Sun, Jul 27, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Jail protest evokes bitter memories of Northern Irish past


Dissident republicans in a Northern Irish jail are engaged in a "dirty protest" which their supporters and the authorities fear could escalate into a hunger strike.

Twenty inmates at Maghaberry, near Lisburn, County Antrim, have been smearing their cells with excrement for three weeks in an attempt to be segregated from loyalists and non-paramilitary criminals, who they claim are putting their lives at risk.

They say they have been locked in punishment blocks for refusing to share cells with loyalist terrorists, and that protesters have been beaten, hosed down, and left ankle deep in water -- allegations denied by the prison service.

A prison service spokesman insisted statistics disproved their argument. Of 60 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults in the past 15 months, only nine were sectarian. So far, the protest has been relatively low key. The renegade groups, the Real and Continuity IRA, have nothing like the widespread nationalist community support the Provisional IRA had when 10 republicans starved themselves to death in the Maze prison in 1981.

The Maze, where various terrorist factions practically ran their own wings under a notoriously segregated regime, closed its gates in September 2000 behind the last of 450 terrorists freed under the terms of the Good Friday agreement.

Marian Price, a spokeswoman for the dissident prisoners, knows only too well how serious the protests could be. She and her sister, Dolours, were force fed in an English jail where they went on hunger strike after being imprisoned for bombing London in 1973.

"My stomach drops to my feet when I think about it," she said. "But these are extremely determined young men.

Maghaberry's most infamous prisoner, Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair, is in isolation for his own safety. But other loyalists, who vastly outnumber the 25 dissident republicans among Maghaberry's 700-strong prison population, are expected to mix. They too want segregation and are angry at conditions in the jail.

Tommy Kirkham, of the Ulster Political Research Group which speaks for the Ulster Defense Association, the largest loyalist paramilitary group, said: "Loyalists won't get involved in a hunger strike but we are worried republican action inside will bring reaction outside."

A prison service spokesman, however, was adamant that integration was the best policy.

"Dissidents are trying to say this is about safety," he said. "We believe it's about power and control. Assaults are unfortunately part of prison life but the vast majority in Maghaberry are not sectarian."

But he admitted the fear of hunger strike was there.

"Even the very words are evocative. Anybody who has read anything about this place has them in the back of their mind."

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