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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Conditions for Irish POWs Today

Speech at Chicago POW Event
Abbey Pub, Sunday August 8, 2004

Deirdre Fennessy • 8 August 2004

First I would like to say what an honor it is to have been asked by Colm Mitchell to speak at today’s event. I know that Colm has received a certain amount of flak for his choice of speaker, but in the brief time I have known Colm he has distinguished himself as an outstandingly principled young man who is prepared to suffer hardship for his beliefs; a very admirable quality in any man, but particularly in one so young.

As we are all aware, Colm is now nearing his 24th hour without food, in a gesture of solidarity with Irish Republican POWs being held in Britain and Ireland. His fast today is also being staged by a group of young republican scouts outside the GPO in Dublin, and also by a supporter in Boston.

As Colm’s flier here indicates, there are currently over 100 Irish Republican Political Prisoners being held in British and Irish jails. Colm’s efforts today will go toward directly assisting approximately one dozen of these prisoners, who are being supported by an organization in Ireland called Cabhair. There are many, many other republican prisoners also needing support for their families as well, and I ask you to please see the fliers on the table for more information on how you can assist these families through the Irish Freedom Committee’s Direct Support Program.

Colm has asked me to say a few words about the conditions for the POWs. However before we can address those, we must address the very fact of their imprisonment, and current status.

Six years ago, in April 1998, a treaty was signed by the Irish and British governments under the auspices of “Peace”. This British-engineered document, disingenuously entitled the “Good Friday Agreement”, had little to do with the word “peace” as we know it, but more to do with “pieces” of Ireland stolen under the Union Jack.

Much like another British Treaty, the one of 1922 that illegally divided the country, this one was presented to the people of Ireland under threat of “immediate and terrible war”. Under Lloyd George’s threat, blood would indeed be spilt as the might of the British Army stood by primed to implement its threat. However in 1998, the threat was even more insidious, as it was clearly implied and reinforced that if you were for the Treaty you were for “Peace”, and if you opposed it, surely you must be for war. Nothing could be further from the truth.

All Irish republicans want peace – but peace at what price?

As many, many censored republican voices at the time correctly pointed out, this Treaty was a tissue of lies built on lies; a British document designed only to re-enforce British rule in Ireland and to co-opt resistance. Its result has been a strengthened illegal border, re-stabilized British military rule, a renewed Loyalist veto against any forward motion, and a reinforced British economic, military and political foothold in all of Ireland. Ireland has never been further away from being a sovereign, united nation.

For those who have continued to resist British rule, and who have continued to expose the failure of the 1998 Treaty, the price has been high.

Perhaps the lowest deed perpetrated under the terms of the 1998 Treaty was the revoking of Political Status to Republican prisoners. Nothing so duplicitous could be imagined, coming under the endorsement of former republican prisoners themselves, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. These new British ministers had no right to revoke these terms, which were won by a blood sacrifice of ten men at Long Kesh Gaol in 1981. These terms of Political Status were won by ten men’s deaths on hunger strike, for all republican prisoners, and were not negotiable for British sterling of any amount. Former republicans who signed this Stormont Treaty and agreed to these terms have no right to commemorate the deaths of these ten men, to see them do so is a hypocrisy of the highest order.

Since April 1998, with the signing of the Treaty, no republican prisoner has been granted Political Status. While these men and women are arrested and detained under Special Laws, charged under Special Legislation, and sentenced in Special, juryless courts; they are now denied their rightfully entitled Special Category Political Status, and are being classed by the state and the newly co-opted Treaty lackeys as “criminals”. The clock has been wound back thirty years, and it is former republican comrades who have turned back its hands.

Political Status has been revoked many times before, in failed attempts by the State to destroy morale inside the prisons, and outside in the wider republican movement. In each instance the challenge was met with resistance from the republican POWs. In the late 1970’s Special Category Status was revoked by the British, and Republican prisoners embarked on a series of massive protests that began with refusal to wear a uniform, and ended with the tragedy of the hunger strikes. Earlier in the 1970’s there were countless jail protests for human rights and for political status, including the six-month force-feedings of Marian and Dolours Price during their long hunger strike for their right to be repatriated to Ireland, and the tragic deaths of Michael Gaughan by force-feeding, and Frank Stagg after repeated hunger strike, in British prisons. There were hunger strikes in response to the Dublin prison regime in the early 1970’s at Portlaoise Prison by Sean and Ruairi O Bradaigh. There were a long series of hunger strikes for political status in the 1940’s—several of which Frank O Neill participated in. Throughout every phase of the current struggle, there has been resistance by the republican prisoners whenever basic human rights and Political Status have been revoked to them.

As ever, the British government has never learned nor comprehended the profound sense of justice of the Irish people nor their deep resolves of strength to rectify a grave wrong.

Which brings us back to today.

Since the right to Political Status was signed away by British ministers at Stormont, things have grown progressively worse for the growing numbers of Irish republican POWs and their families.

In particular, republican prisoners at Maghaberry Gaol in County Antrim have suffered greatly at the expense of this new Stormont regime.

In July of last year, a prolonged dirty protest was begun at Maghaberry prison in response to gravely inhumane and life-threatening conditions. Republican prisoners at Maghaberry were being held scattered alone in the prison on the same landings-- and in one instance in the same cell-- as loyalist death squad members. Several republican prisoners had been brutally attacked in this atmosphere; several times with scalding water, and in two brutal incidents with electric irons. In one occurrence a republican prisoner was beaten within an inch of his life by loyalist prisoners who invaded his cell and left him near death with massive head injuries and broken bones. He later received 17 metal staples to his head and 14 stitches to his face. Prison guards, overtly sympathetic to the loyalist agenda, merely looked the other way as these attacks were staged. Loyalist paramilitaries like Johnny Adair and Andre Shoukri came into the jail bearing death sentences for “any taig” they encountered in the jail. Handguns and live bullets were found on a number of occasions in loyalist quarters. In one instance cell doors were left unlocked at night in a severe breech of security, with loyalist prisoners roaming the landings outside a republican prisoner’s cell, taunting and threatening him until daylight.

Repeated attempts were made to negotiate with the prison governor and members of the Northern Ireland Office, for the safety of the republican prisoners. In every case, appeals for action fell on deaf ears. It seemed the prison was intent on securing the violent death of any of the republican prisoners. The men inside were pushed to the brink. Tireless prisoners’ welfare workers and family members on the outside held vigils and white-line protests, all the while being virtually ignored by the mainstream press and the new ministers at Stormont. The prisoners then took matters into their own hands.

None of us can imagine the incalculable suffering that forces a man or woman to dirty protest. For several months last summer, republican prisoners at Maghaberry endured unimaginable conditions under dirty protest, as much of the world turned a blind eye. Separated from one another and held alongside loyalist gangs, the republican prisoners resisted the prison regime alone in their cells, and met with the full wrath of the prisons service. Several prisoners were brutally attacked in their bunks by guards. High power fire hoses with freezing water were pointed into their cells, with all of the prisoners’ belongings becoming soaked in water and excrement. Phone calls, mail and all family contact was denied for weeks on end.

Despite outright censorship by most of the mainstream press to both the conditions and protests inside the jails, the support networks on the outside worked tirelessly to expose the horrific events unfolding inside Maghaberry. For their efforts, republican activists and spokespersons in Ireland were threatened and continuously harassed by security forces, military intelligence, and most sickening of all, former republicans attached to the Stormont agenda.

After three months on dirty protest, the republican prisoners at Maghaberry finally had their grievances addressed by an outside safety review, which met with dozens of prisoners and their welfare representatives on the outside in their investigations. The Steele Review recommended the immediate separation of the republican prisoners from loyalist death gangs, to the satisfaction of all. Within weeks the prisoners were moved to temporary separated housing, and in February were moved en masse into one house at Maghaberry.

Unfortunately, that is where the good news ends.

Since winning separation, an endless and bitter campaign of retribution has been waged by angered prison guards against the republican prisoners and their family. The republican prisoners have won their right to separation from loyalist death squads at the prison, under duress by outside pressure, but they have lost every single other basic right in the process.

Since being separated, the republican prisoners at Maghaberry are held under almost total lockdown for 22 and 23 hours a day. They are allowed out of cells only two men at a time, and are restricted to cell leave based on the whim of prison staff. Their right to free association, a vital right, has been totally and utterly stripped from them.

They are denied Education and Workshop provisions, in contravention to their basic rights. In fact they are denied facilities of any sort; even tables or chairs.

They are forced to take exercise alongside loyalists, separated by short wire mesh barrier and are made to endure severe sectarian abuse at exercise.

They are frequently denied hot showers. One prisoner’s wife told us recently that after her husband returned from his one hour release from his cell, which he had spent exercising, he was refused a hot shower on the grounds that there was not enough “security” to permit it. He was told to go back to his cell, cold and covered in sweat. Instead he filled the large common area cold-water steel sink, used to clean pots in, and bathed himself there. As a result he was faced with disciplinary measures of up to a week on the punishment boards, where he would have only a mattress in a solitary cell.

They are offered filthy, unsanitary washroom facilities. Recently the republican prisoners were threatened with the denial of their right to housekeeping their own landings when it was proposed that criminal prisoners— possibly loyalists— from another house would be sent in to clean their living areas.

They are subjected to frequent, unnecessary, and wholly degrading strip searches. Their cells are subject to ransacking at any time, and were recently wrecked by search teams with dogs purely to harass and intimidate and destroy their few personal possessions.

They are under 24-hour surveillance with “CAMP X-RAY” –style microphones and cameras in all parts of landings.

And for the families on visits, things are no better. The prison administration is actively practicing a two-pronged campaign of harassment and demoralization against both the prisoners and their visiting family members. By criminalizing the families as well as the republican prisoners, the prison regime has hoped to lessen morale for both. It has not worked, on either count.

Families must travel great distances to all of the prisons, but families traveling to Maghaberry must also travel directly through hostile loyalist neighborhoods. Local shops fly union jacks and carry loyalist memorabilia. Once at the prison the families, including small children, are forced to pass a dogs gauntlet, with large sniffer dogs passing close to the family members allegedly to sniff for drugs. These animals are quite large and the experience can be very intimidating. The dogs are held on short leads and when tugged, the dogs sit down. If this happens to a visitor, it is alleged that she or he is carrying drugs and is forced to lose the visit, along with anyone they came with. This practice of refusing visits based on allegations of drugs has been consistently used against republican families, who are notoriously anti-drugs; as the prison guards would know full well. However a visit was recently refused on these grounds to an elderly and infirm woman who traveled over 200 miles to visit her son, and cannot walk without a cane. This life-long republican woman was refused her visit and expelled from the prison visiting area in full view of her son, who was extremely upset to see his elderly mother being manhandled by prison guards with dogs. Another group of male republican visitors from Derry have not once been allowed in on a visit to their brother, as every time they go in the dogs sit down at heir feet and their visit is refused.

Both the republican prisoners and their families are being pushed to the brink of endurance by the prison staff at Maghaberry goal. Knowing the caliber and strength of the men inside, we fear the worst, should things continue at this rate. Several of the young men have already made it clear they will not hesitate to undertake hunger strike should conditions not improve soon. The prospect does not bear contemplating.

At Portlaoise Prison in the Free State, just 45 minutes from Dublin, things are also abysmally bad for republican prisoners.

At Portlaoise there is no in-cell sanitation, and republican prisoners are forced to use a small plastic bucket for sanitation which they must “slop out” every morning. This is a disgrace in a land dubbed the “Celtic Tiger” , where no major news media have covered this medieval situation.

Republican prisoners at Portlaoise, like republican prisoners at all of the other Irish and British jails where they are interned, have been routinely and cruelly denied emergency family leave to visit sick and dying loved ones-- often until the death certificate is in the hands of the prison administration. This was the case with one republican prisoner at Portlaoise – Danny McAlister – on 2 separate occasions involving 2 immediate family members. Recently another prisoner, Michael McKevitt, was denied normal terms of compassionate leave to attend his mother’s funeral, and was forced on principle to boycott the leave.

There are numerous instances of severe medical neglect at Portlaoise Prison. Less than 3 years ago, a republican prisoner Kevin Murray suffered a painful and lingering death due to blatant medical neglect at Portlaoise. As a brain tumor in his head steadily grew to enormous size, first fatiguing him and then eventually blinding him, prison doctors prescribed him anti-depressants. After prolonged campaigns on the outside by family and supporters, he was finally released to die. His family have still not been compensated in any way for their enormous loss at the hands of outright State neglect.

Two years ago it emerged that secret asbestos removals were ongoing under cover of darkness at Portlaoise Prison. For many months prior, many of the republican prisoners, housed in the older buildings where the asbestos was being removed, were complaining of headaches, fatigue, and a variety of other health complaints. It is still not known the health of the men has been affected by this secret asbestos removal.

Today at Portlaoise, a republican prisoner Mick Hegarty is forced to feed himself in appallingly unsanitary conditions using a tube in his cell for eighteen hours per day. He must attach a bag to a tube implanted in his stomach and administer his feed this way, cleaning his equipment and tubes in a bucket in his cell. He has lost an enormous amount of weight over the past year and should be immediately released to recover at home. This man, now 51 years old, is extremely ill and does not belong in prison at all.

Over in Britain, where seven men are being held on political charges under outrageous sentences averaging 25 years apiece, things are no better. Three of the prisoners, Noel Maguire and brothers Robert and Aidan Hulme, are appealing sentence on the grounds that they are totally innocent men. They are each serving over twenty years, and all are under 25 years of age. Three others, Michael McDonald, Fintan O Farrell, and Declan Rafferty – serving 30 years apiece- are seeking appeals in their draconian sentences based on flimsy evidence and an MI5 sting operation. Until their appeals are heard, none of these men are eligible for repatriation or transfer to an Irish jail. So until that time their families are forced to make very long, and very expensive, journeys to visit them.

An Irish republican prisoner at Full Sutton jail in England, James McCormack, applied two years ago for Repatriation back to Ireland to be with his wife and their large family of six children who are all under the age of 15. His youngest child was born while he was in prison, and he has only seen her once. The Dublin “Freak State” Government has stalled on every turn on his Repatriation, and even the British government has acted faster in the recent transfer of his co-accused John Paul Hannan to Maghaberry in the Occupied North.

Medical neglect has reached new heights of barbarity in the case of Aidan Hulme, who is currently appealing sentence. Since being imprisoned at Belmarsh in Britain, he has been threatened with the amputation of his leg by prison doctors, after they had prolonged medical care to a motorcycle injury sustained shortly before he was imprisoned. After an extensive human rights campaign by prisoners’ welfare spokespersons in Ireland and by the Irish Freedom Committee in the US, Aidan was finally promised medical care. However, not without strings attached. In a grotesque act of contempt, the British government forced the Hulme Family to provide 4 thousand pounds sterling as “security” for his transfer to and from the hospital. Emergency support to the family poured in from the US and from supporters in Ireland and Britain to guarantee his place on the surgery table would not be lost. However in the process this act of blatant State extortion was widely publicized, and in the resultant embarrassment, the British government was shamed into returning the monies to the family.

In summary, there is no low to which the British, and Irish, governments will not go when it comes to Irish Republican political prisoners.

The gesture of 24-hour fast made today by young Colm Mitchell is a reminder to is all of Bobby Sand’s words:

"Everyone, Republican or otherwise has their own particular part to play. No part is too great or too small, no one is too old or too young to do something."

All here today in this room must be the vanguard of truth in our communities regarding the ongoing crisis for Irish Republican POWs. Please make sure that the daily struggles for these men and their families, are not forgotten.

Thank you, and especially I want to thank Colm Mitchell for the opportunity to speak here today.

Congratulations Colm on your noble gesture on behalf of Irish republican POWs.






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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

14 August 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

At One with the West Belfast MP
Kathleen O Halloran

Disbanding the Provos
Tommy McKearney

Lessons from the Ceasefire
Mick Hall

Jobs for the Boys
George Young

Working Withing British 'Law' With A Vow NOT to Use Force Against the British
Sharon O'Sullibhan

Conditions for Irish POWs Today
Deirdre Fennessy

The Faithful...
Liam O Comain

Globalised Indifference
Anthony McIntyre

No Human Being is Illegal!
Sean Matthews

8 August 2004

An Ireland of Equals!
Kathleen O Halloran

A Socialist in West Belfast
Anthony McIntyre

A Living Tapestry of Tongues
Sean Fleming

Paranoia is Healthy: Michael O'Connell's Right Wing Ireland?
Seaghán Ó Murchú

'The Labor of Reading'
Liam O Ruairc

Seamus Costello, Joe McCann and myself. . .
Liam O Comain

Anti-Semitism at the World Social Forum?
Cecilie Surasky



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