20 November 1997 Edition

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The wartime agenda

By Laurence McKeown

It is said that a good gauge of society is how it treats its prisoners. In the Six Counties prisons and the issue of imprisonment has always been prominent, whether it be the issue of internment, the hunger strikes, strip searches, daring escapes, transfers, compassionate parole or the release of prisoners. How the British government, rather than Irish society, has dealt with those issues has often shown their attitude towards Ireland and the Irish people, not just in this phase of the liberation struggle but down through the centuries.

It is interesting to note developments regarding imprisonment in recent years. By the late 1980s into the early 1990s attempts to implement the failed policy of criminalisation had been more or less abandoned.

This development did not come about due to any `road to Damascus' enlightenment on the part of the prison authorities or the NIO. It was as the result of two factors; their inability to enforce such a regime in the prisons and the refusal of the wider population to regard the imprisoned members of their community as anything other than political. Once that change in policy came about though, regardless of the motivation for change, the prisons became a much more peaceful place for republicans (even if a new breed of loyalist prisoners began to wreck havoc). The prison authorities began to deal with the republican command structures in a more sensible manner and through dialogue the resolution of most problems that arose was achieved.

In speaking to someone who was on the camp staff in recent years he remarked that they were taken by surprise when this process of dialogue, negotiation and compromise suddenly ground to a halt immediately following the IRA cessation of all military actions in August 1994. Improvements and changes to the system governing compassionate parole, for instance, were put on hold and when they were implemented many months later they were greatly reduced in their content from what had been expected.

What was happening of course was that responsibility for all decision-making affecting the prisons had been taken over at the highest level by the security/intelligence/military establishment of the British government. The views of those on the ground who had responsibility for the day-to-day implementation of policy were disregarded. Whilst the impact of this new direction was not felt so strongly in the prisons in the Six Counties - in the sense that what had already been fought and won could not be taken off the prisoners - the impact upon our imprisoned comrades in England was much more keenly felt. Many of them were held in the SSUs, Paddy Kelly was dying because his cancer was not treated and transfers were halted.

It is interesting to note therefore that when the IRA resumed its military actions reforms that had been pending in relation to prisons and prisoners also resumed. Even following the discovery of a well-crafted tunnel leading from H Block 7 in March of this year disruption within the prison was short lived and those in the POA and prison authorities who were screaming for the introduction of draconian measures were ignored. Life returned to more or less what it had been but for the implementation of a few minor security procedures.

Those whose thought processes are more directed towards a militaristic line of thinking could take from the above that the only way to achieve reforms or change is by military actions. That would appear at first glance to be the logic. However it would be to miss the point. The changes to the prison regimes were being brought about through dialogue and discussion between both sides who had a responsibility for policy and actions on the ground. There was no hidden agenda. When they were left to get on with the job compromise, resolution and agreement was achieved despite the diametrically opposed ideologies and objectives of the participants. It was when others entered the field with an entirely new agenda that the process was halted.

It would appear that a similar situation is presently developing, not within the prisons but in the wider political process with military fortifications being strengthened and harassment on the ground increasing. One doesn't have to ponder long on what agenda is being pursued and who is in the ascendancy at the level of policy-making.

The weeks ahead will show whether or not those responsible for political development will confront that element within their ranks who wish to live in the comfortable security of wartime, or acquiesce to their demands.

For many of us, our last experience of Labour in government is of the construction of the H Blocks and the utterances of Roy Mason about squeezing the IRA like a toothpaste tube. (A mighty big tube by the look of things.) Let's hope they have learned some lessons since then and are as vociferous in pursuing a political process as they were in attempting to implement a policy of criminalisation.

An Phoblacht
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