The Blanket

A Tawny Sinew

Anthony McIntyre • 18/8/2002

On Saturday the 10th of August the Irish Republican Prisoners Welfare Association staged a white line picket in West Belfast. Between 50 and 70 people took part as the moving picket snaked its way between traffic from a mural on the Whiterock Road to another one close to Albert Street. It was colourful, loud and good humoured and received a hearty response from passing motorists who sounded their horns.

Over the years I have attended a number of white line pickets either related to Sinn Fein sponsored events, Republican Sinn Fein protests in support of prisoners or campaigns aimed at highlighting the situation of the Palestinians. This one was different - the RUC marshalled it both top and tail. After the event one of those participating was menaced by the RUC in town who pulled their land rover alongside him and doled out abuse about his presence at the picket. A political activist and socialist who is well known on the ground, he has no republican affiliations and is resolutely opposed to the armed struggle of any republican body. The RUC knew this also but were intent on making the point - attend any protest for republican prisoners and you will have your cards marked.

His presence at the picket was not that of some atypical solitary individual expressing solidarity with prisoners. While the IRPWA for the most part handles the needs of Real IRA prisoners - although it stresses that it will assist any republican who is inside - what struck me about Saturday’s activity was the eclectic range of people who turned up. There were socialists, members of Sinn Fein youth, IRSP, independent community activists and writers, along with individuals associated with Fourthwrite and The Blanket magazines. One American woman on holiday re-jigged her itinerary so that she could join the picket. Republican prisoners have always had the ability to touch a nerve within the nationalist community. In some ways there is a resonance from 1916 - the people on the streets may abhor the activities that led to them becoming prisoners but once incarcerated, there is a marked intolerance towards any abuses that the British penal system may try to inflict upon them. That sentiment, although sometimes dormant, has always weaved its way like a tawny sinew through the consciousness of northern nationalism. The British have never yet managed to amputate it.

One member of Sinn Fein Youth whom I spoke to said that he was there because he acknowledged that the prisoners were political. While it has been reported that one key republican leader speaking at a family meeting in the Short Strand earlier in the year said that he would not support the claims to political status by those in jail, it is a concept that has not yet been bought into by those who make up the grassroots of the Provisional Republican Movement. Seemingly, too many republicans died to secure political status that it is almost heresy for some republican leader to abolish it even quicker than Merlyn Rees did in March 1976. Earlier this year Republican Sinn Fein pointed out that Continuity IRA prisoners in Maghaberry had received letters of support from Sinn Fein politicians. One of these, Gerry Kelly, stated at the time:

Republicans died in a long, hard-fought battle for political status. That political status should still be there and the demands of prisoners in Maghaberry should be met ... Bear in mind, I myself protested for political status and a change in prison conditions. It is a fact that loyalists are attacking prisoners in Maghaberry and segregation is an important issue, just as it was in the 70s and 80s. Irrespective of what those prisoners think of me, some of them are my constituents and I will do all I can to help them.

Speaking to a 32 County Sovereignty Movement activist who attended the picket, I was told that it was an ‘awareness raising exercise’. He felt that Westminster, Stormont and Leinster House were united in their determination to punish those opposed to the Good Friday Agreement. This was a ‘blanket attempt to suppress the rights of people. And it is always at its most severe within the prisons.’ He pointed to the deliberate medical neglect in Portlaoise which has resulted in the death of one prisoner, Kevin Murray. A similar regime of official indifference to health concerns prevails in Britain’s Belmarsh prison ‘where Aidan Hume is set to lose a leg’. Expressing satisfaction at the turn out he claimed that it allowed people of whatever political persuasion or none to show solidarity with those in jail.

Another 32 County Sovereignty Movement member on the picket that day, when asked did the campaign of the Real IRA not make it much more difficult to generate support for prisoners who were viewed as belonging to the organisation which carried out the Omagh bomb, felt that there were problems that needed to be addressed. However, he stated that those who feel they have a right to carry on fighting can recall the words of the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams who once claimed that not electoral support but the British presence provided the mandate for armed struggle.

Small wonder that the Sinn Fein leadership shout, in a bout of revisionist pique, ‘mischievous’ at those who remind them of their own words of yesteryear. Yet, if the prisoner issue is to be tackled at root, yesteryear is going to have to be revisited, not revised, time and time again. History is not a blackboard that can be flannelled clean. Those who think it is may raise enough dust through their frenzied efforts at erasure but once it settles the trace remains for all to see. And that awkward word ‘why’ makes itself heard yet again. As one participant asked upon seeing a long time Tyrone prisoner-support activist on Saturday ‘why is her support wrong today but right in 1981?’






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If you stand up and be counted, from time to time you may get yourself knocked down. But remember this: A man flattened by an opponent can get up again. A man flattened by conformity stays down for good.
- Thomas J. Watson, Jr

Index: Current Articles

18 August 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Unidentified Mob Rule
Aine Fox


The West Belfast Feile
Newton Emerson


The Most Useless, Most Spineless, Most Pointless of Them All
Ciarán Irvine


North Belfast: A Resident's View
Joan Totten


A Tawny Sinew
Anthony McIntyre


Deepest Sympathy


Ahmed Al Kouraini
Sam Bahour


A Personal Voyage of Taboo

Davy Carlin


Reading Connolly
Liam O Ruairc


15 August 2002


Put Spotlight On Republican Aims
Eamonn McCann


No Hierarchies Here!
Anthony McIntyre


Freedom to Dissent

Dorothy Robinson


Freedom of Whose Speech?
Paul A. Fitzsimmons


Political Intimidation
Anthony McIntyre


Class War is Over!
Billy Mitchell




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