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"A Means to Fight Back"

An extract of the Conference speech given by IRPWA delegate Marian Price to the International symposium on Isolation in Florence, Italy (19-21 Dec)

Marian Price • December 2003

Friends and Comrades,

The Irish Republican Prisoners Welfare Association wish to thank the organisers of this conference for giving us the opportunity to tell of our experiences in the prison struggle. We would also like to take this opportunity to send our solidarity and greetings to all those groups and individuals who are gathered here today.

Prisons, by their very nature, are instruments of control and isolation. This has particular significance in relation to political prisoners, who generally see themselves as part of a coherent organised and revolutionary grouping. The aim of the prison administration then, is to disrupt the cohesion that exists between political prisoners in order to reduce them down to isolated individuals. This is to stop the possibility of any kind of unified action, and also to sap the will of the political prisoner who is then faced with the entire machinery of oppression that makes up the prison system.

As in any freedom struggle, the existence of the prison is in itself a political tool. It is a breeding ground for human rights violations by prison administrators and officials. It can also benefit the status quo by being a harsh and brutal place where the state is able to dispose of unwanted or troublesome members of society, and can further be used as a threat against those who may consider supporting or joining revolutionary and insurgent organisations. The end result is that the state can attempt to deny the political legitimacy of the liberation struggle and instead portray it as a criminal conspiracy.

Prison struggle has had an important place in Irish History for these very reasons. During the blanket protests (and later the 1980/81 hunger-strikes) Long Kesh, then the main prison in the north of Ireland, became known to many as "The Breakers Yard". This was because the sole reason it existed was to smash the Republican liberation movement by physically and mentally destroying those whom it held hostage behind its walls.

The reason it did not succeed was because those who ran the prison, along with those in the British government who issued the orders, underestimated the strength and determination of the Irish Republicans who resisted them. People like Bobby Sands and his nine comrades who were later to die on hunger-strike understood their own position as political prisoners and were willing to suffer every hardship; beatings, scalding, mental and physical torture and ultimately death, rather than accept the label of 'criminal'. Instead of defeating the Republican struggle by initiating a policy of pain and brutality, the outcome was the opposite. The deaths of the 10 hunger-strikers and the sufferings of their fellow prisoners went on to inspire many more generations of young people to carry the struggle forward.

It is with great irony then, that some of those young men who heeded the call to defend the Republic recently found themselves in a situation not far removed from the one that the 10 hunger-strikers experienced so many years before.

The background to this has been the failed Good Friday Agreement which was signed up to by all the political parties (including Sinn Fein) in 1998. Within it was the signing away of political status for prisoners. After that date any person involved in military action against the British Forces would receive no special category status and instead would be imprisoned as a criminal. This was seen, correctly, by many as an attempt to hold Republicans to a political compromise whilst effectively stamping out any armed revolutionary challenge.

The situation for Republican prisoners changed almost immediately, with those who accepted the signing of the Good Friday Agreement being released under an amnesty and Long Kesh being closed down. From then on Republican prisoners were to be sent to the smaller Maghaberry Jail. When those opposed to the Agreement were captured, whilst involved in Republican military activity, they found themselves in a general prison population amongst thieves, drug dealers and Pro-British paramilitaries. They also found themselves separated from their comrades and at the mercy of abusive prison staff and criminal elements.

The isolation, and small number of Republican prisoners meant that resistance to the regime was at first disorganised and weak. However the gradual influx of anti-agreement Republicans into Maghaberry Jail over the months changed all that. This meant that it was eventually a lot harder to keep political prisoners isolated from each other and the prison administration had to deal with well co-ordinated protests such as cell smashing and incidents of sabotage.

These incidents came to a head in 2003 when a decision was made by the prisoners to push for segregation from Pro-British paramilitaries and criminal prisoners. This was firstly because Republicans being granted a wing of their own by the prison authorities would be a de facto recognition of their political status, and secondly to help preserve the safety of political prisoners, who up until then had to cope with a hostile and life threatening environment.

The main campaign took the form of mass cell wrecking and then proceeded onto a no-wash protest, similar to the blanket protest in Long Kesh during 1980/81. This meant a refusal of the men to shower or shave and spreading their faeces around the cell walls. Although it was a hardship for the men involved, it gave them a psychological advantage over the prison officers who began to refuse to enter the cells to clean them or started to argue with the administration for extra pay to do so. However, on many occasions riot squads or 'control and restraint' personnel were sent in to physically assault and remove the prisoners to other parts of the prison. This resulted in some prisoners needing urgent hospital treatment as the prison officers again attempted to break the protest and return the prison to normal.

The parallels with the situation that created the hunger-strikes were clear and many ordinary Republicans in the community outside began to let their feelings be known. Rallies and militant action, such as occupying the Prison Service headquarters and the BBC headquarters by The Irish Republican Prisoners Welfare Association were getting more frequent media attention highlighting the unfolding problem.

This became a major problem for pro-Agreement parties who wished to assure the world that British rule had been 'normalized' in Ireland and that anti-agreement prisoners either did not exist at all or had little or no support.

The result was that the prison administration slowly backed down, and through continuing consultation with prisoners and their representatives are at present establishing a separate wing for the Republican prisoners in Maghaberry Jail. The situation still remains tense, as the administration is at times reluctant to grant what the Republican prisoners rightly struggled for.

The lesson to be learned from our experience is that isolation is used by states and prison regimes as a counter-insurgency strategy. It is an assault upon the very foundations of any revolutionary movement that struggles for justice and human dignity and must be opposed by whatever means we have at our disposal. However, we must not be down hearted, for revolutionaries are born out of such injustice and each one is a ray of hope. In the words of one such revolutionary; "out of the darkness comes the light, and out of despair comes a means to fight back".

Beir Bua.







 

 

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Index: Current Articles



8 January 2004

 

Other Articles From This Issue:

 

A Man for All Seasons?
Eamon Sweeney

 

"A Means to Fight Back"
Marian Price

 

Tame Bulls in the China Shop
Anthony McIntyre

 

The Rising of the Moon: the language of power
Liam O Ruairc

 

Limerick Feud Denial

Óglaigh na hÉireann

 

Selective Memory
Michael Youlton

 

A Free Press in Iraq?
Mick Hall

 

Robert Zoellick and Wise Blood - The Hazel Motes Approach to International Trade
Toni Solo

 

Christmas Greetings 2003
Annie Higgins

 

The Close of the Year 2003 - The Belfast SWP
Davy Carlin

 

4 January 2004

 

Bam
Anthony McIntyre

 

New Years Statement 2004

Óglaigh na hÉireann

 

New Year Greetings
Jimmy Sands

 

In Memorium
Brian Mór

 

Is This The Real IRA?
Liam O Ruairc

 

Dec. 16th Dail Questions

Transcript

 

Provos/SDLP/Dublin Securing Partition
Liam O Comain

 

The Patriot Game
Kathleen O Halloran

 

Wiping Out the Opposition
Aine Fox

 

They Will Never Get Us All
Sean Matthews

 

The Letters Page has been updated.

 

 

 

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