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5 December 2011

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Ground-breaking history of the IRA in English prisons


Dr Ruán O’Donnell signs copies of ‘Special Category’ for republican ex-prisoners at the book’s launch in Kilmainham, Dublin

SPECIAL CATEGORY - The IRA in English Prisons (Volume 1: 1968-1978) is a ground-breaking work from DR RUÁN O’DONNELL, Senior Lecturer in the History Department in Limerick University. O’Donnell has been researching the history of the Republican Movement in Ireland from the days of the United Irishmen to the modern conflict in the North and has already written books on Robert Emmet, the Easter Rising and the Wexford IRA.
An Phoblacht’s MARK MOLONEY spoke with Dr O’Donnell about his new work, which is just the first in a series dealing with republican prisoners in English jails. It has been five years in the making and was made possible thanks to a high-degree of co-operation from the ex-prisoner community.

“During my research I noted that the work done on Long Kesh and Crumlin Road was still in its infancy but at least it was developing, whereas nothing was happening in relation to the prisoners who did time in England. When I heard that there was in excess of 200 people who had served time for issues connected with the IRA in Britain, I was convinced that I should attempt to write a history of that experience.”
The book is certainly a comprehensive history of the period. Declassified British Government documents, private collections of correspondence, state archives and international media reports are all drawn upon to build a comprehensive picture of the IRA in English prisons. At 528 pages it goes into great depth on issues such as prisoner support groups, prison protests, the dispersal system and the hunger strikes of Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg.
“As I delved more deeply into the history, I kept coming across instances I knew were very important but had not received particularly high degrees of publicity. Others stories had not been fully told, such as the the hunger strikes of Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg. With access to people who had mediated in those hunger strikes and participated in the protest in Wakefield, I was able to piece together what could be described as the full story of these events.”
The involvement of republicans in major protests in England and the effect such actions had on the British penal system are also looked at.
“Republicans participated in the Hull Riot and the Albany protests, both of which occurred in 1976. The Hull Riot was one of the most significant explosions in the prison population in the history of the penal system in England and it was the most serious unrest since 1969, only surpassed by the Strangeways Riot of 1990. This was a very major incident in which IRA prisoners played a very significant role.”
The book also looks at how the IRA were viewed by the English prison population.
“Obviously, the dispersal system meant that IRA prisoners did not have the solidarity of comrades or the protection of structures within the jails. However, the IRA ensured that attacks on republicans inside did not go unanswered and that steps would be taken to protect vulnerable prisoners.
“The republicans also adopted a policy whereby any penal reform they were seeking would be done so in the name of all the prisoners. They identified the issue of oppressive surveillance during family visits as a major bone of contention. So when they campaigned through their solicitors they did so on behalf of all prisoners. Hardened English criminals began to realise that the IRA were quite staunch, that they were anti-authoritarian, organised, politicised and they were physically capable of taking on the system from within. Ultimately, they were important in securing the right of prisoners to education, training and other forms of self-improvement which one would have imagined the prison system would have encouraged but, in actuality, it vehementley discouraged it.”
Ruan O’Donnell also highlights the shocking practice of “ghosting”, which involved the unexpected movement of republicans from prison to prison, often hundreds of miles away and with no warning just before visits, to keep them from meeting with their families.
“The families of Irish prisoners in England were arguably the single most discriminated element in the entire system.
“The majority of families had to travel from Ireland and that meant automatic problems of security vetting, cost of travel and hassle by police using the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
“Virtually all prisoners who were there for a long period of time experienced the horrendous phenomena of being moved on the day of a long-planned and long-awaited visit. In numerous eyewitness accounts, they were put in a position where they could see their relatives waiting to get into a prison which they had just left! But the British Home Office always cited some security justification for such moves. They did greatly fear the IRA, and the campaign in England was viewed as extremely threatening to British interests in Ireland. From their point of view, it made sense to use the families to put psychological pressure on the prisoners themselves.”
Dr O’Donnell said it was also interesting to note the large number of former prisoners from England who went on to work at building up Sinn Féin as a political force, North and South; other prisoners simply went away: “Although when you consider that around 15,000 people served time as republican prisoners, that’s not uncommon.”
The book was launched to a packed audience in Kilmainham Jail, Dublin, on November 24th with many republican former prisoners in attendance. O’Donnell also revealed that he hopes  Volume II of the series will be available in two years’ time.


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