Common Criminals or Political Law-Breakers?

Today The Pensive Quill carries an article by guest writer Liam O Ruairc on the differences between political and criminal prisoners

by Liam O Ruairc

‘Support Republican POWs’, ‘Restore Political Status’ are slogans that will be familiar to all those concerned about the plight of the close to one hundred republicans imprisoned today. At the same time there are ongoing attempts to criminalise Republicans still engaged in armed actions against the British state. (1) But what does the category of ‘Prisoner of War’ mean or that of ‘Political Status’ entail? Can they apply to Republican prisoners today? And are there any grounds to label Republican prisoners as ‘criminals’?

The category of ‘Prisoner of War’ is based on the 1949 Geneva Convention on the humanitarian laws of war and its amendments of 1977 known as Protocols I and II. The 1949 Convention could not be applicable to Republican prisoners as they are not engaged in conventional warfare. Its 1977 Protocol II deals with rebellions and guerrilla warfare, but it is unlikely that Republican prisoners would be recognised today as legitimate combatants under its provisions; particularly as they have no diplomatic recognition and in terms of international law as a consequence of the 1998 Belfast Agreement “the historical claims of alien occupation or a de facto war of national liberation are likely to be dismissed in the Northern Ireland context.” (2)

If Article 3 of the Geneva Convention could apply to Republicans as they have a certain degree of leadership and organisation, despite incidents like the one in Meigh last year, it would be difficult for them to prove today that they have effective control over parts of the territory and that they carry their weapons openly. (3) (Note that Loyalists could argue that they should be granted combatant status under Article 42 (Protocols 1&3) as a paramilitary force auxiliary to the British Army, but if granted they would then be liable to be prosecuted for war crimes, which is probably one of the reasons why aside from a handful of prisoners none opposed criminalisation.)

What about ‘Political Status’? (4) There is no recognition either in the jurisprudence of domestic courts or international courts of ‘Political Status’. It is worth looking at some legal precedents.

In 1978, four Republican prisoners initiated a case at the European Commission of Human Rights during the ‘dirty protest’ for granting of ‘Political Status’ and exemption from ordinary prison rules. (5) When the European Commission of Human Rights examined the merits of their case in 1980, it concluded that no right of special treatment accrued to them under international law. (6) Republican prisoners thus never had either ‘Prisoner of War’ or ‘Political Prisoner’ status and are unlikely to achieve either.

But Republicans often claim that between 1972 and 1976 they were officially recognised as political prisoners. (7) What Republican prisoners had during those years was ‘Special Category Status’: persons convicted and sentenced to more than nine months imprisonment for so-called ‘scheduled’ offences had a regime free of work and prison duties and were recognised as a group.

A study analysing the status of Republican prisoners noted that their claim for differential treatment was neither consistent nor unambiguous. At certain times they laid claim to the status of ‘prisoners of war’, at others they merely sought a recognition of ‘political status’; but primarily they sought to be distinguished from ‘ordinary convicted prisoners’. (8). The creation of ‘Special Category Status’ was a de facto recognition that prisoners engaged in politically motivated acts were distinguishable from ‘ordinary’ criminals.

The withdrawal of the Special Category Status was a direct consequence of the British government's so-called 'criminalisation' policy. The Northern Ireland Secretary of State described the security problem in 1976 in the House of Commons as involving only “small groups of criminals”. (Hansard, Vol 913, 14 June 1976, col.44) A similar policy exists in 2010:
"The authorities are said to be concerned the use of the word "republican" gives dissidents a degree of credibility. The Sunday Times said the NIO is set to introduce the measures for members of groups such as the Continuity IRA, Real IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann (OnH) amid the severe threat they pose to the security forces. This includes ‘rebranding’ aimed at removing the word republican to distinguish dissidents from Sinn Fein and influencing opinion in nationalist community. The step has been devised in consultation with civil servants, police chiefs and MI5.A spokesman for the NIO told the paper: "Calling these disparate criminal groups dissident republicans gives them a status that they don’t deserve. "They are the enemies of peace and political progress and the language used to describe them should reflect this."
One term which may be used is "criminal paramilitary gangs". (9) The policy of criminalisation had politically defined the actions of republican organisations as deviant criminal behaviour. However, there is no serious empirical warrant for labelling Republicans as criminals. (10) Despite the official criminal label, the British Army’s 1978 Glover Report itself stated:
‘Our evidence of the calibre of rank and file terrorists does not support the view that they are mindless hooligans drawn from the unemployed and the unemployable.’ (11)
Surveys of republican offenders coming before the courts found that the data ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ established that the bulk of them were people
‘without criminal records in the ordinary sense, though some have been involved in public disorders (but) in this respect and their records of employment and unemployment they are reasonably representative of the working class community of which they form a substantial part (and) do not fit the stereotypes of criminality which the authorities have from time to time attempted to attach to them.’ (12)
Studies show that application to join the IRA are directly linked to political events rather than to criminal opportunities. (13) Famously, IRA volunteers have been resistant to prison management techniques that ‘ordinary criminals’ generally accept without organised protest. (14)

Contrary to the image of ‘psychopathic killers’, there is no evidence that IRA recruits are psychologically abnormal, rather they are ‘normal’ –- that is representative of their social base. Studies comparing political killings as opposed to non-political murders in Northern Ireland confirm this appraisal. (15)

Finally, to date rates of recidivism, political or criminal, among ex-IRA prisoners have been strikingly low, indicating further evidence against the criminal motivation thesis. Of the 447 prisoners (241 republicans, 194 loyalists and 12 non-aligned) released under the Belfast Agreement, ten years after only 20 have had their licences revoked, and 16 of these were for scheduled offences. This compares to a general re-offending rate of 48 per cent within two years for ‘ordinary’ prisoners in the North. (16)

It is possible to make the objection that all the above evidence applies to Republican prisoners in the 1968-1998 period, but does not apply to so-called ‘dissidents’ today. A problem is that so far, no similar studies have been made of the estimated three hundred republicans opposed to the Belfast Agreement imprisoned between 1999 and 2009. (17) But as Danny Morrison already pointed long ago, there is no such thing as the “good old IRA”. (18)

Whether in 1976 or in 2010, the British government might claim that it has no political prisoners, only common criminals in need of punishment, yet the subtelties of its legal system show otherwise. In effect, there is a dual system of criminal justice at work.

First, the law under which Republicans are arrested does not define them as ‘ordinary criminals’. The political nature of the republican struggle is acknowledged in the Prevention of Terrorism Act which defines ‘terrorism’ as ‘the use of violence for political ends’. The ‘scheduled offences’ of the Emergency Provisions Act equally distinguishes a certain class of offences from the criminal norm by isolating the trial of their perpetrators to special courts. The Terrorism Act 2000 similarily recognises the political nature of ‘terrorism’. As Mike Tomlinson points out: "they are considered as political in the court room but criminal for the purposes of punishment". (19)

Second, there is a separate system of criminal justice for those charged with scheduled offences compared with those charged with ‘ordinary’ crime: they are arrested under emergency powers (Offence Against The State Act for example) and convicted in radically modified courts (Green Street Special Criminal Court for example). Modification of the criminal justice system and the constitutional framework is indicative that ‘scheduled offences’ are not merely criminal.

Republicans are tried before special courts where the rules are different from those reserved for persons accused of ‘ordinary’ crimes, and if scheduled offences indeed constituted ‘ordinary’ crime it follows that one court with one set of legal rules should suffice.

Third, the labelling of Republicans as criminals (whether in 1976 or 1998) has been arbitrary and inconsistent. At the end of 1982, well over a year after the hunger strikes had ended, there were still some 233 prisoners with Special Category Status in the six counties, the last two of which were released in 1992.

As part of the politics of the Belfast Agreement, Republican prisoners were released whereas persons imprisoned for other offences such as rape and drugs were not included under the Agreement’s prisoner release scheme, thus de facto recognising that prisoners engaged in politically motivated acts were distinguishable from ‘ordinary’ criminals. And when the first republican prisoners arrived in Maghaberry in January 1999, they were forced into a new regime from which the prisoners in HMP The Maze were exempt. While the people on the outside were segregated, there was forced integration in the prison.

There are thus strong arguments to support a differential treatment for Republican prisoners today. "Political law-breaking" and crime are two different things. (20)

The Portlaoise regime in the 26 counties de facto recognises the validity of their case: it allows inmates to wear their own clothes, to associate at times, defines prison work in broad terms and gives implicit recognition to the command structure of Republican organisations.

The movement to support the struggles in the prisons today should always highlight that it is primarily a political issue, not a humanitarian one – it is about the right to a differential treatment and for politically motivated offenders to be recognised and distinguished from ‘ordinary convicted prisoners’.

(This article is a revised and extended version of an article which originally appeared in The Sovereign Nation, September-October 2010)

(1) Danny McBrearty, Why label disillusioned Republicans as criminals?, The Guardian, 13 August 2010

(2) Fionnuala Ni Aolain, The Politics of Force: Conflict Management and State Violence in Northern Ireland, Belfast: The Blackstaff Press, 2000, 237

(3) Malachi O Doherty, Checkpoint, The Belfast Telegraph, 26 August 2009 and also John Mooney, Gardai ‘know identity’ of dissident terrorists, The Sunday Times, 24 May 2009 on CIRA ‘no go’ zones in Fermanagh

(4) See the arguments made for ‘political status’ by prisoners of fighting communist organisations such as the Rote Armee Fraktion in the Federal Republic of Germany. Cfr. Michael Schubert, Political Prisoners in West Germany: Their Situation and Some Consequences Concerning Their Rights in Respect of the Treatment of Political Prisoners in International Law, in Bill Rolston and Mike Tomlinson (eds) The Expansion of European Prison Systems, Working papers in European Criminology No 7, Stockholm: The European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control, 1986, 184-193. See in particular the statement prepared by the defence lawyers during the trial of RAF prisoners Christian Klar and Brigitte Monhaupt pp.188-191. See also in the same volume Helmut Janssen, Political Prisoners: Some Thoughts on the Status of Politically Motivated Offenders in Europe, pp.194ff. All these are directly relevant to the question of ‘Political Status’ in Ireland today.

(5) The legal case in question is: McFeeley and Others v. United Kingdom, Application 8317/78 (1980) 3 EHRR 161.

(6) Liam Clarke, Broadening the Battlefield: The H-Blocks and the Rise of Sinn Fein, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1987, 114-115

(7) For example: Gerry Adams, The Politics of Irish Freedom, Dingle: Brandon, 1986, 71

(8) Clive Walker, Irish Republican Prisoners – Political Detainees, Prisoners of War or Common Criminals?, The Irish Jurist 189, 199 (1984)

(9) New drive to rebrand dissidents 'criminals', The Belfast Telegraph, 2 August 2010

(10) For evidence of this see: Brendan O’Leary, Mission Accomplished? Looking Back at the IRA, Field Day Review, Issue One, 2005, 230-232

(11) Quoted in Gerry Adams, op.cit., 67

(12) Kevin Boyle, Tom Hadden and Paddy Hillyard, Ten Years On in Northern Ireland, London: 1980, 19

(13) Robert White, From Peaceful Protest to Guerilla War – Micromobilization of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, American Journal of Sociology, 94 (1989) 1277-1302

(14) Cfr. Kieran McEvoy, Paramilitary Imprisonment in Northern Ireland: Resistance, Management and Release, Oxford University Press, 2001

(15) H Lyons and H Harbison, A Comparison of Political and Non-Political Murderers in Northern Ireland 1974-1984, Medicine, Science and the Law, 26 (1986), 193-198

(16) Dan Keenan, Ex-prisoners ‘helped resolve conflict’, The Irish Times, 1 March 2008

(17) Estimation source: Panorama, The Gunmen Who Never Went Away, BBC One, 30 March 2009

(18) Danny Morrison, The Good Old IRA, Republican Publications, 1986

(19) Liam O Dowd, Bill Rolston, Mike Tomlinson, Northern Ireland: Between Civil Rights and Civil War, London : CSE, 1980, 193

(20) Bill Rolston and Mike Tomlinson, Spectators at the ‘Carnival of Reaction’? Analysing political crime in Ireland, in M Kelly, L O Dowd, J Wickham (eds), Power, Conflict & Inequality, Dublin: Turoe Press, 1982, 36


  1. Liam, true to form, this makes very interesting reading.

    I think your quote from Mike Tomlinson, speaks volumes.
    'They are considered political in the courtroom, but criminal for the purposes of punishment.'
    Strange, none of our political representatives, who claim to be so rights driven have ever picked up on this.

    The Belfast Agreement has seemingly cemented the British claim, that republican prisoners are to be considered criminals.
    Sinn Fein have actively tried to demonize and criminalize the so called 'dissidents' by actually calling them traitors and encouraging people to 'hand them over to the police'

    When I was on remand in 81, it was the ordinary criminals on our wing who aided our segregation.
    They were once ordered by the govenor to come into our association room and they refused.
    At that particular time, there was something like three of us and seventeen of them, and they huddled into a tiny association room, because they believed that we were different from them.

    Liam you present a very good case for segregation and 'Special Category Status' on political grounds.

    For anyone highlighting the prisoners case, this is well worth the read.

  2. Liam,

    Merlyn Rees could on occasion be found referring to political status as the system in place in the cages.

    I think countries that term themselves liberal democracies have difficulty with the term political status. They are unable to accept that the case can be made that liberal democracies give rise to such injustices that a politically violent response can come to seem a proper reaction.

    Acknowledging a political status causes the state a problem in terms of its own legitimacy. A bit of a zero sum game - give something to somebody else and in the process lose a bit yourself. Something of this shaped the lunacy of the Thatcher strategy during the prison protests.

    The notion that the law treats everyone equally is a myth. I think your citing of Tomlinson illustrates this well.

  3. Mackers, I think what is happening with Gerry Mc Geough is evidence of what Liam has argued.

    Gerry's charges and subsequent trial are totally politically motivated.
    His trial is taking place in the diplock court system and if he is convicted, (which I hope he is not)
    he will be categorised as a criminal just like all the other republican prisoners, mad!

  4. Liam- As an interesting aside I remember reading that loyalists had a greater chance of not being extradited from the Republic of Ireland if they took refuge there.

    The reason given was the South's definition of "terrorism" as opposed to a "political offence".

    These definitions made it more likely for republicans to be called "terrorists" as they "usurped the role of the state". Another factor which was considered was the type of weapon used as automatic weapons were viewed as indiscriminate. Of course it was never tested. (This is going back to the mid-90s mind.)

  5. there are a number of differences
    between the hunger strike of 1981
    and that protest which started and ended quietly at maghaberry last week,
    those on the outside who took part in the white line pickets, or held
    protests out side maghaberry knew
    that the armed brit army was off
    the streets and knew that loyalists
    would not kill them now,
    so it was ok for them to act hardline, the prison guards also knew that the dissidents killed none of their work-mates, there was
    no major hatred between both sides,
    the prisoners at maghaberry had their own clothes and 50% remission
    that others died for, so how can anyone forgive those dissidents that said that the 5 demands were gone,like who the hell do they think they are,
    anybody know what if any gains were
    got in this latest simple protest.

  6. michaelhenry, the five demands are gone, however, you appear to be the only one who does not know it.

    These 'dissidents' are republican prisoners, which means they are quite with in their rights to demand everything that republicans fought and died for.

    Liam, has enlightened a lot of people by providing them with the knowledge, that what the Brits granted to prisoners was both ambiguous and precarious and could be withdrawn at anytime.

    The real shame in this whole scenario is, the fact that prisoners from 70s, 80s, 90s and today are still classed as criminals, and we can thank Sinn Fein for that one.

  7. fionnuala-

    either visit maghaberry or ask some
    one who was on a recent visit,
    the prisoners wear their own clothes, this was a demand that 10 men died for in 1981,i do not understand your flippant manner,
    there will have to be serious questions asked of those who lie
    when they say that the 5 demands are gone,its sacrilege to go against what the hunger strikers
    the dissidents are the lowest of the low now, and this prove's it,

    how some just love defeat, and if they can't see it they will make it up,
    50% remission was also a demand in
    1981, and the prisoners at maghaberry still have it, only a
    traitor would go against the memory
    of the huger strikers gains and say that the 5 demands are gone.

  8. Michaelhenry, i think you are so full of crap. I'm sure the shinners love you, towing their pathetic line all the way. At the end of the day there are republicans that are loyal to republicanism and not an individual or a party. Blind faith I once heard someone calling it, eejits is what I call it. Regarding the prisoners, there will always be men and women willing to go to jail or die while britain occupy our country. In 69-70 the PIRA were classed as dissidents they had no mandate, they too were called micro-groups and branded as criminals. You keep going on about the british army is off our streets, loyalists aren't killing us any more (lucky us). MI5 are in charge of intelligence with the PSNI still recruiting £10 touts, at any given day the brits can turn the loyalists on to start killing catholics. If you believe anything else you are as deluded as i think you are. The war wasn't just about peace, or getting the british army off our streets. It was about getting the british government to withdraw from our part of the country so Ireland can be united. As Padraig Pearse said 'Ireland Unfree shall never be at peace'

  9. michaelhenry, you have mentioned 1 demand. The prisoners in Maghaberry were being denied free association, they were being abused, strip searched and beaten.
    Their food was being tampered with, they were being denied their mail and proper access to visits.

    Maybe you should read something other than Sinn Fein propoganda and you would know what had been happening in the prison.

    Another thing you might be interested to know, not all the republican prisoners are so called 'dissidents'

    One final question, during what years were you imprisoned? And what prison were you in?

  10. Michealhenry,
    the following link, whilst a bit long, gives a detailed account of the Maghaberry dispute from an IRSP perspective. PSF's role/input was minimal though welcome but I'd suggest insignificant to the overall resolution. The IRSP account clearly rubbishes what you have wrote here and also challenges Liam's position that the prisoners are regarded as common criminals.

  11. MichaelHenry
    You are repeating exactly the very same words about the conditions in HM Maghaberry prison as politicians in the 70’s were saying about the H-Blocks . Now I am unaware if you are a politician, but if you by chance some day find yourself with some free time check out the quotes from the past era and also some news reel footage you will find people of that time speaking your very language . Your age I am also unaware off your age but I will hazard a guess that you are now older and wiser and now understand that Political Violence will achieve as proved by the previous version of the IRA nothing . Please understand that some of us out in the real world do see what our glorious leaders from the past conflict achieved but rather than cover this up face the truth

  12. Mickeyboy!.,wisdom is the right use of know is not to be wise,many men know a great deal,and are all the greater fools for it,there is no fool so great a fool as a knowing fool,but to know how to use knowledge is to have wisdom. Spurgeon.

  13. Marty, I think michaelhenry is hiding over on Big G's page.

    Sorry, I missed you and the Duchess, loved the chocs though very thoughful of her.

    Read an article last week by Jim Gibney. In it, he argues that life has improved for former political prisoners.
    He credits this improvement to two things, The Belfast Agreement and Coiste.
    He also tells all us unfortunate ex-cons that there is hope after prison.
    He cites, how in the face of great adversity the First minister, The Deputy and Peter Hain made good, even though they carry the political prisoner label.

    Although he acknowledged, that things could be better. He did however, cite that many companies no longer view prisoners as total criminals (just reformed ones)Several insurance companies are now prepared to give people insurance and certain firms will even give them jobs.

    He did not happen to mention though, that many insurance companies will not pay out if you are convicted of certain offences.
    And the fact that, certain employers, such as the Simon Community, will not give a former prisoner a job.

    Still, the people who matter to Jim, have slotted themselves into positions that guarantee them nice little earners.
    Now, why are we not all grateful for that?

  14. You are more than welcome hon and it was good to see Albert no change there, now its funny you mention how good things are for ex pows as per Gorbels Gibney, We were talking to an old friend this morning, he is an ex pow and was shot several times and badly wounded by loyalists ,a more decent family you,d never find,the children, now like mine and your own Nuala,young adults,anyway the family were to to on a well needed holiday and America was booked by the kids, I suppose by now you have guessed what happened,yip when he got to Shannon he was pulled in and he said that the interogation he then went through was worse than Castlerea,and after a very nasty "interview" he was told that there was,nt a hope in hell of him ever getting into America,he sent the kids on and he and the wife returned home, this is not the first time I,ve heard such stories, so as you say things are looking great in the new dispensation,my boll##ks!!

  15. why would anyone want to go against the truth, it makes no sense, unless that person has no sense,

    ballymurphy eh- republican, there
    are a lot of individuals that i am loyal to, they are called the IRISH people,
    their are people willing to die, now, whilst britain occupys our country, is that right, the dissidents have been active since
    1986, thats 24 years, and none of them have died in operations against the brits, i am glad, but sad as these dummy dissidents just want to be known as hardline, when the media keep calling them hardline it should be enough to keep the disputers happy,
    the PROVOS killed armed british soldiers but the same media never called them hardline, makes you think, the PROVOS were never criminal, any armed group that supports what the media label them, are criminal,

    mi5 is in charge of intelligence,
    who is in charge of mi5,
    those spooks could not protect there citys,

    IRELAND unfree shall never be at peace, the armed british army has
    been at peace with the dissidents
    for the last 24 years.

  16. fionnuala-

    1 demand, i mentioned 2 demands,
    looks like i will have to go through them step by step,
    1- prisoners still wear there own clothes, which no dissident wants to acknowledge or even talk about,
    2- prisoners still have 50% remission, do not mention the truth
    if all these bad things that you talk about are still happining
    fionnuala, then why was the prison protest called off last week, what
    extra if any did they get,

    what prison was i in, i was in prison camp the six counties- untill the PROVOS freed us,
    not all republican prisoners are
    dissident, what finnuala means is
    not the continuity ones, but everyone else is.

  17. can you put any meat on your arguments bones willie, again you try and say that the prisoners no longer wear there own clothes or
    get 50% remission, i have already
    given my points on this,
    its a yes or no answer are you for or against what the hunger strikers of 81 achieved and is still with us today,
    sometimes you can forgive the dissidents, they just want to sound
    and be thought of as hardline in the media, does not matter if they sell there IRISH soul,but willie 3
    of the dead hunger strikers were
    i.n.l.a members, why would you let
    anyone oppose their memory with a lie.

  18. marty-

    looks like i got a full clip of
    arguments, retaliation time, the old tit for tat,
    the massereene x barracks is to be
    cleansed of all traces of the british military, in 3 weeks time,
    the real dissidents or the british army could not prevent this, both tried to stop the agreement,
    there is now potential for a peace
    project on this site, perhaps another shopping centre, no one can stop the peace process,
    i think that most of the media are in love with the dissidents, a marriage made in hell.

  19. mr.henry
    "the PROVOS were never criminal, any armed group that supports what the media label them, are criminal"

    can you expand please,
    I don't understand
    The media label the micro-groups as dissidents.
    Are you saying if they accept that label they are criminal, and if they do not accept that label , they are not criminal?

    sorry I'm slow, I like the maths, just don't get it.

  20. Michaelhenry wise up you fool. If you are as loyal to the Irish people as you say you are then why do you support the british establishment by criminalising fellow irish men and women. Why do you keep going on about dissidents being around for 24 years, this is completely out of context to reality. Dissidents have been around forever, but lets just stick to the six counties. Following the founding of the state the IRA split in 1922, the splinter group split in 1926 and that splinter group split in 69-70. So that makes us all dissidents! Every day former PIRA members are coming together and voicing their concerns about the sinn fein/british agenda in the six counties, and this worrys sinn fein. The reality is that britain still occupy the north of Ireland, you and your chums in psf are collaborating with the pro-british media in doing what the brits have always done in criminalising and demonising anyone who questions their agenda. Mi5 is controlled by the joint intelligence commitee which sits below the government. If MI5 run intelligence, that dictates the operations that happen on the ground. All PSNI operational matters have got nothing to do with Stormont. Don't tell me psf fooled you again by telling you that the Stormont control them lol. Ireland is still unfree in case you havent noticed, so therefore it will never be at peace.

  21. Michael

    [ díssidənt ]
    dis•si•dents Plural
    somebody who disagrees: somebody who publicly disagrees with an established political or religious system or organization
    [ Mid-16th century. < Latin dissident-, present participle of dissidere "sit apart" < sedere "sit" ]
    dis•si•dent ADJECTIVE
    dis•si•dent•ly ADVERB
    Synonyms: dissenter, rebel, nonconformist, protester, insurgent, mutineer, revolutionist, malcontent
    Antonyms: conformist

    By definition you fall under “malcontent” engaging in “dissident” views by publicly denouncing those who do not fit your perception of republicanism.
    Your electrical neurotransmitters probably did not evolve and operate on the slower chemical synapses.

    The article would fall under “political science” and not another exercise of your imaginary PSF bashing.
    Three out of the 14 comments posted are yours yet you have not answered the articles question.
    Are they mere criminals or special category prisoners?

  22. Michaelhenry,
    excuse my language cara but what the fuk are you on about. Of course all prisoners wear their own clothes-could you point out where I, or anyone else for that matter, said any different? Remission was two thirds which was changed to 50% on the 01-03-76 when the brits abolished 'special category status' for any political prisoner charged with an 'offense' after that date. Did you read the link I provided regarding the Maghaberry protest? Did you miss in it that there were two demands which had nothing to do with clothes or remission? Did you also miss in it the text of the agreement which brought a resolution to the protest in Maghaberry? I'd suggest you read that link, perhaps more slowly this time, which will answer the questions you asked.

  23. saint tom, love the name, not be long untill there is a saint marty,

    any armed group that supports what
    the media label them are criminal-

    the media supporters of the dissidents, and there are many,
    label them hardline, and the dissidents accept this, any one with a war-mind knows the dissidents history is anything but
    the dissident journalists actually
    think that this way of reporting
    will harm SINN FEIN, what a media,
    arn't we lucky.

    every time i hear a dissident talk
    about maghaberry they bleat on about the 5 demands being gone,
    10 volunteers died for the demands
    anyone who says that the 5 demands are gone is selling out the hunger strikers.

  24. MichaelHenry,

    "looks like i got a full clip of

    Looks like you're for a full clip behind the ear from this crew. I think this may be an opportune moment for you to go on an extended period of parole from 'HMP SIX COUNTIES'.

  25. I know I might be slated for asking this question, but it occurred to me while reading Liam's piece and I'm not sure that there is an easy answer to it: How can armed republicans demand differential treatment as prisoners when they execute the soldiers/policemen that they capture? I should add that I support the right of republican prisoners to POW status, but I'm against the execution of captured combatants.

  26. Alfie, where would you suggest they kept them?

    Seriously, do not remember too many cops or soldiers being captured and executed!

  27. Maybe they should use Massareene barracks for any they might capture in the future.

    michaelhenry thinks it should be turned into a shopping centre, but I think it would be better if they just housed them in there, sort of home from home.

    They could stick a couple of the shinners in with them, segregated of course.

  28. Maybe they should use Massareene barracks for any they might capture in the future.

    michaelhenry thinks it should be turned into a shopping centre, but I think it would be better if they just housed them in there, sort of home from home.

    They could stick a couple of the shinners in with them, segregated of course.

  29. Nuala,

    "Where would you suggest they kept them?"

    I think that if an army is unable to take prisoners, then it is obliged to let them go.

    "Seriously, do not remember too many cops or soldiers being captured and executed!"

    You're right; there weren't too many instances of the PIRA capturing then executing soldiers or policemen, though there were a few, such as the killing of corporals David Howes and Derek Wood. I think the PIRA's statement after that killing suggests that its policy was to execute captured British soldiers:

    "Once we confirmed who they were, they were immediately executed."

  30. Alfie, I really don't know how any of this ties in with the prisoners in Maghaberry?

    I agree with you that there is something very vulnerable about someone once their captured!

    Did not stop the brits and the cops executing IRA volunteers who could have been arrested.

  31. eamonn mallie on twitter an hour ago-

    the remarkable images from deep down in a chilean mine of trapped
    miners are reminiscent of maze
    images of IRA hunger-strikers of

    unionist and stoops going potty,
    there are a lot of cross tweets.

  32. Nuala,

    "I really don't know how any of this ties in with the prisoners in Maghaberry?"

    I suppose my point is how can armed republicans demand rights from the British government when it would deny those rights to British soldiers and policemen?

    "Did not stop the brits and the cops executing IRA volunteers who could have been arrested."

    I know that the British have executed volunteers on many occasions during the Troubles, but how can the IRA object, given that it routinely killed unarmed, off-duty soldiers/policemen? All it can object to is the hypocrisy of the British in claiming to be morally superior to the IRA.

  33. Alfie, there are cases in war where captured combatants can be executed. The Germans who toward the end of WW2 donned the uniform of Allied MPs during the Battle of The Bulge are just one example. They were treated as spies. When the IRA killed informers it had imprisoned them for a short time prior to killing them. There were British soldiers, RUC, UDR, ex-UDR, loyalist paramilitaries who were captured by the IRA and killed. Should informers have been killed by the IRA after their imprisonment and the RUC et al released? Yet, I think you have a point. Killing captured combatants seems indefensible. They could have been asked for guarantees to desist from association with the state forces upon release. Killing them made little strategic or PR sense. Once they were captured public sympathy for their captors drained. Once public calls went out for their release only for them to be killed later, made their captors look callous and inhumane.

    Republicans were always much less vociferous about the killings of volunteers by the Brit military than they were about civilians killed by the Brits. We could accept as an act of war the Loughall killings, although we grieved sorely, whereas we could not accept as an act of war Bloody Sunday. To us both sets of killings were wrong but the Derry dead were non combatants.

  34. Anthony,

    "Should informers have been killed by the IRA after their imprisonment and the RUC et al released?"

    I am inclined to think that killing informers and spies is more defensible than killing captured combatants. On account of their duplicity, it is probably justifiable to execute spies or their like in wartime. Informers can be tried, and, if there is enough evidence against them, executed. I accept that asymmetrical warfare is not pretty; the morality of some actions is murky and difficult questions arise - for example, what should be done with civilian informers?

    "To us both sets of killings were wrong but the Derry dead were non combatants."

    Bloody Sunday was a heinous massacre and obviously wrong; however, I'm not sure that republicans can call Loughall morally wrong if they also believe that doing the same thing to the British is morally right. I suppose republicans can argue that the legitimacy of their cause and the corresponding illegitimacy of the British counter-insurgency confer more rights on volunteers and fewer on the British, or allow volunteers to use tactics that the British cannot. I don't know if that is a very convincing argument though.

  35. Alfie,

    'I am inclined to think that killing informers and spies is more defensible than killing captured combatants.'

    There is certainly a history that would support you on this. I raised it not because I thought you were wrong in your initial assertion but to address the grey area which is that spies are captured and then killed. They qualify as combatants. I have no answers that convince me but have thought about the issue from time to time.

    The civilian spy becomes a combatant by the very act of spying.

    The volunteers at Loughall were taken out when they could have been arrested. The British state make it clear that in circumstances where people can be arrested they should be. There was no intention to do this at Loughall. The British contravened their own rules of engagement. It is my understanding that some volunteers on that operation were given the coup de grace as they lay wounded.

    The IRA stated the terms under which they would engage combatants - people in the State forces, on or off duty, armed or unarmed would be killed. That gave the IRA a license which it exercised. They were not violating their own terms of engagement.

    That said there is no reason for anybody to share the IRA logic on this and would indeed feel it hypocritical for republicans to shout 'foul' each time a volunteer was killed.

    Overall, I think our response to Loughall was more emotional than intellectual. Our comrades get killed and we do not like it. A more reasoned view is to accept that once war is declared the other side will kill us and we have to accept these things as acts of war even when the other side's reasons for starting the war were wrong. In the case of Nazi Germany invading the Soviet Union the Germans were totally wrong but their soldiers still had the right to be treated as prisoners of war.

  36. Alfie, don't know whether or not you are familiar with the case of Robert Nairac?
    Uncovered as a spy, he met with a rather grisly death.
    Captain Nairac and the band of uncouth thugs he recruited, engaged in carrying out some quite grisly and gruesome murders, most of which were waged against innocent victims.
    Do you think he could have been given alternative fate to the one he got?

  37. Anthony,

    "I raised it not because I thought you were wrong in your initial assertion but to address the grey area which is that spies are captured and then killed. They qualify as combatants."

    Yes, you are right; I should have clarified what I meant by 'captured combatants'.

    "The civilian spy becomes a combatant by the very act of spying."

    I can't fault your logic and I think I agree, but it does lead to some disturbing conclusions, such as that Jean McConville was a legitimate target (if one accepts the testimony of Ed Moloney's sources).

    "The IRA stated the terms under which they would engage combatants - people in the State forces, on or off duty, armed or unarmed would be killed. That gave the IRA a license which it exercised."

    Do you think that the IRA's terms of engagement are morally acceptable? I don't know if an army's terms of engagement gives it a licence to exercise them. The Taliban deems civilians who cooperate with its enemies to be legitimate targets, but that surely doesn't give it a licence to kill them. Or maybe I've misunderstood what you meant by 'licence'.

  38. Nuala,

    I think it was legitimate to execute Robert Nairac; he was a spy and, as I said to Anthony, it is probably justifiable to execute spies during a war. Ordinary captured combatants I am less sure of; I am more inclined to think that they should not be executed.

  39. Alfie,
    ‘but it does lead to some disturbing conclusions, such as that Jean McConville was a legitimate target.’

    Given that I have come to detest the term ‘legitimate target’ I will avoid using it but the issue you highlight does lead to very ruthless conclusions. If it is accepted that Jean McConville or the other two female civilians killed by the IRA for informing were spies then there would be a very firm understanding that death was a justified outcome. Within the IRA there would be little disagreement about that. The question would become one of what discretion could be exercised which would be considered not in terms of a lesser degree of culpability on the part of the spy but in terms of the wider impact – public opinion, family situation.

    On license, because we might give ourselves license in some situations it does not mean that it is something that should be accepted by others. By our own standards we might award ouselves license to drive but there is no reason for society to approve it. That type of approach would lead to a situation whereby public officials could take licence to refuse to administer civil partnerships. My use of the term licence is to viewed more as licentiousness than legitimacy.

    The whole area requires a serious investigation by moral philosophy. What conclusions it might draw are unlikely to be assimilated on the ground. Progress will always be incremental.

  40. Alfie, many years ago two british soldiers came up out of a manhole in the area where I live.

    Apparently, they had lost their way and ended up in our area quite late at night.

    I remember being told, that local people who would have been acting as vigilantes could not believe their eyes as the two of them clearly terrified, wandered around the district, eventually they made their way onto the Springfield and found the army post.

    I didn't think very much about it at the time, to be honest most people thought it quite amusing.
    Hopefully, both of them are sitting somewhere today telling their grandkids the story!

    Sadly, and for very justifiable reasons at times that was not always the case.
    At times it was a very dirty war which ended with an equally filthy peace.

  41. Fionnuala- I remember a similar thing happening in the mid 80s.

    A black British soldier got on our bus down the Glen Road when we were going home from school. He was also terrified but clearly his colleagues had left him on his own.

    At the time I thought he was left behind accidentally but later I realised that since there was a lot of bullying and racism in the British army it was probably no accident.

  42. Anthony,

    I am uneasy with deeming human beings 'legitimate targets'; however, when you're discussing the morality of warfare or the conduct of an army in a particular war, it's a term that I don't think you can avoid.

    I suppose the train of thought that I was following in my comments on Liam's piece centres on the principle of consistency. It occurred to me that it is inconsistent of republican prisoners in Maghaberry to demand rights from the British government when they would not accord similar rights to British forces. How can an IRA volunteer insist on political status if captured when all he would give to a captured British soldier is a bullet in the head? Equally, the British are inconsistent if they complain about the torture of their operatives by republicans, given that they routinely mistreat republican prisoners. It is perfectly consistent, of course, for impartial observers to insist that both sides respect human rights. On the other hand, I wonder if the legitimacy of one's cause allows one to use certain tactics that are morally off-limits to one's enemy - for example, would anybody in the allied nations have objected if an guerrilla army emerged in Nazi Germany and started to kidnap and kill state forces and Nazi party members? Sorry for banging on about all this, but I found some of these thoughts unsettling and wanted to get them off my chest.

  43. Ballymurphy Republican, Fionnuala, Marty, Tain-Bo, Interested: While I agree with you all trying to “enlighten” michaelhenry about the political facts of life in occupied Ireland past and present, I'm beginning to think he is a lost cause. He has been on the same rant for over a year about "dissidents” vs psf and by what he constantly says -- he doesn’t appear to have much of a clue about anything outside of what Sinn Fein feeds him. I honestly don’t know whether to feel sorry for him or be seriously frightened for Ireland’s future? I wonder how many more like michaelhenry are out there accepting the status-quo and believing everything is just wonderful since the signing of the Stormont Agreement and that one day soon Sinn Fein is going to march them all into Disneyworld? Michaelhenry has drunk the cool aid and he is trying to pass it around.

  44. Simon, that would have been a sight to see especially in the 80s.
    Wonder what the reaction was on the bus?

    The Brits picked up a friend of ours a few weks after he was released from prison and threw him out in a loyalist area.
    Thankfully, he managed to convince the owner of a local chemist that he had been attacked during a street squabble and needed protection and a taxi, the chemist supplied both.

    I think during most of the war, republicans did their best to adhere to some sort of ethical and moral code.

  45. Fionnuala- I am not sure if time has messed with my memory of other people's reactions or indeed my own but I clearly remember wondering what the soldier was doing on the bus then when the bus started driving down the road with him on it I realised he was left behind.

    I felt sorry for the soldier because of his vulnerability. His body language and facial expression were clearly asking for help. I was at the back of the bus but I remember the bewilderment of the other passengers.

  46. Nuala,

    "I think during most of the war, republicans did their best to adhere to some sort of ethical and moral code."

    Did they really do their best though? And was the code strict enough? Republican bombing campaigns took unacceptable and unnecessary risks with civilian lives and to target civilians who worked for the British army, such as in Teebane, was reprehensible. Sometimes I think that the PIRA was as indiscriminate as the IDF.

  47. Fionnuala,

    "I think during most of the war, republicans did their best to adhere to some sort of ethical and moral code"

    Your thinking appears to omit decades of unethical and immoral behaviour that characterised the IRA code that you speak of. Bloody Friday, La Mon, Enniskillen, ad infinitum.

  48. Fionnuala

    "I think during most of the war, republicans did their best to adhere to some sort of ethical and moral code."
    Please explain as Ive no idea what this means, As well as I can remember they just made it up as they went along but if you can enlighten me please do ???

  49. Alfie, by IDA, I presume you are speaking about the Israeli army?
    Apologies, if I am wrong, however if that is who you mean you can hardly equate them with PIRA.

    To begin with, the Israeli Army is a regular army, therefore, you would expect that their logistics in relation to strikes would be a lot more accurate than those of a guerrilla army who can only strike when an opportunity presents itself.

    Unlike the brits, IRA volunteers operated on hit and run basis, which meant operations sometimes went wrong.

    Most, IRA volunteers did adhere to a strict moral and ethical code, which probably explains why the IRA could produce people of the calibre of Brendan Hughes and Bobby Sands.

  50. Nuala,

    Yes, I'm referring to the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

    "To begin with, the Israeli Army is a regular army, therefore, you would expect that their logistics in relation to strikes would be a lot more accurate than those of a guerrilla army who can only strike when an opportunity presents itself."

    You have a point: the IDF should be expected to be much more precise than a guerrilla army like the PIRA. And yet, the Provisionals choose to attack commercial targets like the La Mon restaurant and the pubs in Birmingham; this was unnecessary and was bound to cost civilian lives, which it most certainly did. The IDF takes the same kind of risks.

    I didn't know Hughes or Sands, so I can't really say what kind of people they were. By all accounts, they were honourable men. But the organisation they were part of did kill over 600 civilians during the Troubles; that's about a third of the total number the PIRA killed. There were too many La Mons, too many Birminghams, too many Enniskillens to claim that the PIRA did its absolute best to avoid civilian deaths. It accepted a high level of 'collateral damage' just like the IDF does now.

  51. Alfie, effective planning does not always amount to an effective outcome.

    However, there is absolutely no-way the IRA waged a war on innocent civilians. Why would they? Their war was essentially with the british and at times with loyalist murder squads.

    The majority of IRA volunteers were honourable and credible people, very often, even their enemies had to acknowledge that.

  52. Nuala,

    I never said that the Provisionals attacked civilians directly, though they did class certain civilians as legitimate targets, such as the construction workers they killed in Teebane. But my point is that the tactic of planting bombs in heavily populated urban areas was bound to lead to tragedies like La Mon and Birmingham, yet it seems like PIRA volunteers and their leaders were willing to accept such carnage in the quest for a united Ireland. That is neither moral nor ethical.

    In hindsight, would you say that the bombing campaign was justified? Would you say that Patsy Gillespie or the workers killed in Teebane were legitimate targets?

  53. Alfie, hindsight is the thing everyone craves, unfortunately you only get it after the event.

    Yes, I would say the bombing campaign was justified. I think hitting british army bases and their economic infrastructures shook them up, Brighton certainly worried them.
    Do you believe all the brits who dropped bombs over Germany were totally devoid of ethics or morals?
    Do you think the Palestinian suicide bombers are without morals or ethics?
    Do you honestly believe a war, especially a guerilla war can be fought without inflicting injuries on civilians.

    I thought what happened to Patsy Gillispie was totally and absolutely wrong!

    Most of the people I met within the Republican movement, had more ethics and principles than those I met outside the movement.

  54. Alfie, I have just picked up on another point you made about 'overpopulated areas'
    The army and police tended to station themselves in conjested areas. Therefore, it would have been practially impossible to attack them without endangering civilians.

    Also, speaking of carnage, Irish people and Republicans had plenty of carnage directed at them, which was seemingly alright, it only became a problem when we fought back.

  55. Fionnuala,

    "Unlike the brits, IRA volunteers operated on hit and run basis, which meant operations sometimes went wrong"

    All the atrocities that have been brought to your attention were not hit and run incidents. They required weeks and months of planning. The assymetrical nature of the war has no relevance here. These are not instances where a shot aimed at a passing foot patrol misses and ricohets of a wall killing a passer by.

  56. Robert, the asymmetrical nature of guerrilla warfare cannot apply to one operation and not to another.

    Almost all military operations require a degree of planning, hours, days, weeks, months.
    It does not take away from the fact they would have been underpinned by the same logic, strike and retreat quickly, (hit and run)

    Many of those operations would have been dogged by logistic failures. Bombs are very precarious devices, very often IRA volunteers lost their lives transporting them.

    La Mon was horrendous, however, the outcome was not calculated or deliberate.
    The IRA almost always gave advance warnings, however, sometimes sadly, that was not enough to prevent loss of life.

  57. Nuala,

    "Do you believe all the brits who dropped bombs over Germany were totally devoid of ethics or morals?
    Do you think the Palestinian suicide bombers are without morals or ethics?
    Do you honestly believe a war, especially a guerilla war can be fought without inflicting injuries on civilians."

    I believe that combatants should not target civilians directly; that's why I cannot support Palestinian suicide bombers, though I may sympathise with their cause. Perhaps they have a moral/ethical code, but what they do is definitely immoral.

    I also believe that combatants should not endanger civilian lives unless absolutely necessary; thus, I believe that some of the Allies' bombing during WW2 was indiscriminate and wrong. For the same reason, I think that republican bombing of commercial targets was wrong - I don't think it was absolutely necessary.

    I am not naive enough to believe that guerrilla wars can be fought without killing civilians; I just think that the Provisionals were ruthless at times and that as a result, people suffered greatly.

  58. Nuala,

    "The army and police tended to station themselves in conjested areas. Therefore, it would have been practially impossible to attack them without endangering civilians."

    Palestinian militants are also based in congested areas. So would you say that it is acceptable for the IDF to blow up an apartment block if a militant lives there or stores weapons there?

    "I thought what happened to Patsy Gillispie was totally and absolutely wrong!"

    What's the difference between Patsy Gillespie and the construction workers killed in Teebane in 1992? Both worked for the British army, so surely if killing Patsy Gillespie was wrong, then killing those workers was wrong also.

  59. Alfie, feel we are just going over the same old ground here.

    As we already agreed there is a vast amount of difference between how the IRA conducted its guerrilla warfare campaign and how the IDF conduct their perceived war.

    I would hazard a guess the Israeli army has the capability of stiking with accuracy. Therefore if they are indiscriminate it is intentional.

    Patsy Gillispie should not have been strapped to a bomb and made to drive the device.
    Don't know much about Teeban, but I would say if they were protestant workers they should not have been killed.

  60. Alfie, we also faced pretty ruthless and can I add despicable enemies on two fronts.

    I was also like to add about Teebane, I did not agree with the killing of protestant workers as they probably believed they were assisting their own army.

  61. Nuala,

    "We also faced pretty ruthless and can I add despicable enemies on two fronts."

    I agree that the loyalists at all times waged a vicious campaign that seemed to target civilians primarily, but do you really think the British were any more ruthless than the IRA?

  62. Alfie, Yeah the brits were a pretty ruthless crew. My gran used to tell us, that half of them were released from prison and borstal to come here and I believe she was right.

    We also had the UDR, the RUC and all the rest of the dung, who were being held up as peacekeepers and upholders of law and order.

  63. Alfie,

    Unfortunately, there were times when civilians were targeted deliberately. There were other times when no regard whatsoever was given to civilian safety. Yet I think Nuala is right if we look at matters over the full run. For the most part the IRA did try to minimise civilian casualties.

    The difference between Patsy Gillespie and the Teebane workers was the act of tying him to the bomb and forcing him to do the business of killing. I think that was the product of an inhumane and malevolent mind. As Camus said even in destruction there is a right way and a wrong way. But Teebane was by no means justifiable. They were not killed because they were Protestants. However, the question needs to be asked would a van load of Catholic workers carrying out a similar task have been attacked? I doubt it although one of the early contractors to be killed was a Catholic.


    I think whether or not the Palestinian suicide bombers as they are termed are without ethics is determined by the people they target. There is no morality in targeting civilians. Targeting troops is a different matter. I suppose if it was in Ireland the difference would be akin to targeting a bus load of English tourists at Narrowwater rather than a lorry load of Paras.

  64. According to Sutton's Index of Deaths there were 33 civilians killed for working for the British Army or RUC. Around four of them were Catholics. Seamus McEvoy 1985 (Building contractor), Patsy Gillespie 1990, Brendan McWilliams 1992(civilian working for army), Adrian McGovern 1993(Building Contractor).

    The number of Catholics who worked in civilian roles for the security forces was always proportionally less than Protestants for a number of reasons.

  65. Alfie,

    I tend to treat the term ‘legitimate target’ as I would the term ‘nigger.’ I know when you use it you are not doing it in a value laden sense and that is fair enough.

    ‘How can an IRA volunteer insist on political status if captured when all he would give to a captured British soldier is a bullet in the head?’

    Because his motives are political and steeped in a particular history against a state that has tried to criminalise every country that has resisted it. It does not mean that political killing is somehow more civilised, humane or ethically superior to non political killings. Can we really maintain that the killing of Patsy Gillespie was somehow more civilised, more humane, more ethical than say the Limerick killing of Shane Geoghegan? It had different motives is about as much as can be said.

    ‘On the other hand, I wonder if the legitimacy of one's cause allows one to use certain tactics that are morally off-limits to one's enemy?’

    There is a major ethical dilemma here. If argued from a human rights perspective, then there is no justification for doing to your enemy what violated human rights. In war we may kill the enemy but not torture, rape or enslave them.

    These issues are unsettling to many people and stay on the chest no matter how hard we try to remove them.

  66. Nuala, it once happened to me. Put in the back of a saracen and took to the Botanic Gardens and told to lie there while they drove off shouting 'fenian'. I was back in the district before they were. Now the Botanic was then in a more unionist area than loyalist and I was not too worried. But it did come at a time when they were throwing people out in the Shankill and elsewhere before shouting 'fenian' and driving off.

  67. Mackers, they knew perfectly well what a persons fate would be under those circumstances.

    When you think of it logically it was pretty vile.

    I just wonder where Alfie would think that type of conduct would fit with the rules of engagement?