Irish Republican News · October 13, 2003
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]
IRISH REPUBLICAN NEWS: Separation vs. Segregation
Separation vs. Segregation

By Eamon Sweeney

``The people who voted for the Agreement, which included the desperately difficult issue of the early release of paramilitary prisoners, did so on the basis that there would be no place for anyone who would use violence to achieve political ends. ``

Those were the words of Security Minister Jane Kennedy on September 8th denouncing any possibility that segregation on the grounds of political affiliation would not be happening now or in the future.

A mere three weeks later we have learned that segregation is now ``separation'' and is not the same as the installation of special category or political status and is most definitely not a return to the paramilitary wing days of Long Kesh. That is, according to Jane Kennedy.

Following on from her original statement Kennedy then vowed that society must be protected from those who refuse to accept the non violent path. The truth of her governments approach has however been somewhat different.

Whilst the Labour administration have demonstrated a verbal determination to indemnify those outside the acceptable paramilitary structures, little has actually been done to give so called dissident republicans and loyalists any solid political reason to cease violent activity.

Thus far the Belfast Agreement has hardly been the standard bearer of a new and improved Northern Ireland, and has actually succeeded in providing dissident paramilitary organisations with pseudo justification for continuing attacks.

As deplorable as this violence has been, the answer from the British and Irish governments has been to jail them en masse, north and south of the border. Given the fact that these prisoners are considered to be the hard-liners of their respective ideologies, then clashes between enemies incarcerated at close quarters was totally inevitable.

Leaving aside the crime versus political activity argument, at a social level, the governments are reaping the whirlwind of sidelining anyone that dares go against the grain of the Good Friday Agreement.

The heinous act of barbarity in Omagh is tribute to the need to end this activity once and for all. But the demonisation of all dissenting opinion is another matter.

With the acceptance of the Steele recommendations on ``separation'' of Republican and Loyalist inmates from each other and on a voluntary basis is a reluctant and thinly disguised return to something approaching the system that for so long operated in Long Kesh. We all remember that its denial had deadly consequences for many inside and outside that jail.

There are certain criteria that a prisoner must fulfill before they can be ``separated''.

Firstly, the wings will not be under the control of the incumbents as they were in Long Kesh; prison officers will still have full autonomy.

This at least is the theory.

The nature of the offence, the PSNI assessment of affiliation, previous custodial terms, community background, a risk assessment of any likely threat to that individual or from that individual to others, the acceptability of the candidate to their chosen grouping and whether or not they are over eighteen years of age, must be taken into account, and this is after the person has volunteered to undergo such scrutiny. The failings of this system are at once plain, but better than the current situation.

The trustworthiness of PSNI assessment of an individual's political or paramilitary proclivity is highly debatable to say the least, especially when based on the benchmark of community background, and the biased nature of the police service. The former and current activities of the PSNI Special Branch in such matters should ring alarm bells for every human rights group in operation.

Although hypothetical what would happen if a non affiliated prisoner found themselves physically threatened because of their religious background and opted for separation and were accepted into a paramilitary wing without actual membership of that organisation?

Is it likely that they would remain untainted by that association after their release?

I am led to believe that this was a regular and necessary feature of life in Long Kesh in the 1970's and 1980's and that after their release ODC's (ordinary decent criminals) were permanently tarred with a paramilitary brush by the then RUC. Not enough has changed within the PSNI in my estimation to prevent this happening again.

This decision by the government flies in the face of the original post Agreement policy of integrated incarceration as the most cost effective and controllable method of imprisonment in Northern Ireland.

With the release of the majority of politically motivated prisoners after the agreement saw the end of political status, and integrated imprisonment became the phrase that replaced what previous governments called normalisation and in more hushed tones criminalisation. This policy sought to primarily castigate and demonise Republicans, portraying them as criminals without political credence and simultaneously allowing the British to promote the notion that there was no war in Northern Ireland, just minor skirmishes with ungrateful Fenians who did not know their place.

The release under the thirty year embargo rule of Ted Heath's proposed airstrikes on Derry's Creggan and the consideration of forcible repatriation of northern nationalists into the republic put pay to the idea that the British were engaged in nothing less than a serious conflict.

At its apogee, the conflict between republicanism and the British resulted in the deaths of ten hunger strikers in 1981 in defence of their right to political status. The recent dirty protest and threatened hunger strike by Republican inmates in Maghaberry however arose in very different circumstances than those encountered by Bobby Sands et al in 1981.

A substantial amount of current thinking on this situation, whether correct or not, has indicated that dissident republican intentions within Maghaberry were exacerbated by a desire by their vilified leadership to engender outside sympathy and support. This thinking even suggested that a martyr, i.e.; a dead hunger striker would steal considerable thunder from ailing mainstream republicanism.

Tempted though I was by the weight of this argument, since I have long believed that much use was and is made of the speculated thoughts today of those who died in 1981, I understand that cold reality tells a different story.

Tales of daily attacks and intimidation by prison staff are too numerous to be discounted. One recent incident of a republican prisoner placed in the general prison population against his wishes having his food poisoned illustrates the sense of this move by the government.

Despite the wish of Dublin and London that the Agreement provide a panacea for Irish society, it is plainly apparent that to some extent it has heightened tensions amongst people who clearly still perceive themselves to be at war.

Political status this is not, but it is as close as anyone will ever get to it again, at least within the remit of this accord. If we cannot live together outside the walls of Maghaberry, how are diametrically opposed organisations with the will for destruction and the tools to provide it expected to co-exist in such a confined arena?

It would appear that another chapter in the role of jails in the wider pantheon of Irish history has been opened, will it be the last?

© 2003 Irish Republican News