The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
HMP Maghabery: first flames from a tinderbox
Fionnbarra Ó Dochartaigh, a co-founder of the civil rights movement in 1967, returns to the prisons' issue. This veteran campaigner, reflects a highly pesimistic viewpoint on what is happening, and why, behind the walls, lookout towers and barbed wire of jails in the Six Counties. He focuses particularly on HMP Maghaberry, near Lisburn.
Fionnbarra Ó Dochartaigh • 6.11.03

"Keep the PSNI and troops out" call

On Monday morning as firemen tackled two blazes, one in the laundry of Maghaberry and another at one of the houses, or blocks, a prisoner elsewhere, believed to be a loyalist, was setting his cell furniture and other contents alight. After September and the Steele report, HMP Maghaberry, hopefully, would no longer be described as a tinderbox. However, in spite of, or because of the recent successful campaign that led to the much-needed reforms flowing from that report, we have now witnessed the first red (or orange) flames and heat of reactionary resentment.

One could argue, with some justification, that many prisoners and their families may well become the unwitting victims of what are certainly vested interests, beyond their control. No doubt they may yet come to view their collective plight to be that of mere pawns or political footballs in a game of high stakes. There is an on-going tense industrial dispute among prison officers, who since the days of the 'Iron Lady', cannot legally withdraw their labour. Yet, there are ways of getting around Maggie Thatcher's Criminal Justice Act, and bringing the jails to a standstill. Such anticipated fall-outs are undoubtedly linked to a violent UDA-inspired campaign. This is literally threatening the lives, limbs and liberties of prison staff and their loved ones, which may in time, have dire consequences for many others, both 'inside' and out.

Blue flu and 'Provo spy'

November 5, 2003, reliable sources assert, had been earmarked for a day of action by all prison staff. It now appears that there was a hasty change of intention hours after the Assembly election date was fixed for later this month. It seems we have been spared witnessing all the jails being paralysed by an outbreak of "blue flu". If on another date this flu manifests itself, it will ' mysteriously' afflict some 1,700 officers. Its main symptom can conveniently avoid the illegality of a work stoppage, and no doubt the fall in wages associated with such, because of a claim that they are ill, all on the same day. No doubt many prison officers are really currently ill. But what many of their colleagues formerly argued privately, that they need to protest against the delays in protecting the homes of around a third of their colleagues, is now filtering into the public domain.

The UDA, in the main, are suspected of being the culprits behind the death-threats and actual attacks on selected prison-related "targets". The figure of "one third "of officers is not simply plucked from thin air, but is based on the number of files, allegedly downloaded by a "Provisional spy" from the Prison Service's main computer system. Yet, is there any overt threat from the Provos, as we are constantly told by their political masters, and in latter days its own "P.O'Neill", that they remain committed to their cease-fire declaration? (View: "PIRA war is over", Vincent Browne, Tuesday, November 04, 2003). No doubt it makes for good copy, when the POA can link the (P) IRA and UDA et al, to their current besieged plight.

Such must contain a covert aim of drawing British politicians to their assistance, with a nod and a wink that will more than hint that recent "ill-advised" reforms are to blame. One could argue therefore that a combination of seemingly diverse interests, on the part of the Prison Officers Association (POA) and hard-line loyalists, actually conspire to make the situation even worst. Both elements, unconvincingly, I contend, deny that there is any conspiracy afoot within, or even possibly between, their respective camps. Nevertheless, fact can be stranger than fiction, certainly in this particular neck-of-the-woods.

Terror, stress and overtime

Members of the P OA are engaged in an overtime ban, which one suspects will end well before Christmas. Nevertheless, in Maghaberry alone it is estimated that each officer is owed on average 500 hours leave under the current management of staff agreement, others sources claim that some are owed 3,000 hours leave. Such figures have far-reaching financial implications. How these are tackled may prove to be highly interesting, if we are ever told. The POA claim, and no doubt there is some justice in such, that because of stress, arising from the UDA's campaign of terror, such has led to short staffing, and many can't get time off. Some within the service, and even some journalists point to these factors as if to present a justification for the "blue flu" strategy that jail bosses still anticipate.

All this seems to let the UDA and its allies off the hook, rather than expose the fact that the latter are out to inflict as much pressure as possible so that the joint prison managements will concede their demand for Maze-style paramilitary structures and greater control. Many can be forgiven for harbouring a belief that this has more to do with the loyalists' Godfathers drug-related criminality, than any real desire for genuine politicals status. In fact, the question must be asked, has loyalism, as manifested over several years, got anything whatsoever to do with practical politics or ' defending their communities' any more? Their loyalty, to paraphrase an old saying, could have more to do with the local half-crown in their pockets, rather than a somewhat remote English Crown.

PSNI and troops?

Monday's incidents must surely up the ante as concerns are growing that prisoners and wardens could yet suffer agonisingly painful deaths if major fires arise from deliberately created ones in individual cells, or in laundries, recreation or storage areas. The anticipated "blue flu epidemic" may yet result in the paramilitary PSNI, and even British troops being mobilised to jointly run the prisons alongside their existing respective managements. Such an outcome can but only fan the flames.

In such a situation republican prisoners, their families, and visitors, who already feel vulnerable, will have further cause for even graver concerns. The current POA 'work to rule' has resulted in both poor staffing cover and almost total lock-up for all prisoners. It must be stressed that elite sections of the POA and the UDA share at least one thing in common, they resent with a burning passion the implementation of the Steele reforms. On that one the media, in the main, adopt the stance of those three, supposedly, "wise monkeys".

These long-overdue reforms came about as a result of a republican "dirty protest" and a vigorous campaign by relatives, a few key political and clerical figures who shunned any media glare, welfare groups, and others concerned with human rights and civil liberties. Foremost in their collective consciousness was a deep fear that history would repeat itself; the dark years 1976 to 81 being uppermost in mind. The sufferings of ten hunger-strike martyrs were never far from that humanitarian mindset at several behind-the-scenes encounters, at a pivotal international conference held in Derry on February 22, or among the small numbers who took to the streets against the then existing penal status quo, particularly in Maghaberry.

Who will call the tune?

It is only logical that the POA must accept that they are mere employees of the British Crown, and that they are considered well paid to implement any policy that their Direct-Rulers deem necessary. By accepting such a professional role they therefore have every right to demand of their colonial masters that their lives, families, and dwellings be protected, in return. On the basis of such, their political opinions should not influence their work , in particular, their day-to-day treatment of visitors or diverse categories of prisoners, political or otherwise.

If the POA is out to provoke the British government into any incremental watering-down of the Steele recommendations, then the scientific fact that any action produces a reaction will again be proven to those who may doubt such. Many can but hope, but only a few handfuls can guarantee, that such reactions will always be of a peaceful variety. The POA's actions and those of the UDA could yet make the serious situation even worse. Any reversals on Steele will undoubtedly be viewed by many, not merely traditional republicans, as major betrayals, and highly intolerable. All agencies and individuals that were engaged, overtly or covertly in breathing life into the Steele reforms, must now acknowledge the fact that this situation must be confronted and brought to a speedy conclusion. The real question now is, how?

The introduction of armed units of the PSNI and British troops into HMP Maghaberry, or any prison, is most certainly not the answer, and must be resisted at all costs. The antipathy against these forces is not confined to so-called 'dissidents', which is a matter of record.

Above all, a Blair-led Labour government must face up to the diverse political agendas involved. It should not allow either the POA or blatantly bigoted paramilitaries dictate the pace of Steele's reforms. In any dispute, or suspected conspiracy, the British government must stand firm in its support of basic human rights. The welfare of all prisoners and their families should never again be sacrificed on an altar of political expediency.

We should all know where that path led from '76-'81. Genuine republicans and nationalists, on both sides of the border, and especially the Dublin government, cannot afford to be foolishly apathetic or complacent. It is clear that people must mobilise, yet again, so as to protect and build upon what gains that have been won in recent months. Peaceful and constructive campaigning, for which there was neither wages, awards nor public backslapping, is the only sensible and positive approach. Nothing more is urgently required, and nothing less will do. We should learn from history, if we are to ensure that it cannot repeat itself.


Fionnbarra's writings include "Ulster's White Negroes - from Civil Rights to Insurrection" (AK Press, 1994). He chaired the Feb. 22nd international conference referred to above. That resulted in a great deal of controversy, particularly in the local media, arising from the line taken by one tabloid, Sunday World. The conference, which was attended by print and TV media, had been organised by civil rights veterans, not any "dissident" grouping, as alleged.
The CR vets can be contacted via Their forum appears on




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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.
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Index: Current Articles

7 November 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Ted Honderich Interview
Mark Hayes


Disappeared and Disapproved

Anthony McIntyre


HMP Maghaberry: First Flames from a Tinderbox
Fionnbarra Ó Dochartaigh


Housebreaking Ulster Style
Brian Mór


United Irishmen
Davy Carlin


From A Granny
Kathleen Donnelly


An Enemy of the Republic
Liam O Comain


Some Count, Some Don't
Michael Youlton


If Voting Changed Anything It Would Be Made Illegal!
Sean Matthews


Hackneyed Views of Cuba
Douglas Hamilton


Colombian Trade Unionist in Belfast: Meeting
Sean Smyth


2 November 2003


A Memo to Adams: Remember That Every Political Career Ends in Failure
Tom Luby



Anthony McIntyre


Ballot Papers and Elysium
Eamon Sweeney


Republican Prisoners and their Families Put at Risk due to Prison Strike
Martin Mulholland


Trust Without Honesty in the Peace Process?
Paul A. Fitzsimmons


The Letters Page has been updated.




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