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Republican Political Prisoners in the North of Ireland

by David Fanning, Irish Northern Aid

On May 22, 1998, voters in Ireland, north and south, voted overwhelmingly in favor of adopting what has become known as the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). This agreement was meant to bring to an end over thirty years of bitter conflict in the six counties of Ireland which to this day remain under English colonial occupation. Recognizing the need for an equality agenda, for a radical reform of the sectarian police force and for a devolved parliament, the agreement also called for the release by July of this year of all political prisoners affiliated with organizations observing a cease-fire. On the Republican side, this affected about three hundred prisoners who were serving long terms (very frequently life) for Irish Republican Army (IRA) activities.

The GFA was the result of ten solid years' effort to create the conditions under which the Anglo-Irish conflict could be resolved through political, rather than military, means. The part of the agreement which called for the release of POWs was the culmination of a series of prison protests which spanned the thirty years of the current conflict. To understand what is going on in the north of Ireland today, and why the English and Unionist politicians (those who want to maintain the link with England) are refusing to implement the entire agreement, it is necessary to have some understanding of Republican prison protests through that time.

On August 9, 1971, the English government instituted internment without charge or trial, a move which was allegedly meant to curb the tide of IRA resistance to English rule in Ireland. Hundreds of arrests took place that morning, with many internees being physically abused and even tortured (as has been well documented and accepted by Amnesty International and the European Community). Internment was a public relations disaster from the start. Knowing that it was coming, very few IRA activists were arrested that morning and worldwide opinion was firmly against such draconian measures.

Internment continued until December 1975. Sentenced prisoners were at the time kept in almost identical conditions as the internees: old Nissen huts at the Long Kesh internment camp or Armagh Women's Jail. Imprisonment (whether with charge and trial or without) was protested inside and outside Long Kesh and Armagh, with the internees of Long Kesh burning the camp on October 15, 1974. Escape tunnels were so common in the ground around the makeshift prison that the English had to begin using radar photography taken from helicopters to find them. Several men escaped from the camp; others were shot to death trying.

In 1975, the English government announced that it was phasing out internment and instituting what became known as the "criminalization" policy: this policy was meant to convince the world that the Republican movement was not a liberationist struggle against oppressive tyranny but a conspiracy of gangsters. Part of this called for putting an end to so-called "special status," i.e., POW status, which the internees and sentenced prisoners had enjoyed to this point. A new prison was built on the grounds of Long Kesh: a maximum-security nightmare meant to break the prisoners and cut them off from the outside world. The first prisoner to be sentenced after the new regime was implemented, a teenager named Ciaran Nugent, refused to wear a prison uniform and was thrown into his cell naked, with only a blanket to wear: the blanket protest had begun.

The blanket protest continued until 1981 and escalated dramatically in that time. At its peak, well over a thousand Republican prisoners were on protest. Wearing only a towel, they were denied visits and parcels and educational opportunities. They refused to do prison work, but would not have been allowed to do it anyway because of their refusal to wear the uniform. They were beaten routinely and strip-searched in degrading and brutal fashion. After the beatings escalated, the men refused to leave their cells to slop out their chamber pots. This resulted in their having to smear their shit on the cell walls: the dirty protest had begun. Some men lived for three years without a bath, without a haircut or shave, naked except for threadbare blankets and in a cell overrun with urine and maggots and with excrement smeared on the walls. They could not be broken, even by these unspeakable conditions.

The Thatcher administration, however, was determined to destroy the prisoners, knowing full well that they were the Republican movement's backbone. They refused even the smallest concessions and forced the prisoners to play their final card: hunger strike.

The story of the 1980 and 1981 hunger strikes has often been told. In all, ten men, the oldest of them 30 years old, died slow and horrible deaths to prove to the world that they were political prisoners. One of them, the poet Bobby Sands, was elected to the British Parliament while on hunger strike and another, Kieran Doherty, was elected as a Teachta D la, a member of the Irish Parliament. The five demands for which they struck, which essentially gave them back their political status, were gained in the few years following the hunger strikes.

Today, the Republican POWs have conditions which are better than those of most prisoners throughout the world, though they gained these conditions at a terrible price and through much suffering. They are well aware that the future may return them to the dark days of the 70s and early 80s. About 160 IRA POWs have been released under the terms of the GFA. If the IRA would break its cease-fire, which it has said it has no intention of doing, the released POWs would be swept back into prison.

Just this February the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) withdrew from the institutions set up by the GFA and England reinstituted direct rule of the six counties. This is in direct contravention of the GFA and is without any basis whatsoever except that the Unionists refuse to share power with Sinn Fein, democratically-elected members of the Republican movement. The UUP demanded that the IRA begin decommissioning (verifiably destroying their weapons or otherwise putting them beyond use) by February. This deadline was simply plucked from the air and has no basis in the GFA or in political reality. They knew it wouldn't happen and it hasn't. The prisoners have repeatedly said that they will not be used as bargaining chips in a political game. Their future remains in doubt now.

Irish Northern Aid (or "Noraid"), has for thirty years supported the families of Irish Republican Prisoners of War through weekly support payments and funds allowing them to travel to visit their loved ones in prison. Through three decades of prison protests, the Republican POWs have never been broken, nor has their support from dedicated activists around the world. The struggle goes on and the spirit of freedom is pervasive among the prisoners. As a song from the days of the blanket protest puts it, "I'll wear no convict's uniform, nor meekly serve my time, that Britain might brand Ireland's fight eight hundred years of crime." Contact: Noraid, 363 7th Ave. #405, New York, NY 10001.

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