Special Category: the IRA in English Prisons Vol.1: 1968-1978 by Ruan O’Donnell. Irish Academic Press, ISBN 978 0 7165 3141 8
It will come as a surprise to many people in this country that there have been political prisoners in English jails and in this book Ruan provides a comprehensive account of who they were, why they were there and what both the British government and the prisoners themselves felt about the situation.
We are, of course, talking about Irish prisoners who were in English jails because of Britain’s occupation of the Six Counties of Ireland (otherwise known as Northern Ireland) and the unresolved political situation which affected both sides of the Irish border and had an international dimension.
What is amazing about this book is the way in which Ruan has used an array of sources. He has interviewed many participants – including prisoners and their families – as well as using private collections of correspondence and papers, state archives, declassified documents, and official records of parliamentary business. His attention to detail is incredible: in one chapter there are over 300 footnotes!
There have been Irish prisoners in British jails going back to the United Irishmen in the 1790s. In this book Ruan looks at a ten year period beginning with the new phase of the Troubles from 1968 onwards. After 1968 the numbers of Irish Republicans jailed increased and the tactics of the British Government towards these prisoners changed. And whilst the numbers of prisoners increased, it was more difficult for them to organise against a harsh prison regime:
“It was no coincidence that the first two fatal hunger strikes of the modern Troubles occurred in England and that events within the Dispersal System resonated, often powerfully, on Irish soil over three decades”.
In the 1970s I went to a predominantly Irish secondary school in the heart of the Irish community in Manchester and, whilst the main agenda for the hierarchy of this Catholic school was to deliver law-abiding British children, there were Irish teachers who were Republican minded. I remember vividly one Irish nun telling us about interned Irish prisoners in the Six Counties and their harsh conditions. She did not mention the growing number of Republican and innocent Irish prisoners in British jails (including the Birmingham Six) who were now part of this harsh regime.
The Irish community in Britain has always played a significant role in opposing Britain’s occupation of Ireland but, as the war intensified and the IRA brought its actions to England, it was the community who took the backlash. The British Government rushed through the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1974 after the Birmingham pub bombings which, whilst not stopping IRA activity, did severely curtail democratic debate in this country about the war going on in Northern Ireland. From 1974 to the early 1980s very few Irish people, and even fewer English people, wanted to be seen taking part in any public opposition to the eroding of civil and human rights of Irish people on both sides of the Irish Sea.
Ruan puts this into context and weaves together some of the campaigning work done by outstanding people such as Sister Sarah Clarke on behalf of prisoners and their families. She had been active from the 70s but, after 1973, was barred from visiting prisoners. She only found out in 1985 that she had been stopped from being an approved visitor on the grounds of security. You would have to meet Sister Sarah to realise how ridiculous this was.
Whilst IRA prisoners in English jails asserted their Republican political views, for those individuals such as the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, Maguire Seven and others who were victims of miscarriages of justice, in effect convicted of being Irish in the wrong place at the wrong time, it is heartbreaking to read the accounts of their unjust treatment by all levels of the police, courts and prison system. As Ruan says about the Maguire family, “Their case was arguably the single worst incidence of judicial abuse perpetrated under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and indicated that any Irish person, regardless of age, gender or political orientation, was liable to face imprisonment if elements of the British Establishment so desired.”
As republican prisoners increased in number they took part in a variety of strategies to seek their freedom. These included escapes, riots and legal challenges. They became important in Republican strategy for resolving the political situation in the Six Counties and, as we saw in the negotiations in the 1990s leading to the Good Friday Agreement, the prisoners had a major influence in the settlement. Ruan’s book covers just part one of this story, up to 1978. It is a fascinating and important history of the Irish struggle, and makes one look forward to the next volume.