By Anthony McIntyre (the Pensive Quill)
It cannot be easy being a republican political prisoner in the North these days. So few in number those unfortunate enough to find themselves on the inside are up against it. The prison system is desperate not to cede any ground and will draw on the accumulated experience of vindictiveness to keep the political prisoners in check. Prison management is also aware that it is unlikely to be held to account. Sinn Fein, who benefited most from the anti-criminalisation campaign of the 1970s and 80s, has crossed the line to stand beside the British and tag the label ‘criminal’ onto republican prisoners. The party’s current position has it implementing British policy to the hilt as it finds itself, seemingly without shame, standing shoulder to shoulder with the DUP, criminalising republicans and legitimising Paisleyism. Small wonder the prison authorities proceed with impunity to implement a harsh regime.
Not everybody has bought into the repressive perspective. This is evident from a noticeable increase in numbers attending white line pickets in support of jailed republicans. This failure to forget manifested itself in Sunday’s protest in support of republican prisoners being held at Maghaberry prison in Co Antrim. While estimates vary, and everyone shades it their own way, there have been suggestions that the gathering was around 300. Impressive enough for a Sunday afternoon outside a prison.
People travelled from throughout the North. Many were stopped and searched by an aggressive PSNI. Car numbers were taken and people were photographed.
Recently Sam Millar made the comment, ‘regardless of what our political differences are - and there are plenty - we should always be behind the prisoners/ex-prisoners one hundred percent. No ifs ands or buts.’ It is an unambiguous call that seems to be resonating throughout the minds of many others including men who were at one time republican prisoners and know only too well just what being banged up in the custody of Her British Majesty’s prisons entails. At yesterday’s protest were some who I had been in prison with including former Blanket men like Alex McCrory and Gerard Hodgins. Clearly they have not forgotten or conveniently ignored what the prolonged prison protests and hunger strikes of three decades ago were all about.
Willie Gallagher who along with me was one of a small number of 16 year olds in A Wing Crumlin Road Prison was present also. Forced by constant brutality into a prolonged hunger strike in 1978 he knows the danger prisoners are in if public attention is deflected from their situation.
Also lending their support were people who I first had the pleasure of meeting 35 or 36 years ago in circumstances which were anything but pleasurable, the jangling of screws’ keys sometimes the only music we heard. Danny McBrearty from Derry and Tony Catney from Belfast: men astutely aware of the criminal negligence involved in labelling republican prisoners as criminals. These two have come through everything from imprisonment, harassment, the deaths of family members at the hands of SAS and UVF death squads. Tony Catney, a republican of unassailable credentials, also endured a recent smear campaign aimed at undermining his long established status within the republican community. These people and more, undeterred by the distorting effects of selective amnesia, gathered to state the simple difference between the republican prisoners of today and yesteryear - a date.
Because when it is distilled down a date is all that separates the current crop of republican prisoners and those of us who preceded them and enjoyed the benefits of politic status both de jure and de facto. Just the same as the date that separated Bobby Sands, Mickey Devine et al from those who went before them. There is no difference between those behind the walls today and those who wore the blanket in defiance of the British state. Motivation, method, ideology all remain the same. Their jailers too remain the same - the British state.
There is no need whatsoever to support the armed activities of those imprisoned republicans in order to defend them against charges of criminality. Indeed there are many compelling reasons to oppose the use of physical force. Enough lessons have been learned to demonstrate the implausibility of armed republicanism securing an end to British rule in Ireland. But it is a lesson that could have been learned in our own time. Those former republicans most vociferous in their condemnation of other republicans who follow the very methods the erstwhile republicans once prescribed bear a huge measure of responsibility for that lesson having gone unlearned.
If the armed republicans of today are common criminals then every one of us who took part in the blanket protest including Bobby Sands was a common criminal. The logic of criminalising today’s republicans can lead to no other conclusion.
There are many reasons that can be given as to why today’s armed republicans are wrong. Being criminal does not figure among them.