A dispute which saw unaligned republican prisoner Donal Billings undertake a brief hunger protest after he was removed from the republican wing of Portlaoise jail has ended amicably with his return to the wing.
The controversy highlights the difficulties faced by political prisoners in the organisation of their wings in both Portlaoise in the Irish midlands and at Maghaberry in County Antrim.
On Wednesday August 2nd, a group of prisoners on E3 and E4 landings of Portlaoise jail, representing the clear majority of republican prisoners there, claimed Mr Billings had left the block the previous Sunday by agreement following a dispute over his behaviour.
They said they had found themselves “reluctantly drawn into negotiation and mediation between Mr Billings and other non-aligned prisoners, as a result of Mr Billings’ behaviour”.
They accused the veteran republican of threatening the prison environment by assaulting two prisoners, taking tools to use as weapons, and seeking to make a live radio statement from the jail.
“There would have been implications and consequences for E Block,” they said.
They further alleged Mr Billings had disrupted republican prisoners’ access to all forms of education, including Irish language classes.
“We remain committed to providing a safe, hostile- free and supportive environment in the most difficult of circumstances for all Republican Prisoners in E block regardless of their political affiliations.”
However, Republican Sinn Fein and other republican organisations issued a defence of Mr Billings.
They accused the prisoners on E3 and E4 of “bullying tactics” against “independent PoWs and those republicans whose numbers are low in the jails of Ireland”.
“Donal is a quiet man who has always had time for any of the PoWs he met while imprisoned either in the 26 county state or in the cages of Long Kesh,” they said.
“In both these jails he made every effort to aid others in learning Gaeilge, it is said he taught Hunger Strike Martyr Bobby Sands Gaeilge while both served time in Long Kesh.
“Now in his 60’s he has been cast in among criminals in the Midlands. Considering the present situation among criminals this action could quite easily place Donal in the path of danger.”
The 32 County Sovereignty Movement also called for his immediate reinstatement and “a wider consultation to address what is clearly a dysfunctional process”.
“As with previous incidents claim and counter claim lead to an ugly narrative reflecting negatively on the wider Republican Movement,” they said.
“Such decisions on these actions are not confined to the prisoners themselves but involve direction from outside sources with political agendas. As such those sources must be central to any resolution and must fully engage with all republican groups to secure such an end.
“Political status for republican prisoners was a hard won battle involving immense suffering and sacrifice. Its designation can be no more cavalier than its removal.”
On Friday, August 4, it was announced that the dispute had ended and Mr Billings was returning to the E1 wing, with little explanation.
The small Irish Republican National Congress group, which agreed to represent Mr Billings, said its representatives and prisoners from E3/E4 had “resolved all issues between themselves without any input from anyone else” and Mr Billings would have the use of all facilities as normal.
“All those present were in full agreement with the positive outcome of the situation. The matter has now been resolved.”