Position Document: Non-Conforming Republican Prisoners, Maghaberry

Tonight the Pensive Quill carries a statement from Colin Duffy, Gerard McManus, Damien McLaughlin, Brendan Conway, Harry Fitszimons and Kevin Barry Nolan, prisoners in Maghaberry

Contained in this document we, a group of non-conforming republican prisoners being held in Maghaberry gaol, lay out the background to our continued prison struggle and the relevant facts thus far, which have contributed to our discussions when making decisions on future strategy.

At all times our decisions have been made whilst keeping our republican principles, integrity and identity intact. We have continued to resist at every opportunity the British criminalisation policy just as republicans have done throughout the history of gaol struggle.

After the closure of the H-Blocks in Long Kesh, Maghaberry gaol became the only “high security” prison within the Six Counties. Immediately, the British put in place a system where all prisoners would be dealt with and treated as criminals. No republican prisoner would be entitled to the rights that republicans had fought for and won through years of gaol struggle, involving hunger strikes and protest.

Throughout the years, republican prisoners have stood against criminalization. They suffered brutality, extreme anxiety and concern for their families who, in some cases, they hadn’t seen for years. For those who gave their lives, we have a duty to protect that legacy.

Once this criminalisation policy was introduced in Maghaberry it inevitably led to republican prisoners opposing it, hence resulting in protest action. As part of this policy, republicans were expected to be held alongside loyalists and criminals in shared blocks, continually locked up (in some cases, 24 hours a day) and repeatedly subjected to degrading and humiliating strip searches and other draconian measures.

After a period of protest the system was forced to act; to recognise that republicans were political prisoners who wouldn’t be treated as criminals. The British put in motion a “review” and on the 8th September 2003 they accepted the findings of the “Steele report”. This report accepted that republican prisoners should be housed together, separated from loyalists and criminals. On the basis of Steele’s finding, along with other guarantees and commitments, republican prisoners ended protest action.

Two purpose build units were constructed within Maghaberry: Roe house for republicans and Bush house for Loyalists. Both the units were in a compound of their own with extra internal and external security measures in place. Immediately upon entering Roe house a criminalisation regime was put in place which was again designed to control, degrade and criminalise republican prisoners. This was part of a blatant policy to claw back on commitments made which lead to the end of the protest.

As part of this regime prisoners were searched five or six times while only moving from their cell to a recreation room or yard area. Cells were searched daily by the prison search team and prisoners were routinely strip searched using the most degrading methods imaginable - men were expected, whilst naked, to stand on one foot and show the sole of their other foot while being ordered to continue lifting the raised leg higher. Mouths were inspected and prisoners’ tongues were expected to be moved from side to side and then up and down. All these methods were used to exert control. Of course, republican prisoners passively resisted any such attempts to degrade, humiliate or criminalise them.

Their daily regime meant prisoners couldn’t associate as one unit but instead were out of their cells in groups or “landings”. They were locked up for up to 22 hours a day and were expected to eat all meals in their cells (the same place they used the toilet and washed). This was part of an “individualisation” policy used against republican prisoners.

When the Steele report was released and future guarantees given, the prisoners had achieved so much and a foundation was firmly in place. The fact that republicans were given their own block was in itself recognition that they were “different” from other prisoners and deserved to be treated as such. However, in reality they found themselves continually having to face down the system and their degrading activities. In fact, the British policy of criminalisation was very much still at work. Throughout the next few years prisoners challenged the system at every opportunity and got more of their rights reinstated.
Throughout the years up until 2010, prisoners continued to put forward proposals to the gaol administration to regain the conditions that republican prisoners were entitled to. However, as with previous attempts they were quashed at the first opportunity by the N.I.O. Prisoners were expected to put every request, even the most basic, in writing. Again, this was designed to treat men as individuals and not as a group. They were also expected to knock their cell doors and ask to get out. Once out of the cell each prisoner would be escorted by three screws (another measure used to control).

Throughout this time prisoners regularly debated on a way forward and on how to challenge the system. All avenues were explored. Central to these debates and analysis were the principles to which so many had suffered and died to achieve, that republican prisoners are not criminals but political prisoners. We won’t accept anything less.

On the 4th April 2010, all republican prisoners in Roe house began a protest by barricading themselves in the recreation room. Once removed a concerted protest began. This protest resulted in all prisoners being locked up for almost 24 hours a day throughout the months of the protest. A decision was taken and all prisoners agreed to refuse all orders to be strip searched at anytime no matter what the circumstances. Once a prisoner refused an order to be strip searched he was charged. In the case of a family visit he would be offered a “box visit” which all republican prisoners refused. If leaving the prison for court etc. they were allowed to proceed and return with only a charge. At no time was anyone forcibly stripped.

Incrementally, prisoners increased protest action and continually refused to be degraded, humiliated or criminalised. After some months and with the continued increase in the protest (both inside and outside the gaol) a facilitation group came into the prison in an attempt to thrash out a deal between prisoners and the N.I.O. This group of three was made up of a local trade unionist, a respected Derry community worker and a Sri Lankan mediator. The prisoners appointed a group to negotiate on their behalf, representing “the collective”. Although there were numerous areas of contention the prisoners agreed the two main areas were: 1. Strip searching and 2. Controlled movement. The position on strip searching was clear - that it must end given its degrading and humiliating nature. It was believed that it could be replaced by more “humane” and less intrusive searches. Such searches would allow for prisoners’ dignity and at the same time cater for the gaol admin / N.I.O. security needs. This would also immediately take away any opportunity for the notorious thuggish search team to attempt to degrade and humiliate republican prisoners.

Controlled movement was also used to “individualise”, exert control and ultimately attempt to criminalise political prisoners. Their stated reasons for controlled movement were shown to be unwarranted and didn’t stand up to any objective scrutiny. This was also the case for keeping landings apart. Republican prisoners knew they could and would demolish the gaol admin / N.I.O.’s spurious arguments for treating republican prisoners as individuals. We are not criminals and won’t allow them to treat us as such.

After months of negotiations, involving our own republican prisoners’ representatives, gaol admin / N.I.O. appointed representatives and the joint facilitation group and while the prison protest continued, suggestions / offers which were far less than what was required were put to us as a “one time offer” via the facilitators. In fact, a number of “one time offers” were put to us before we finally thrashed out an agreement that would allow republican prisoners a framework to establish a wing conducive to our republican status.

This agreement done away with degrading strip searches and replaced it with a “technology based search”. Controlled movement was also to be done away with on a “phased basis” so wing screws could “adjust” and not feel threatened. We also negotiated other major changes to our collective benefit: Time out of cell to increase dramatically from a few hours per day to being unlocked from 8.30am to 8.00pm daily (4.30pm on Sunday as prison “closes” early on this day). An astro turf pitch which we were only given access to for two hours per week has been connected to our existing exercise yard as an extension of it, to be accessible at all times that we are out of cells. These along with other conditions were negotiated and fought long and hard for.

It was known from the protest commenced on Easter Sunday April 4th 2010 that certain prisoners were less than enthusiastic about it. Some absolutely wanted nothing to do with it. At times it was extremely draining and demoralising trying to keep them “on board”.

The agreement reached on August 12th 2010 was an agreement that accepted our right as republicans to be treated with respect and dignity.

We, the prisoner representatives and the facilitators and the gaol/N.I.O representatives all signed the agreement as a “bond” of all our sincerities to stand over all we had agreed-primarily an end to strip searching-included in this was an end to the policy of degrading mouth searches where republican prisoners were expected to wiggle ones tongue from side to side and then up and down. Conversing with screws (pre search) would suffice to show that nothing was hidden in the mouth.

Importantly also, was the agreed ending of controlled movement and the “phasing in” of “free association.” Governors were told and accepted that no republican prisoner would again bang on the door as a means of getting the screws attention, but would instead use the in-cell “buzzers” that at one point would have resulted in being “charged” for using it in non-emergency circumstances.

Other routinely used actions by screws were challenged and changed with the overriding principle of creating a republican wing and being treated as political prisoners at its core.

We, the contributors of this document were some of the signatories of the 12th of August Agreement. We argued and fought for everything that was agreed while others were prepared to accept far less at numerous times during the long negotiations.

Our analysis of the agreement is the 100% correct one – the facilitators have agreed and accepted our analysis. We steadfastly refuse to accept anything less.

Once again as happened in 2003/4 the N.I.O / gaol admin have tried to renege on what they agreed. This has resulted in forced strip searching and brutality against we the non-conforming republican prisoners. Strip searching was replaced with a technology lead search on the 12th of August Agreement! We fully stand behind the 12th of August Agreement and refuse to be strip searched. The N.I.O / gaol admin are attempting to break our will by using force and brutality and then they have the cheek to “charge” us for disobeying a direct order to conform.

Other republican prisoners - for their own reasons - are accepting strip searches because they don’t want to be forcibly stripped and brutalized which inevitably leads to being charged and, as a consequence of this, being refused parole if they are due it.

We the non-conforming republican prisoners have endured 30 plus forced strip searches between us since the agreement was signed.

During an application seeking leave for a Judicial Review by one of us, an N.I.O/Gaol Admin barrister commented on a DVD of our comrade (who is in remission from testicular cancer) that what he seen of the forced strip search was “barbaric”. The N.I.O/Gaol Admin are now trying to get all of the DVD’s of the forced strip searches barred from being part of the Judicial Review which is to be held on the 25th February, 2011.

During these forced strip searches by the notorious thuggish search team, all sorts of injuries have been inflicted from severe bruising, sprained wrists and a suspected broken nose. It is highly significant that all the forced strip searches and brutality have taken place after the agreement was signed. No republican prisoner was forcibly stripped during the protest for refusing to comply with a strip search. One republican prisoner was brutalized and had his clothes cut of him at he early stages of the protest but this was done to intimidate the rest of the republican prisoners. This resulted in the protest immediately being escalated and the whole republican wing being smashed up.

Other breaches of the agreement by the N.I.O/Gaol Admin have occurred and we continue to resist them-including attempting to reintroduce degrading “mouth searches”. We – the non-conforming republican prisoners refused to open our mouths and were subsequently “charged” each time we were going to a legal or family visit. As a result of this we were refused our legal visits and our family visits for approx. six weeks – until the gaol admin approached us and said that the prison rules relating to mouth searches would be “altered” and if we conversed with searchers (per the agreement we had reached) then we would not be asked for a mouth search.

The other prisoners (alluded to earlier) didn’t lose any visits or receive charges as they complied with mouth searches when asked.

We are currently going through the courts via a Judicial Review, fighting the degrading use of strip searches. We continue to be forcibly stripped and brutalized each time any of us are brought to court in relation to “trials” etc. even though the technology based search equipment is already in use in all other circumstances, where before there was strip searching.

Regardless of the outcome of our Judicial Review, we will continue to fight for our rights – as republican prisoners have always done. We will not be bullied or broken no matter what brutality is inflicted upon us.

We hereby ask you, the Republican People at home and abroad, to support us in our Gaol struggle.


Colin Duffy
Gerard McManus
Damien McLaughlin
Brendan Conway
Harry Fitszimons
Kevin Barry Nolan


  1. 30 years ago this day Bobby Sands began his hunger strike. What was it for if this type of regime is allowed to prevail? Every brutal act or degrading strip search devalues any gains achieved by that hunger strike and associated protests. In this day and age strip searching is a primitive in your face act of aggression. Anybody who refuses to submit to one deserves support

  2. This is totally obscene! Until Alec raised this issue a few days ago I think people genuinely believed that the strip searching had stopped.
    It is almost surreal to think all this is happening to Republican prisoners and it has been practically kept contained.
    I think all of us should feel more than a little ashamed about this one.

  3. People should be demanding answers from political representatives in relation to this.
    I can't help feeling we are actually letting them off the hook, letting them turn a blind eye.
    Sinn Fein are due to gain a lot of political mileage using the legacy of what took place in the prisons in 81, should they be allowed to totally obscure the events taking place in the prisons in 2011, surely not!

  4. SF are too busy celebrating in the South. They are even more disgusting than Gorby time's CPSU.

  5. dejavu and DEPRESSING.
    a tired community is unfortunately more or less disinterested. if SF learned anything it would be pulling out all the stops to defuse this.