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Friday, January 9, 1998 Published at 14:48 GMT

Special Report

When is a 'criminal' a 'political prisoner'?
image: [ Dirty protesters in the 1980s smeared their Maze cells with excrement ]
Dirty protesters in the 1980s smeared their Maze cells with excrement

The visit of Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam to prisoners in the Maze Prison is an admission of the political power wielded from within prison cells in the province.

The phrase "political prisoners" though has little meaning in legal terms; there is no internationally recognised definition of a political prisoner.

A de facto defintion is provided by the human rights organisation Amnesty International: "Any prisoner whose case has a significant political element: whether the motivation of the prisoner's acts, the acts themselves, or the motivation of the authorities."

In the real world, Northern Ireland politics demand that the prisoner's political views be taken seriously and their support for the peace process is important, but successive British governments have sought to present the actions of the Maze inmates as common crimes. The Northern Ireland Prisons Service is clear that there are "no political prisoners in Northern Ireland. All those sentenced to prison terms have been convicted of criminal offences."

[ image: Padraig Wilson (left) chairs a republican prisoner press conference]
Padraig Wilson (left) chairs a republican prisoner press conference
The republican prisoners take a different line. Padraig Wilson is serving 24 years for conspiracy to cause explosions and commit murder. He is also the IRA's commanding officer in the Maze.

"We are political prisoners held as a result of the conflict in this country," he says, furthering the comparison with prisoners of war when he adds: "We see it as our duty to escape and very much regret we have not been able to do so."

And the special conditions enjoyed by prisoners lend weight to Wilson's claims. Prisoners are allowed to wander freely within their wings, cell doors are not locked and parties are held to which visitors are allowed. Symbols and slogans of armed struggle adorn the walls - there's even an image of the revolutionary hero Che Guevara staring down from the walls of H-Block eight.

[ image: Loyalist emblems on this wing of the Maze prison.]
Loyalist emblems on this wing of the Maze prison.
Loyalist prisoners in the Maze enjoy the same conditions as their sworn enemies but the walls in their prison blocks sport the red hand insignia of Ulster, and slogans prefer death to the prospect of living under Irish rule.

William Mullam, who works for Loyalist Prisoner's Aid, served 14 and a half years for murder in the Maze before his release in 1994. He plays down reports of an easy life for prisoners: "The only thing the prisoners have is a gym and lately a TV, which they had to pay for, and free association."

But Mullam shares the republican view that the Maze inmates are there as a result of an ideological conflict: "The Government won't recognise them publicly as political prisoners but behind closed doors they do.

"They accept that 99.9% of them wouldn't be there if it wasn't for the action of Sinn Fein-IRA."

The special conditions enjoyed by the Maze prisoners were established in 1981 when the British government, led by Margaret Thatcher, attempted to establish ordinary, criminal status on the prisoners.

Republican and loyalist prisoners reponded first with a "dirty protest", smearing faeces on their cell walls, and then 10 republicans died after a hunger strike. At the time the Government appeared unbending but in truth the episode was a disastrous one with the authorities eventually backing down and granting special privileges - a situation which continues today.

But do special privileges add up to political status?

Dr Brendan O'Duffy says previous governments have come close to granting political status 35"
Dr Brendan O'Duffy, an expert on Irish affairs at the University of London says that just by visiting the prisoners in this manner, Mo Mowlam is taking a big step towards legitimising the prisoner's claims.

"There have been some near precedents [by previous Northern Ireland Secretaries] but in the 90's, in the talks process it's a very explicit recognition of the political status of prisoners, " he says.

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