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Small victory won by Irish Republican prisoners – but prison officers violate agreement

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Darren Cogavin reports on the appalling conditions of Republican political prisoners in Northern Ireland and a small victory won by the inmates after a three month campaign

On Easter 2010, the veneer of post-Good Friday Agreement 'normalisation' was shattered when Republican prisoners barricaded themselves in the canteen of Maghaberry Gaol in protest at the intrusion of the dirty war strategy into the prison system.

The protest by Republican prisoners arose following a sharp deterioration of conditions, with prison staff routinely subjecting prisoners to humiliating strip searches, physical attacks and 23 hour lock up.

Prisoners intensified their campaign by embarking on a dirty protest (refusing to leave their cells to shower, an act of small scale defiance first taken by Irish Republicans in 1978) and following months of protests and negotiations, the prisoners won their demands on 12 August.

But over the past week, Republican prisoners have recorded various attempts by the Prisoners Officer Association (POA) to undermine this agreement.

As was the case with Long Kesh, Maghaberry has gained a reputation of notoriety based upon the same cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners by the prison regime, including the POA.

A report by the HM Inspectorate of Prisons in July 2009 painted a damning picture of conditions in the jail, vindicating claims by the prisoners that their safety is at risk.

The report recommended that the Search and Standby Team (SST), well-known for their brutal assaults upon Republican inmates, “should be disbanded”.

Conditions in the cells were also described as “unhealthy”, “too cramped” and “overcrowded”. The report made 200 recommendations, more than 70 of them repeated from 2006.

Following the steady erosion of conditions and rights over the last number of years, discontent came to head when the POA embarked upon a 'slow go' action that included a targeted denial of prisoners' basic human rights. In response to an inherently degrading process and draconian lock-up regime, the prisoners barricaded the canteen and made two basic demands:
1) End to controlled movement, which sees prison guards surrounding individual prisoners when out of their cell and;
2) End to degrading and humiliating strip-searches.

Republican prisoners escalated their protest on June 6th, commencing a dirty protest when the prison regime refused to implement an agreement made with the prisoners at Easter to address their concerns.

On 19 June, a delegation from a prisoners support group was granted a request to meet the prisoners, but it became clear the Prison Service and POA wanted to frustrate dialogue when they attempted to strip-search a prisoner on the way to the meeting.

Meanwhile, a number of protests were held outside Maghaberry Gaol to highlight the plight of prisoners. White line pickets were organised in towns across the North and hundreds attended a protest march in Lurgan.

Workers Power members also participated in a solidarity picket outside the Home Office in London organised by the Irish Republican Prisoners Support Group.

Intensive discussions took place between Prisoners, the Prison Service and a Joint Facilitation Group (including the Irish Congress of Trade Unions) for three weeks before they yielded a positive outcome on August 12th. Realising they couldn't break the steadfast determination of Republican prisoners, the prison service eventually accepted their demands, agreeing to a phasing out of controlled movement and the abolishment of strip searching.

But the prison guards continue to test the resolve of Republican prisoners, by attempting to thwart the implementation of the Agreement.

Since 12 August, POA actions have included delaying unlock periods, refusing access to the classrooms and refusing to deal with the prisoners' representatives. Their position to the agreement was made clear when they erected posters on the wall stating 'Maze Mark 2' - a clear inference to the brutal regime in the Maze Prison where the British previously reneged on agreements around political status, provoking the 1981 Hunger Strike.

The obscenity that is the Orange State is once again demonstrated by their brutalisation of Republican prisoners. Maghaberry Gaol is part of the capitalist penal and policing apparatus, and prison officers, like the police, represent the coercive arm of this apparatus.

The Equality Commission in the North found that less than 9% of prison officers are drawn from a Catholic background, emphasising the sectarian nature of the service and their special role in attempting to break the spirit of resistance to imperialist rule.

The POA has become synonymous with thuggery and bullying in the North, and their role in inflicting repression on working class inmates in Britain is well documented too.

For example, The Guardian (30/01/'06) has reported claims of persistent physical assaults and racist abuse of prisoners at Whitemoor Prison.

Black prisoners claimed to have been referred to as “monkey man”, while Muslim prisoners were refused access to the prayer room and regularly endured taunts of “Paki” from prison officers.

The systematic abuse meted out by prison officers in Maghaberry and Whitemoor, and the widespread collusion and complicity of staff at all levels, highlights the prisons role as a tool of capital, enforcing a social system based on exploitation and forcible compliance.

Some groups on the left seek to rally the working class behind prison officers, claiming they're 'workers in uniform' and that they can challenge unlawful behaviour within the prison system. But the truth is that it has always been the prisoners themselves who have highlighted and challenged the barbarity of the prison system, meeting stern resistance from the prison officers along the way.

Meanwhile, the struggle for political status continues.

Regardless of differences socialists may have with Republicans, on their narrow nationalism and the strategy and tactics to win the anti-colonial struggle, we support the struggle to smash criminalisation

At the end of the day, the fact remains Republicans are still in prison as a direct result of the ongoing British occupation of the North continues to this day.

A victory for political status would be a recognition of the continued existence and legitimacy of the struggle against imperialism and its creation – Partition.

The perspective and strategy of Trotsky's permanent revolution has always been to locate the working class as the driving force in leading any struggle to resolve the national question, which can only be consistently achieved by overthrowing capitalism itself.

Such a strategy should underpin any programme for a socialist revolution in Ireland today.