There have been calls to strengthen efforts against the criminalisation and isolation of republican prisoners following a debate at the Stormont Assembly on the issue.
Prisoners’ campaigners made the call after Ulster Unionist Doug Beattie brought a motion for an end to the special status of republican political prisoners at Maghaberry.
“A key question is, that 22 years on from the ceasefires and 18 years on from the Belfast Agreement, should we still be perpetuating the type of prison regime that existed during the Troubles,” Beattie said.
Beattie, the UUP’s justice spokesman and a former British soldier, called on the Justice Minister to move to a fully integrated regime by 2026.
Minister Claire Sugden said she recognised “the challenges of operating a separated regime” but added “it is clear that there are prisoners who will not integrate and equally clear that if they are forced to do so, that can have a serious and disruptive impact effect on good order, discipline and security of the prison as a whole.”
Sinn Fein proposed an amendment urging the involvement of a planned independent review to examine the operation of the separated regime, which was passed.
The party’s northern chair, Declan Kearney, argued: “Comprehensive prison reform should be at the heart of the political and policy framework for the Department of Justice and the Assembly. Today’s UUP motion completely misses the context and the necessary reform agenda.”
Recent delays in placing republican prisoners on the appropriate wing may be linked to a new strategy to remove the distinction between political prisoners and criminals. A number of weeks ago, four republicans were remanded into Maghaberry on political charges, but prison authorities refused appeals to house them on the Roe 4 Republican wing. Three were eventually moved, but one of the four, Luke O’Neill, is still being held in isolation among a hostile population.
Sean Bresnahan, chairperson of the Thomas Ashe 1916 Society Omagh, hit out at the manouevering on the issue.
“Thirty-five years on from the H-Block Hunger strikes, it seems that Britain and her local proxies have learned nothing - including, it would seem, those who rose to power on the backs of the hunger strikers but now uphold the same occupation system that drove them to their deaths,” he said.
“Their feeble effort to introduce a mere amendment, as opposed to rejecting this reactionary policy shift outright, should be noted by all progressives. It does not disguise that they are now on the side of those who seek the oppression of political prisoners in Maghaberry.
“We call not only for the rejection of the hypocritical scheming of Doug Beattie - himself a former servant of Britain’s criminal war machine - but likewise for an end to the repressive policies operated at Maghaberry by a reactionary prison regime, under the direction of British Intelligence, whose intent is the torture of republicans in its custody.
“Strip-search, controlled movement and lockdown are waged without relent in a direct challenge to their status as political prisoners, to their right to a dignified existence in accord with that status.”