Strip-Search Brutality In Northern Ireland

Tonight The Pensive Quill features guest writer Sandy Boyer, the co-host of Radio Free Eireann [1] on WBAI in New York City, who writes on the struggle of Irish republican prisoners against the British State practice of strip searches inside prison.  The article originally featured on

POLITICAL PRISONERS in Northern Ireland are on a "dirty protest," smearing their excrement on the walls of the cells they are locked into 23 hours a day. They are protesting violent, degrading strip searches. Unless the strip-searching is ended, the dirty protest could escalate into a hunger strike.

The prisoners are searched before and after every trip to court. Whenever they refuse strip for a search, they are brutally beaten by guards. One of them, Damien McLaughlin, sent out a letter vividly describing a strip search he endured:

Today, I was brought to the reception where the search team were waiting and forced into a 3-foot-by-3-foot cubicle by two of them, where I refused to strip. They laughed at me and said, "He's ready for it!"Suddenly, the cell door bursts open and in they come in full riot gear--helmets, shields, body protection, the works. They ram the shield into my face, two of them grab my arms, another grabs my head, I'm forced to the ground--arms forced up my back, two knees forced into my head to hold it down, two knees in the back of my legs ...

Then another one of them starts to force off my shoes, socks and trousers off. I'm then moved into a forced position so that my boxers are ripped down and my frontal private parts can be seen by them. I'm then forced back into a position where my boxers are completely forced off me and a hand-held metal detector is ran over my backside...

At this stage, it's hard to breathe with their gloves covering my face and mouth. I'm still being held by four of them on the floor, my private parts exposed...They then grab my boxers and jeans and force them up, hurting me...leaving my private parts still exposed--They then move me into another awkward position to take my T-shirt off...I think my arms are about to break in two!

It's agony at this stage...My wrists are just numb... Being twisted the whole time this is going on. My shirt is now off...I'm lying now with both my arms are forced up my back towards the roof while the riot squad run out of the cell.. My arms just drop to the floor. I try my best to get onto my feet using my elbows, trousers hanging off me, boxers still below my private parts ... I'm aching all over!

THE STRIP-searching is completely unnecessary. It serves no security purpose and only humiliates and degrades the prisoners. The prison administration agreed to replace strip searches with scanners, similar to the ones used at airports, in August 2010 after a previous protest. Prisoners would only be strip-searched if the scanner detected a suspicious object.

David Ford, the Northern Ireland Minister for Justice, has refused to implement the agreement. Although Sinn Fein, which used to be described as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), is the second-largest party in the Northern Ireland cabinet, they have been unable or unwilling to get Ford to implement the agreement and end the strip searching.

The prisoners are members of "dissident" republican organizations that, unlike the IRA, are still waging armed campaigns to eliminate British rule in Northern Ireland. They are tried in special non-jury courts largely on special charges such as "membership in an illegal organization." We can be totally opposed to some of their political ideas and still be committed to building a campaign for their human rights.

Protests against strip-searching, as vital as they are, have been inadequate. They have frequently been fairly small and localized. Many have taken the form of "white line pickets"--a relatively few people standing with signs in the middle of the road.

Often, they have been organized by republican groups, with each group focusing mainly on its own prisoners and largely ignoring the rest. Even independent protests which embrace all the prisoners have largely been confined to local communities. There has been little effort to reach out beyond the narrow base of committed republicans.

The campaign to save the life of Brendan Lillis showed that unity can win. Lillis, a political prisoner in Northern Ireland's notorious Maghaberry Prison, was close to death. But David Ford and the Northern Ireland Prison Service were refusing to let him be moved to a hospital. His partner, Roisin Lynch, spearheaded a campaign to get him to a hospital before it was too late. All the republican groups with political prisoners in Maghaberry joined in the campaign. Then it was able to win broader community support.

Roisin Lynch insisted that it was a purely humanitarian campaign to save her partner's life. She refused to let it be used to attack Sinn Fein, even when they were seen to be giving only token support. Eventually, Sinn Fein felt compelled to put serious pressure on David Ford, their cabinet colleague, to resolve the case.

Finally, the campaign won, and Brendan Lillis was transferred to a hospital. When he got there, the doctors said that without the medical care he could only get in a hospital, Brendan Lillis could have been dead within 48 hours. Today, he is home with his family, although still very ill and unable to even get out of bed.

Now the challenge is to build on Brendan Lillis' victory to create an effective campaign to end strip-searching. This would require all the republican organizations to put aside their differences, grievances and rivalries to work together for the prisoners. Without that, it will be very difficult to reach out to civil libertarians or labor and community leaders.

Time may be short. Unless there is progress soon prisoners could resort to a hunger strike. One of them, Martin Corey, told /The Lurgan Mail/ a hunger strike could happen "very soon." He said:

A hunger strike is looking like a very real possibility. The agreement of August last year is not being implemented, and this protest is likely to escalate ...There are plenty of volunteers for a hunger strike. That's one thing there's no shortage of.

A united campaign for the prisoners may be the only alternative to a hunger strike. Eamonn McCann, the Irish socialist leader and founder of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement, recently told a meeting against strip-searching,

We need a campaign for decent treatment of the prisoners, recognition of their human rights. People right across the political spectrum should come together as best they can to mount a major campaign on behalf of the prisoners.



  1. Grim reading indeed. There is a serious dearth of information in relation to what is happening inside the gaol.
    People such as Eamon Mc Cann are right, there needs to be a coming together of the different strands, there needs to be one united voice around this issue.
    Sinn Fein may have had their hands forced on the Brendan Lillis issue,
    however, I doubt they will rock any boats in relation to Republican prisoners.

  2. Sandy,

    pieces like this keep the issue under the spotlight. Strip searching in today's technological world is primitive, and like the mirror search of the blanket is used with degrading the prisoner firmly in mind.

  3. Thankfully there's blogs like yours that are read far and wide otherwise most people wouldn't even know about the terrible conditions in Maghaberry Mackers....

    More needs to be done but due to censorship and the white-picket fence thoughts of those unwilling to criticise the so-called Peace Process, supporters of the POWs' find it hard to reach out and generate support!


  4. It should also be remembered that most of these these prisoners are on remand, therefore not convicted under any unjust british law, or interned by proxy(revoking of licences). I hope this protest can end soon with the full implementation of the 12th August 2010 agreement. Until then "Support the pows"

  5. Mackers,
    who said it is only snakes that shed everything?
    Could we ever have imagined back then, that a lot of the people who were to the fore during the prison protests are now sitting back quietly wishing this away.

  6. Nuala,

    a more instructive leasson from back then is to be found in the experience of the Sticks. During the blanket protest and the hunger strikes the Sticks were supporting the British stand and doing nothing to improve prison conditions. Many of their individual members could not abide by their leaders and supported the prisoners anyway.

    The lesson is that this happens to republicanism once it is infected by the Stick virus. I look at SF today and can see none of the calibre of Sean MacBride who was most certainly prepared to make prison conditions a serious policy issue for his party.

  7. Mackers,
    I wonder is it the Stick virus they are putting in the 'genuine taste of freedom' drinks?
    Whatever it is it is working as they all appear to be clones of the Master and whilst they are all cloning around Republican prisoners are being humilated, beaten and degraded.

  8. Sandy,
    not all the prisoners are so called 'dissidents'. A few of them are former provos who were ordered by Adams and McGuinness to hand themselves in.
    One of these prisoners Harry Fitzsimmons has continually been singled out for particularly brutal treatment and yet the organisation who sanctioned the operation remains mute about his treatment.

  9. This is a welcom piece from Sandy. He rightly points out some major shortcomings in the campaign to build support for the prisoners demands which were agreed by the NIPS back in August 2010.

    Our failure to broaden the base is fruastrating and, at times, demoralising for all involved. But there are local dynamics in nationalist/republican areas working against the prisoner support networks. Many of the people who would have supported prisoners in the past have switched off or have become complacent. Others, for reasons of political affilation, are openly hostile and have attempted to prevent the issues being highlighted. Society at large does not see prisons as a pirority, at the best of times, and perfers to turn a blind eye to such issues unless they impact their comfortable lives.

    History warns us of the high price of ignoring problems inside the prisons particularly for prisoners and their families. Left to their own devices republicans will leave no stone unturned in order to assert their political idenity. Although the prisoners are small in number they are determined to see the August agreement implemented in full.

  10. AM,
    Yeah, you are 100% right about the Sticks grassroots. I remember going around collecting money during both Hunger Strikes for posters and leaflets etc. and every grass root Stick was more than happy to contribute, the only person that knocked me back was an SDLP supporter!

  11. Ardoyne Republican,

    thanks for that. It is just a pity that the blog dies not reach more people than it does. These issues seriously need highlighted and you do as much as anyone to get it out there,

  12. Nuala,

    but it happens throughout history unfortunately. Dev let republicans starve and hanged them.

  13. Alec,

    the unresolved issue remains a burning one for some of the people who went through the jails and know what the regime is like. Prison brutality always annoys me. In my experience there was always more violence from prison staff than ever there was from prisoners.