From prison rooftops to hunger-strikes

RECENT HISTORY: Special Category by author Ruán O’Donnell RECENT HISTORY: Special Category by author Ruán O’Donnell
By Evan Short

THE experience of Irish political prisoners in English jails throughout the conflict has been to a large extent overshadowed by what went on in Long Kesh and the Crumlin Road.

Outside of the wrongful convictions of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, there has been little detailed focus on how the large number of Irishmen and women who were jailed as a result of political actions survived in English jails, and the hugely destabilising affect they had on the existing British penal structure.

This story is the subject of a groundbreaking study by Dr Ruán O’Donnell of the University of Limerick

Across three publications, he covers the story of IRA prisoners who were put in Category A institutions. His motivation, he says, was an extension of his general interest in republicanism.

“I have always been interested in the history of Irish republicanism and when an opportunity arose to access certain records and people a book became viable. The original intention was to write one book but I approach topics as projects and soon found there was more than sufficient information available to produce a comprehensive account. My decision to discuss every IRA prisoner in England, as well as those adhering to the Official IRA and INLA, necessitated considerable research.”

This research involved meeting those who had been incarcerated.

“I have carried out a large number of interviews with prisoners and met the majority of those held in England’s Category A system between 1969 and 1998. Most were very helpful and informative, some were so self-effacing and modest that I had to prompt them into relating stories in which I knew they featured.

“The nature of UK policy regarding IRA prisoners; ghosting, lie-downs and isolation, militates against clear, chronological narratives. Many were sent to Parkhurst or Albany on numerous occasions over twenty years. However, it is generally possible to locate specific experiences in their context.”

Terms like ghosting sound innocent but their impact had a severe impact on prisoner welfare. To be ghosted meant you were continuosly moved around different jails. The reasoning behind the practice was so that ‘difficult’ prisoners were removed before they could destablise a settled prison population. The practice was used wholesale on republicans who found themselves in English jails.

The unpreparedness of the British to having IRA men and woman coming into their prison system is highlighted by a number of anecdotes.

One sees an early bomb suspect ask to use the library. The staff are delighted as category A prisoners showed little interest before the republican’s arrival. The inmate in question was surprised to find a manual on the shelves describing how to defuse WW2 bombs.

But as the conflict continued and the IRA continued its policy of attacking British targets more prisoners saw a harshening of the regime. Despite the fact volunteers approached to travel to England to carry out operations were well aware of the harsh treatment they would face if caught when compared to their Irish-based colleagues, Ruán said they continued to put themselves forward for operations .

“All IRA members who agreed to go to England knew they would face very long and arduous sentences if arrested. They were conscious that only immediate family were every likely to be permitted to visit and only then after a difficult process of vetting.

 

Unwelcome

“Distances and locations ensured hardship and expense for Irish families who were often made to feel unwelcome in parts of rural England and the Isle of Wight. Generally, visits were ‘closed’ and no physical contact was permitted in the presence of numerous note-taking staff.

“Many relatives had sinister encounters in England and some were banned from the UK under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Despite such factors, it was clear from the number and sophistication of IRA attacks into the late 1990s that Volunteers could be found.”

The onset of the no-wash protest took what little spotlight was on republicans in English prisons away. What campaigning was carried out was the result of sympathetic English-based organisations and ongoing court cases involving those who were incarcerated.

“The extremity of the IRA experience in Long Kesh and Portlaoise in the 1970s, no- wash protests and subsequent hunger-strikes demanded the attention of the PoW Department and Sinn Féin in general.

“The much larger numbers involved also, naturally, tended to overshadow what was going on with their comrades in England. At times, little information was available on events within the Special Security Units and far flung Category B prisons where IRA personnel were often held in solitary confinement. In due course, roof protests, hunger-strikes, sabotage and press communications drew attention to the particular issues pertaining to the English prisons.

“Sinn Féin, the Troops Out Movement and a variety of left wing organisations braved the Prevention of Terrorism Act and censorship to ensure that the prisoners were not, at very least, abandoned.

“The deaths of Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg gained global attention, as did such protest high points as the prolonged Albany Riot of 1983. Important test cases gradually improved the ability of prisoners to consult lawyers and maintain contact with relatives.”

The three volume series adds some untold stories to the history of the conflict but Ruán says anyone researching the history of prisons will learn a lot from his work.

“The books are aimed at those interested in modern Irish political history, the ‘Troubles’ and prison history. They comprise a substantial tranche of new information and establish the fact that the IRA in England were viewed as ‘strategic’ prisoners whose welfare and location became significant political factors in the 1990s.”

He says the British government has learned lessons from the republican prisoner experience they are putting into practice today with prisoners who have been convicted in connection with Islamic extremism. But there is a significant difference between the IRA volunteers and the more recent Islamic prisoners.

“One major difference between the IRA and persons convicted of Islamic extremism is that the Irish republicans were ideologically coherent and possessed widely supported goals which could be accommodated, to a large degree by the Good Friday Agreement.

“It was notable that the UK were willing to divest themselves of anti-GFA republicans jailed in England whom they repatriated. This had been a key demand of the Provisional IRA in the 1970s and 1980s. In general, the current UK position seems calculated to avoid the creation of cause célèbres and ‘martyr’ figures.”

n Special Category: The IRA in English Prisons by Dr Ruán O’Donnell is published by Irish Academic Press.

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