- Created: Wednesday, 05 December 2012 11:56
- Written by Paul Mallon
FRFI 230 December 2012/January 2013
On 1 November 2012, a prison officer was shot dead as he made his way to work at the notorious top security Maghaberry gaol near Lisburn on the outskirts of Belfast. It later emerged that the officer was a member of the sectarian Orange Order and had been working on the wing where Irish political prisoners are currently being held in appalling conditions; his career went as far back as 1980.
The response from the political establishment has been predictable, with widespread condemnation of the attack. Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein condemned it as a ‘pointless and futile killing’ and United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it was an ‘outrageous and cowardly act’. Despite the condemnation, the first such targeted execution of a senior British prison employee since the early 1980s has drawn public attention to the conflict in the north of Ireland and the increasingly bitter dispute over the treatment of Republican prisoners at Maghaberry.
There are currently approximately 46 Irish Republican prisoners in Maghaberry. For the past two years they have been protesting at their treatment – in particular the use of repeated, intrusive strip searches and of 23-hour a day lock down – with some prisoners refusing to wash and engaging in dirty protests, throwing excrement from their cells into corridors. On 27 October, the weekend before the attack on the prison officer, an international day of action in solidarity with Irish political prisoners saw protests and pickets across the north of Ireland and internationally, in 12 cities (including Glasgow, Manchester and London), calling for an end to the internment of prisoners such as Marian Price and for no more abuse of political prisoners.
Torture and inhumane treatment of Irish prisoners have long been a part of British control in Ireland. The commencement of internment (detention without trial) in August 1971 heralded the widespread systematic abuse of Irish nationalists. Hooding, posture control, loud noise and the deprivation of food and sleep became known as the ‘five techniques’. It is these sensory deprivation techniques which today the British and US militaries routinely deploy against political detainees the world over, from Baghdad to Guantanamo Bay. In 1976 the British government was found guilty of inhumane and degrading treatment of Irish prisoners by the European Court of Human Rights.
The prison struggle has long been a significant part of Irish resistance to British rule. In 1976 the Labour government withdrew political status as part of the wider criminalisation and normalisation strategy against the revolutionary national struggle against British imperialist rule led by the Provisional IRA. In 1976 IRA prisoners stated: ‘We are prepared to die for political status. Those who try to take it away from us must be fully prepared to pay the same price.’ Over the next tortuous five years, which included the no wash and dirty protests culminating in 1981 in the deaths of ten Republicans on hunger strike, 19 prison officers were killed.
As part of the political settlement in Ireland in 1998, political status was traded away and criminalisation reintroduced.
Restore political status now! End brutality in Maghaberry! Free all Irish political prisoners!