Killing Prison Staff
The Provisional IRA targeted prison staff over a thirteen year period beginning in 1976 shortly after the British state withdrew political status in a bid to foist the myth upon the world that the North suffered a crime epidemic for which London bore no responsibility. The most concentrated spate of attacks against prison officials occurred during the four and a half year chief of staff tenure identified by many journalists and historians as belonging to Martin McGuinness, now deputising to the DUP’s Peter Robinson in the North’s power splitting executive.
The Provisional IRA campaign claimed the lives of almost thirty members of the prison service, some of whom were killed either going to or coming from their work. Such was the determination of the organisation to kill prison staff it claimed that when a booby trap bomb failed to kill Brian Armour in October 1988 its volunteers revisited the Armour home and planted another one to ensure double effect. Their efforts were rewarded and Armour died in his car, torn apart by the force of the blast.
For today’s armed republicans the trail blazed by the Provisional IRA is the same one along which they have chosen to travel. Despite using the Provisional route map they still find the going hard. Armed with the Provisional instruction booklet they have killed no more than five members of the security services in almost four years. Of seismic concern for the targets and their families but not something likely to register on the political Richter scale. What armed republicans hope to achieve by replicating a mutant gene is something known only to themselves.
While they were successful on this occasion the word ‘success’ is something likely only to be used by them. Outside of the prisoners in Maghaberry who are on the receiving end of prison staff malpractice including violence - and probably feel that somebody is taking up the cudgel on their behalf - and the organisations to which they belong, the bulk of people see the killing of David Black as an unmitigated failure. Amongst this body are many former prisoners who experienced the brutality of the Northern Ireland Prison Service when it was at its most bullish. Products of bitter experience they nevertheless applaud the work of individuals like Pat Ramsay and Emmet Doyle who strive tirelessly to improve prison conditions, and they give no support to actions like that inflicted on David Black.
The bottom line is that the killing of David Black is anything but a success. It is a failure of the human rights culture to penetrate an impervious destructive tradition, a failure of non-violent methodology to gain traction where it is most needed, a failure of political and strategic imagination on the part of those who conceived and executed the attack, and a failure of the Sinn Fein strategy to demonstrate to its armed offspring that killing prison staff thirty years ago, to which its gave its unambiguous support, was okay then but wrong today.
There is no doubt that many genuine grievances exist in the North’s British prisons. Republicans who have been through the mill know that the Northern Ireland Office is more than capable of producing a cover up on a par with the Lisburn Lie Machine that once reigned at Thiepval Barracks. It is counterintuitive to argue that abuse of prisoners does not take place or has not long been a feature of Northern Irish Prison Service practice, or that there is any real means of holding prison staff to account. Of the thousands of assaults perpetrated by prison officials during the five years of blanket protest not one member of the prison service ever appeared in court for any of them. Same for the well documented brutality dished out in the aftermath of the 1983 H Block escape.
Yet none of this is a licence to kill. There is no war being fought in Ireland on behalf of the Irish people against the British State. In the absence of war those once labelled 'enemy' have the same rights as civilians. There is no death penalty, no right to execute, and every right not to become the victim of homicide, politically motivated or otherwise.
Ultimately it is self defeating for armed republicans to claim that the Irish people have the right to be free from everything but armed republicanism. If the most prominent characteristic of any body of thought is its insistence on what it regards as a traditional right to kill, then the cure it seeks to apply is infinitely worse than the malaise it promises to heal. It will repel more than it will ever recruit.
A republicanism than creates rather than kills is not just a soundbite. It is an ethical imperative. Yet it shows no sign of displacing the irrational pull of tradition. Seemingly, and unfortunately, the Swiftean logic holds true: what was not reasoned in will not be reasoned out.