Northern Ireland

'Dirty protest' dominates 1980 classified files

Dirty protest
Image caption The escalation of the "dirty protest" dominates the files

The escalation of the "dirty protest" in Northern Ireland jails dominates the release of 1980 classified files from the Public Record Office in Belfast.

There are a series of strongly-worded complaints to the Conservative Secretary of State, Humphrey Atkins from an Independent Nationalist MP.

On July 7 1979, Independent Nationalist MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone Frank Maguire wrote to Mr Atkins.

He was concerned about 40 republican women prisoners in Armagh Jail.

"There are only two baths and a shower for 40 prisoners... It is indecent that male authorities should decide that women should only be allowed to use the toilet once during lock-up," he said.

"This breaks international standards."

He complained of restrictions on prison food, alleging that "the girls have to make tea-bags from their tights."

'Tragedy and trouble'

Urging an early solution, the MP said that the situation was aggravated within the prisons by the failure of the government to negotiate which had "led to tragedy and trouble in the general community".

Mr Maguire also wrote to Mr Atkins on 18 September 1979 about the alleged ill-treatment of republican prisoners in the H-Blocks at the Maze Prison.

He claimed a group of prisoners were beaten in the cells while two inmates, including Anthony McIntyre - well known as a critic of the current Sinn Fein leadership - were beaten in punishment cells.

Mr Maguire threatened to have the complaints "read into the record of the United States Congress" if action was not taken. Significantly, parts of the MP's letter to the NIO is blacked out because it named prison officers.

In a note on the file a senior official, A K Templeton commented that Frank Maguire's letter bore "all the intemperate hallmarks of Fr Denis Faul," the outspoken Dungannon priest and civil rights activist.

The MP's allegations of brutality were investigated by the governor of the Maze, S C Hilditch who reported on 4 October that minor injuries had been sustained by prisoners when a number of them had resisted an official search.

In the case of McIntyre, his injuries were sustained when he refused to undergo a bath, a requirement for an impending court appearance in his case.

Meanwhile, the sheer length of the hair and beards of those involved in the 'dirty protest' concerned the authorities in 1980. While officials felt this posed a security risk, it was decided that to cut the protesters' hair by force would breach medical policy.

The releases also reveal that the Thatcher government made a determined effort to undermine the prison protest by sending ministerial letters to the next of kin of each protesting prisoner in March 1980.

'Serious split'

The letter from Prisons Minister Michael Alison stressed that the government had offered the protesters the option of exercising in sports-type gear.

As the dirty protest escalated into a hunger strike in October 1980, the files reveal a serious split in the Board of Visitors of the Maze Prison on the hunger-strikers' demand to wear civilian clothing which threatened to embarrass Mrs Thatcher.

At a fractious meeting on 12 November 1980, members voted 10-9 in favour of this concession with one member declaring that the matter had been allowed "to run for too long" and that "not allowing prisoners to wear their own clothes took away from their integrity."

At the same time, the NIO believed that a loyalist hunger-strike launched at the same time was 'a purely opportunist move' that lacked conviction.

On 17 December 1980, the DUP leader Ian Paisley phoned to arrange a meeting between officials and "UDA representatives" to discuss "humanitarian matters".

An official, RA Harrington felt it "interesting that (Mr Paisley) appears to speak for the UDA".

However, the NIO was sceptical about the UDA prisoners' preparedness to sacrifice their lives for their cause.

On 11 December 1980, another official, AR Templeton drew Minister Allison's attention to an intercepted letter from WJ Mullan, the leader of the loyalist hunger-strike in which he stated that there was "no way we are going to die" .

The official added: "This shows how little intention the loyalists have of carrying out their hunger strike to any serious length."