Republican prisoners subjected to inhuman treatment, report finds
It was a defining moments in Ireland's troubled past. The republican hunger strikes made global headlines and now a panel has looked at the context of the prison protests and the legacy of that time on those involved. Security Correspondent Allison Morris reports
In March 1976, Merlyn Rees, the Labour Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, ended 'special category' status for prisoners convicted of 'Troubles' related offences.
This move sparked a series of protests by both male and female republican prisoners that would last five years and only end after ten men died on hunger strike.
The five years was one of the most intense periods of the Troubles with almost 800 killings by republicans, loyalists and state forces.
Organised by republican ex prisoners group, Coiste na n-larchimi, the inquiry was given unprecedented access to prisoners’ files.
It was chaired by the late Warren Allmand, former Solicitor-General for Canada - who died in 2016 - alongside barrister Richard Harvey and retired human rights researcher Dr John Burton.
The panel heard testimonies from 34 republican blanket protestors, two loyalist prisoners, two former prison governors, medical practitioners, lawyers, academics, politicians and clergy.
Queen's academic Prof Phil Scraton, who led the independent investigation into the Hillsborough disaster, helped compile the findings of the panel's research, with Pádraig Ó Muirigh acting as solicitor to the panel.
Among those to give evidence was a former prison governor who said in testimony that they had been faced with "an abnormal situation".
"None of us liked it. None of us understood it. None of us believed it would do what it was meant to do, which was turn people away from any campaign, whether it was a republican campaign or a loyalist campaign.
"We told the Northern Ireland Office, we told the state, that it wouldn’t work. There was a big problem in Northern Ireland and Ireland. It had to be resolved by Government, not by the Prison Service or the Police Service," he added.
The panel found a large number of prisoners suffer from long term illnesses attributed to their time on the prison protests, many others have died prematurely of cancer related illnesses.
Physical illnesses include respiratory disorders, attributed to exposure to toxic chemicals used to clean the prison landings during the blanket and no wash protests.
"Prisoners’ exposure to chemical toxins remains a serious concern as there is evidence of prolonged illnesses, including cancer; this issue requires further investigation", the panel found.
The findings state overwhelming evidence of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment directed at republican prisoners by prison staff throughout the period under review, 1976 to 1981
"The frequency and severity of these abuses established a systemic pattern of deliberate intent and could only have persisted with the knowledge and approval of governors".
It concluded: "Former prisoners are unanimous in stating that they seek neither revenge nor compensation but remain committed to establishing the truth of what happened throughout their incarceration".
One of the female prisoners who gave evidence to the panel had been pregnant when she was sent to the Armagh prison.
She described being taken from the prison an outside hospital where she remained handcuffed to a bed in the operating theatre while undergoing a caesarian section.
Two RUC officers, one male and one female, along with a prison officer remained with her throughout the birth.
The report states that hospital doctors objected to the presence of the prison guard and police officers but ‘it fell on deaf ears’ and they remained.
She reported having been punched in the stomach by a guard who taunted her that she would not survive.
After the birth, her baby was taken from her for a week with neither a medical nor a security explanation offered.
"He (prison doctor) never examined nor treated me whatsoever after [her baby] was born", she said.
"I was put in the hospital wing and left there".
Professor Scraton said: "From the transcripts of in-depth interviews with men and women former prisoners presented in this report, it is evident they endured unacceptable levels of physical and psychological punishment, violence and violation. Administered purposefully, without the checks and balances of state institutional accountability, it constituted cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment/ punishment within the UN General Assembly’s 1975 definition of torture.
"The arrogance of officials is striking. In 1978 the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Northern Ireland claimed that in 'their self-imposed routine, the protestors are provided with adequate food and they eat it; they are clean and free from infestation; they look healthy and are putting on weight rather than wasting away; and they are observed to sleep well’.
"In contrast, multiple, in-depth prisoners' testimonies recount the guards' deliberate infestation of inedible food, smuggling stale bread into cells, being kept awake at night by guards often drunk on duty, humiliation and brutality during forced washes and routine beatings. This violence and humiliation extended to women especially during menstruation when they were left without sanitation”,
Féile an Phobail will host a special online event today to discuss the release of the report.
It will be broadcast at feilebelfast.com, the Féile an Phobail Facebook page and its YouTube channel.