that
association after their release?
I am led to believe that this was a regular and necessary
feature of life in Long Kesh in the 1970s and
1980s and that after their release ODCs
(ordinary decent criminals) were permanently tarred
with a paramilitary brush by the then RUC. Not enough
has changed within the PSNI in my estimation to prevent
this happening again.
This decision by the government flies in the face
of the original post Agreement policy of integrated
incarceration as the most cost effective and controllable
method of imprisonment in Northern Ireland.
With the release of the majority of politically motivated
prisoners after the agreement saw the end of political
status, and integrated imprisonment became the phrase
that replaced what previous governments called normalisation
and in more hushed tones criminalisation. This policy
sought to primarily castigate and demonise Republicans,
portraying them as criminals without political credence
and simultaneously allowing the British to promote
the notion that there was no war in Northern Ireland,
just minor skirmishes with ungrateful Fenians who
did not know their place.
The release under the thirty year embargo rule of
Ted Heaths proposed airstrikes on Derrys
Creggan and the consideration of forcible repatriation
of northern nationalists into the republic put pay
to the idea that the British were engaged in nothing
less than a serious conflict.
At its apogee, the conflict between republicanism
and the British resulted in the deaths of ten hunger
strikers in 1981 in defence of their right to political
status. The recent dirty protest and threatened hunger
strike by Republican inmates in Maghaberry however
arose in very different circumstances than those encountered
by Bobby Sands et al in 1981.
A substantial amount of current thinking on this situation,
whether correct or not, has indicated that dissident
republican intentions within Maghaberry were exacerbated
by a desire by their vilified leadership to engender
outside sympathy and support. This thinking even suggested
that a martyr, i.e.; a dead hunger striker would steal
considerable thunder from ailing mainstream republicanism.
Tempted though I was by the weight of this argument,
since I have long believed that much use was and is
made of the speculated thoughts today of those who
died in 1981, I understand that cold reality tells
a different story.
Tales of daily attacks and intimidation by prison
staff are too numerous to be discounted. One recent
incident of a republican prisoner placed in the general
prison population against his wishes having his food
poisoned illustrates the sense of this move by the
Despite the wish of Dublin and London that the Agreement
provide a panacea for Irish society, it is plainly
apparent that to some extent it has heightened tensions
amongst people who clearly still perceive themselves
to be at war.
Political status this is not, but it is as close as
anyone will ever get to it again, at least within
the remit of this accord. If we cannot live together
outside the walls of Maghaberry, how are diametrically
opposed organisations with the will for destruction
and the tools to provide it expected to co-exist in
such a confined arena?
It would appear that another chapter in the role of
jails in the wider pantheon of Irish history has been
opened, will it be the last?
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