By Martin Galvin (for the Blanket)
News of the protest against criminalization, by Republican political prisoners at Maghaberry, will strike a chord deep within the hearts and memories of many nationalists and Republicans. Twenty -five years ago, ten Irish patriots gave their lives in an unequal battle, resisting a British plan to brand them and their country’s struggle against British rule as criminal. Now, even as we pay homage to the memory of the hunger strikers of 1981, the British appear to be marking the anniversary in their own peculiar fashion, by attempting the same criminalization policy which triggered so much suffering a quarter century ago. Such measures will have undeniable implications for the prisoners, their families, the British government and for those nationalist political parties which have endorsed the Stormont deal.
The importance of criminalization is perhaps best illustrated by the brutal measures undertaken by the British to achieve the objective.
Following internment on August 9, 1971, the British proclaimed that Irish suspects held without charge, trial or legal rights were mere criminals and not political prisoners. Republicans vowed to resist being so labeled Legendary Belfast Irish Republican Army commander Billy McKee led a hunger strike against this policy after other protests were dismissed by the British.
Ultimately the British conceded the principle, if not the words. Special category status was created. Conditions associated with prisoner-of-war status, such as no criminal uniform, no prison work, association with other political prisoners, etc, were awarded. British policy makers however ,would not let the issue be so concluded.
Having failed in the six counties, the British attempted damage limitation by denying special category status to Republicans who dared to bring the struggle to England. Again Republican political prisoners refused to allow themselves and their cause to be branded as criminal.
After attempts at an honorable resolution were dismissed out of hand by the British and protests ignored, Republican prisoners including Marion Price, Dolours Price, Hugh Feeney and Gerry Kelly began a hunger strike. Two Mayo born Republican prisoners, Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg would join. Several weeks into the hunger strike the British began a brutal process of force-feeding that would last almost six months. Michael Gaughan would die on a hunger strike from the effects of force-feeding.
British medical staff would ultimately refuse to sanction force-feeding. Britain would concede and promise the Republican prisoners transfer to prisons in the north, and recognition as special category prisoners. Four of the Republican prisoners were repatriated. The British reneged on Frank Stagg and he would later die on hunger strike.
British administrators concluded that special category was a severe setback. It became increasingly difficult for even the most stiff upper-lipped of British ministers to proclaim that there were no Republican political prisoners merely criminals in Long Kesh or Armagh, only to be challenged about the growing numbers of Irish prisoners recognized as special category.
Commissions were empanelled and a strategy contrived. British ministers announced new initiatives heralding a new era of justice beginning with the end of internment. Meanwhile the British devised Diplock courts and constructed H-blocks. Behind the facade of justice and rights the British devised a new strategy to label Irish political prisoners as criminals, and with them Ireland’s long struggle against British rule.
An artificial date of March 1, 1976 was designated. Those jailed for actions taking place on or before February 28, 1976 would be recognized as special category prisoners, not wear a criminal uniform and instead, granted all of the conditions of political status. Those engaging in the very same actions as part of the same struggle after that date, were to be branded as criminals. They would wear criminal uniforms and be confined in the H-blocks, as part of the public acceptance of their new status as criminals. Kieran Nugent became the first Republican prisoner handed a criminal uniform. He shouted back that his British jailers would have to nail it to his back in order to force him to wear it. Alone, he tied a blanket around himself and resisted every attempt to bully, beat and break him into accepting the garb of a criminal, and of course paid a terrible psychological and physical price.
Hundreds of “blanketmen” would be held in Long Kesh. The British tried beatings, brutal searches, intimidation and loss of remission in order to force a criminal uniform and criminalization upon them. A steadily escalating campaign to break them and the women prisoners in Armagh was resisted by an escalating protest campaign by Republican prisoners. Massive support for the H-Block-Armagh Committee was provided by Churchmen, politicians ,human rights activists and individuals who did not endorse the armed campaigns of the IRA or INLA ,but recognized that Republican prisoners were jailed for actions which were politically motivated and undertaken because of British rule in the north.
All attempts at honorable resolution were rejected by the British. Ten Irish Republican prisoners led by Bobby Sands MP would ultimately give their lives on hunger strike rather than betray their struggle by accepting criminalization. Thatcher was beaten albeit at a terrible price. The world recognized that criminals do not die such deaths for the freedom of their country.
It is remarkable how little British strategy and tactics have changed in the last quarter century. The Stormont Deal was heralded by them as a new era. It is being used much like March 1, 1976 as a new artificial date to finally impose criminalization on Irish Republican political prisoners. A criminal uniform would be too obvious. Instead the means of criminalizing Republican prisoners is to force them into cells alongside and among criminals, without segregation amongst political prisoners. An early protest won segregation. The British then contrived to make the block for political prisoners a virtual punishment block. Those Republican prisoners who demanded segregation would be locked up for 21 or 22 hours daily, systemically strip-searched, brutalized, threatened and denied conditions and facilities available to criminals. The aim of the British is to break these prisoners into accepting places on the criminal wing .
Republican prisoners are protesting. Will the British escalate by further beatings and brutality? Is this a British attempt to finally achieve Republican submission to the very same British strategy of criminalization?
There are crucial political implications. For Republican political prisoners there is a challenge to endure and resist British criminalization. There is also a challenge to them and to their leaders, to be pragmatic in building a strategy and campaign which can unite Republicans and defeat the British.
If the nature of British rule has truly changed ,why do British administrators seek to reimpose criminalization upon Republicans? Do the British wish to persist in a strategy which risks inspiring resistance and also exposing their rule in Ireland as one that still inflicts oppression and injustice upon Irish political prisoners?
Does the wider nationalist and Republican community, wish to endorse a constabulary which makes them complicit in a British strategy of criminalization? Are not Republican political prisoners entitled to support ,from quarters who may disagree with the prisoners on the Stormont deal but recognize that the same moral grounds which justified the H-Block-Armagh support still apply?
Twenty-five years later, as we pay homage to the memory of the hunger strikers of 1981, surely we must not betray the very principle for which they suffered and sacrificed so much.