Fight British Criminalisation of Irish Republican Political Prisoners!
Irish Republican Political Prisoners Protest
Fight British Criminalisation of Republican POWs
ON June 19 in Maghaberry Jail, Co Antrim, Republican POWs began a protest, the first in a series of phased protests, making it clear that they will not accept the sub-standard conditions on the segregated wing and that they would not be criminalised, intimidated or coerced by the petty restrictions being imposed by prison screws to make the day-to-day life in the jail for POWs more difficult.
A statement, released from the OC, CIRA POWs, Maghaberry, on that day read:
"We, the Republican POWs, call on all nationalist and Republican people in Ireland and abroad to support us in our upcoming protest for better conditions and the restoration of political status. In 2003 we embarked on a protest for segregation, this battle was won and segregation was introduced in September of that year. At that time the Brits asked for a period of transition and conditions would then improve. These terms were accepted reluctantly by Republicans.
"However as in 1980 when our comrades in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh ended their first hunger-strike, we have found that the Brits are still incapable of honouring their promises. As a result we again find ourselves in the unfortunate position of having to embark on a prolonged protest. This has come about as a direct result of the intransigence of the Brits in seeking a policy of criminalisation. We hereby state that we as Republican POWs will no longer co-operate with nor accept the policies and regime imposed on us by Brit puppets.
"We have outlined our five demands. The protest which we now embark upon will not end until our demands are met. We will take whatever steps are necessary in order to improve the conditions not alone for ourselves, but also for those who may come behind us. I would therefore like to call on all Republican bodies, all politicians to back us in our plight. We have exhausted all avenues open to us. We gave the Brits the transition period required by them and still they refuse to accept that we are not criminals. We would ask everyone to support us by supporting our representatives on white-line pickets and leaflet hand-outs taking to the streets and demand that the Brits and their prison service sort this out once and for all."
On the same day the POW campaign group, the Republican Prisoners Action Group (RPAG), said that:
"Political status has been denied to Republican POWs since the implementation of the Stormont Agreement and as a result conditions, both for POWs and their families and visitors, have worsened considerably."
The RPAG was formed to highlight the conditions endured by the POWs and have met with the Human Rights Commission who accepted that their concerns were justified.
Issues of contention between the POWs and the British Prison Service include controlled movement which severely restricts contact between the POWs; the daily regime of between 18 and 23-hour lock-down; continual searching of cells and body searches; and the use of the drugs dog to control/deny visits and punish prisoners returning from parole.
The late Monsignor Faul, at the request of the RPAG, visited the Officer Commanding (OC) of the POWs and issued a report strongly criticising the regime and the conditions in which the men are forced to live. In October 2005 the British Inspectorate for Prisons issued a report which was also critical of a number of practices within the segregated regime in Maghaberry and yet the British Prison Service have done nothing to address these concerns, the statement said and continued: "The RPAG contributed a submission to the consultation process for the Separated Regime Review conducted by the British Prison Service. In their reply the British Prison Service failed to address any of the issues in a productive way."
The five demands of the POWs are:
Freedom of movement
Right to full time education
Separate visiting facility
Right to organise their own landing
When limited segregation was first introduced the British Prison Service agreed to build separate accommodation for visits. This has not been done and is not on the agenda.
In October 2005 the following procedures were introduced for visits:
Visitor shows photographic ID
Visitor gives fingerprint
Visitor stands against a wall and has their photograph taken
Visitor scans themselves (by their fingerprint)
Visitor passes the 'sniffer dog'.
At the time the RPAG issued a statement outlining the safety concerns in relation to this process and the very real danger of this information being passed to loyalists. More recently the father of a POW has been prevented from visiting his son because he does not own photographic ID (He has neither a passport or driving licence).
In a statement on June 20 Republican Sinn Féin declared its support for the protest action of the Republican prisoners.
The statement said: "In this 25th anniversary year of the H-Block hunger strike, the British government must not be allowed to go back down the road of attempting to criminalise Republicans while they treat them in an inhumane manner.
"In addition to between 21 and 23 hour lock-up on alternate days there are constant strip searches. Prisoners are made to choose between daily exercise and education. They are denied facilities to enable them to organise their own education.
"The prisoners seek the right to free association on their own landings and an end to 'controlled movement'. They are abused by the use of sniffer dogs to harass their visitors and themselves.
"Safe and secure visits are denied, family visitors are exposed to loyalist visitors and the prisoners themselves are exposed to loyalists while going to and from legal visits.
"Since Republican prisoners secured separation from loyalist and ordinary prisoners some years ago, they have been targeted for special reduced conditions. The mistakes of the past must not be repeated in 2006."
Screws have been allowed to misuse their control of the prison dog to prevent visits between the POW and their visitors. Once the dog sits down beside a visitor, only a closed visit is on offer because the screws claim that the visitor has been in contact with drugs - no visitor has been found to have drugs in their possession.
The drugs dog is further used to punish POWs returning from parole. This has happened on a few occasions and the POW was sent to the punishment block for 48 hours.
FREE ASSOCIATION AND FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT
The POWs are not allowed either free association or freedom of movement resulting from the 'controlled movement' policy enforced on the segregated landings. This policy prevents any more than three prisoners being allowed out of their cells at any one time and requires a staff to prisoner ratio of 4:2 and/or 3:1. The POWs want freedom of movement at education/gym/exercise time. This would allow them engage in workshops and interaction with each other. If a POW goes to education class he forfeits his exercise time and visa versa due to the limited time he is unlocked (they are locked up between 18 and 23 hours a day).
On June 26 the Republican Prisoners Action Group (RPAG) outlined the second phase of the prison protest: "Republican POWs in Maghaberry will begin the second phase of their Prison Protest and will be refusing to eat meals in their cells. The RPAG would like to stress that the POWs are not on Hunger Strike.
"POWs on the segregated wing are denied access to canteen facilities and are forced to eat meals (next to the toilet) in their cells as a result of the 'controlled movement' policy operating on the landings. The RPAG consider that this policy of Controlled Movement as excessively restrictive".
SOLIDARITY FROM POWS IN PORTLAOISE PRISON
POWs in Portlaoise Prison expressed support for the Prison Protest and 22 of them took part in a 24-hour fast on June 28 in solidarity with their comrades in Maghaberry. They have indicated that this will continue each week for the foreseeable future and in a statement issued from Portlaoise have called for support for the POWs in Maghaberry in their fight to win back political status. On June 27 more prisoners joined the protest and support for their demands is growing. Since the announcement of the protest, messages of support have been received from groups and individuals across Ireland, Europe and the World.
One such statement of support came from EMGANN. On June 26 the Breton left independence group sent support to the Irish Republican POWs jailed in Maghaberry currently on protest.
Spokesperson Yannig Laporte, said: "Like them and the Republican Movement, we ask that the British government stop harassing Republican prisoners and stop the 21 and 23 hours lock-up in their cells. They should have the right to daily exercise and education, and should be separated from loyalists.
"Several people, in Brittany and other countries, remember Bobby Sands and his comrades' struggle, and can't understand that Irish POWs still suffer under hard prison regimes. It's no time to criminalise the Republican movement, it's time for political status, it's time for self-determination!
"We ask people in solidarity with the Irish Republican cause to send protest letters to the British Embassy in France, 35 rue du Faubourg St-Honoré, 75383 Paris or phone 01 44 51 31 00." On June 29 the RPAG on behalf of the protesting POWs called on elements of the print and broadcast media to end their self-censorship of the Republican prison protest at Maghaberry jail. A special broadcast on Radio Ulster on June 28 from Magilligan Prison, Co Derry, about prison issues failed to even refer to the prison protest and numerous individuals, including Tony McPhillips of the RPAG, were refused air time.
"But Ministers, the Prison Ombudsman, numerous prison officers and ordinary prisoners were all permitted to express their views on the programme. The RPAG calls on all sections of the media to end their silence and begin publishing the daily human rights abuses of Republican prisoners that continue at Maghaberry jail."
RSF BELFAST SUPPORT
In a statement on June 28 Geraldine Taylor, Ard Chomhairle, Republican Sinn Féin, Belfast said that in 2006 Irish Republicans were still incarcerated for their political beliefs.
"In 1981 they were political prisoners and now in 2006 they are political prisoners. Political status is a right not a privilege.
"We like to call on all ex-prisoners' group to come out and show their support for all political prisoners who are on protest in Maghaberry Concentration Camp. "We ask them to join in white-line pickets and any other protest organised by the Republican Prisoners Action Group and Republican Sinn Féin."
APPEAL FROM OC, REPUBLICAN PRISONERS, MAGHABERRY
"To the people of Ireland and abroad. I, as the OC of the CIRA POWs in Maghaberry concentration camp, would like to appeal to you for your support.
"As you are no doubt already aware Republican POWs have yet again been forced into a position of protest. Since the introduction of segregation in 2003 we have endured a policy of bigotry and sectarianism directed towards us from the British prison service.
"We have remained disciplined against all the odds in the belief rightly or wrongly that pressure from external groups would ensure change within this prison camp. To date however this has failed. All visitors to this camp have recognised and indeed stated that we are facing human rights abuses on a daily basis and indeed this camp has been likened to Auschwitz concentration camp.
"We as stated above remained disciplined in the face of adversity but we have exhausted all avenues available to us and now we have reached the end of the road where we feel that a form of protest is the only way forward.
"We have been locked up for up to 23 hours per day, we have no freedom of movement or association, no access to decent handicraft facilities nor full-time education.
"We are subjected to strip searches which are meant only to degrade us as at no time has any contraband been found.
"The British Northern Ireland Office (NIO) and prison service would have the people believe that they are under enormous pressure in order to hold us. They would also like you to believe through their recent reports that they are doing everything possible to ensure change. This is not the case.
"They failed to tell you that the cosmetic changes they are to introduce were in fact the very thing we have complained about for two years. They also failed to mention that external pressure was also bearing down on them.
"They have only in recent weeks abandoned one rub-down search but have recently built a strip-search facility. This strip-search facility has taken precedent over the new education block but that is no surprise.
"Family and friends of Republican POWs have routinely been forced to go without seeing their loved ones for weeks on end on the say so of the drugs dog and his handler. Republican prisoners have to endure cell searches in which we are abused verbally stand naked in front of screws face ridicule and sectarianism property destroyed, photographs of loved ones defaced and thrown on the ground, pictures of hunger strikers removed on political grounds. The conditions thrust upon us are a throw back to the 1970s.
"The Prison Officers Association (POA) and screws believe that because we are small in numbers that they can claw back what they lost in the 80s. We hereby state that we will resist at all cost, we will no longer allow the Brits to continue with the criminalisation policy.
"We as Republican POWs have at no time stated that we want a return to the H Blocks. This terminology is one adopted by the POA. The POA crawl out of the woodwork at times of trouble and cry looking for extra money. At no time have I heard any constructive remarks from these fools who purport to speak for 'their' officers.
"As of June 26 Republican POWs have been refusing to eat all meals in their cells. We have also withdrawn all co-operation from a system which seeks to criminalise us further. The struggle in which we are presently engaged is one which has been embarked on for generations. Republican POWs throughout Irish history have endured much suffering in order to retain or restore Political Status. Today is no different.
"The number of Republican prisoners although small, still believe that they too have the inalienable right to political status, to be treated as Prisoners of War. These men, mostly young and most with young wives and children at home, have endured months and in some cases many years bring tormented for their political beliefs. These young men have been through conveyor belt, arrested, charged and interned. Most of the cases against those arrested are later dropped, much later in some cases.
"However, those who are unfortunate enough to be serving long sentences have accepted it as part of the struggle. The struggle for freedom, for independence. They have found themselves in a prison camp established for one purpose and one purpose only, to break their spirits by means of mental and physical torture. The system in which we find ourselves ensnared is one built around institutionalised sectarianism and corruption, hatred and bigotry. One in which the screws are given a free hand to persecute us. The governors turn a blind eye, refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of our complaints.
"Well no longer. The Republican prisoners have had enough. We have stood together in unity and stated loud and clear for all to hear, all those who want to of course, that we will take no more. No more abuse. No more torture. No more discrimination. NO MORE!
"Almost 30 years ago on September 14, 1976 a protest against criminalisation began in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. This protest ended with the deaths of ten brave men, who died so that others might benefit from the restoration of political status. Those Political Prisoners, like us today, had exhausted all avenues open to them, the Human Rights Commission, the Catholic Church and politicians.
"We the Republican POWs are calling on people to support us in our call for better conditions. We call for an end to the strip searches, an end to the discrimination, an end to the policy of eating in the toilet, end the lock ups and end the abuse of the drugs dog and to end the controlled movement.
"We have entered into this protest knowingly. We will not shirk our responsibilities and we remain steadfast in our beliefs. We ask you the people to support us in our calls for change, we do not expect you to support our political beliefs or convictions.
"We the Republican Prisoners in Maghaberry would urge the British government, the NIO and the prison service not to test our will or determination. We fully believe in our right to be held and treated as Political Prisoners of War. We will take whatever steps are necessary in order to achieve our demands." - OC CIRA, Maghaberry Concentration Camp
'PRISONERS DID NOT SIGN COMPACT'
In response to a statement from the British Prison Service in a Belfast newspaper on June 30 that the prisoners in the segregated area of Maghaberry had signed a compact before being housed there, Geraldine Taylor, Ard Chomhairle, Republican Sinn Féin, Belfast said:
"Regarding the statement from the press officer at Maghaberry Prison in the Irish News on Friday, June 30 stating that all prisoners signed a document to accept conditions in the separated wing, we categorically deny that any prisoner who comes under the welfare of Republican Sinn Féin signed any such document, therefore they did not accept the conditions which they are forced to live under.
"The prisoners and their representatives have been fighting for change since they moved across, now we find that they have been forced to take the protest further to highlight their plight in their struggle to be recognised as POWs."
The RPAG said on July 2 that Republican POWs in Maghaberry do not have access to welfare visits from suitable representatives outside the jail. POWs must forfeit a family visit in order to communicate with those who represent them and since sentenced POWs only get one visit per week this has an adverse impact on family contact.
The group said that before the Separated Regime Review in May 2006 entitlement to Welfare Visits was restricted to MLAs, MPs and Councillors from political parties with a sitting MLA/ MP. The RPAG, in their submission to the Review, highlighted the inequality in this approach. Republican Sinn Féin are prevented from standing in Six-County council elections by the political test oath and the RPAG, who are in existence solely to highlight the issues for POWs within Maghaberry, are not a political organisation who would be standing in elections.
"The review altered this policy, presumably to create the impression that the matter had been considered. However the change was cosmetic, Councillors from political parties with no representation at MP/ MLA level now have access to welfare visits also.
"This clearly fails to address either of the objections the RPAG submitted to this policy and POWs remain in the position where their family contact must suffer in order that the discrimination, inequality and sub standard conditions forced upon them in Maghaberry can be highlighted.
"The RPAG calls on the British Prison Service to look again at this issue. To assess the inequality of their approach and to allow the POWs to have proper access to the group that represents them in the prison crisis.
"The RPAG calls on the public to give their support to the POWs at this time. The 1981 hunger strikers sacrificed themselves to improve conditions for those POWs who came after them and to ensure that political status was available to POWs as of right. No one can be justified in signing away the rights of others, however that is what happened in the Stormont Agreement, and the POWs are now in a position where they must begin the fight for political status again.
"They are relying on the Irish people to stand with them in their fight to improve conditions and ultimately to win back political status. The Irish people have never failed POWs in the past and we have faith that they will not fail them now."
National Irish Freedom Committee
address: NIFC PO BOX 771084, Woodside, NY 11377
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