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Papers tell of H-blocks protest
Plans for the Maze site include retaining one of the H-blocks
The documents chronicle the beginning of the H-blocks protest
Historian Dr Eamon Phoenix examines newly-released government documents from 1977 which chronicle the beginning of the blanket protest and the segregation of paramilitary prisoners in jails in Northern Ireland.

In the files, the official designation of paramilitary prisoners as "Protestant" and "Roman Catholic" is striking. A situation report dated 5 January 1977, noted that in Belfast Prison with 760 inmates, "the situation was tense".

"In A Wing the self-imposed segregation by a number of Protestants continues," the report said.

"In C Wing all untried prisoners are still locked in their cells and 124 RCs continue to refuse prison food but are eating their food parcels."

By 12 January 1977, 42 prisoners in H2 Block at the Maze were refusing to wear prison clothes.

Among those protesting was Kieran Nugent of the Provisional IRA, the first person to "go on the blanket" following the ending of Special Category status in 1976.

Also protesting was Mairead Farrell, sentenced to 15 years in Armagh Jail for causing an explosion in 1976.

Special Category

She was later shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar, in 1988.

The number of protests against the ending of Special Category status continued to rise during the year.

By March 1977, the report noted starkly: "There are still 63 strippers" in the H-blocks."

It was reported that on 9 March, after a prison officer was threatened by two UVF inmates at the Maze, the governor decided that the two men should be brought out for adjudication.

When talks with UVF spokesmen failed, 240 prison staff with a back-up of 125 military personnel, took up position at compound 21.

By this time the UVF prisoners had barricaded the entrance gates, "showing every sign of armed resistance," according to the report.

The use of an APC (armoured personnel carrier) vehicle to break down the barricades was being considered when the two prisoners voluntarily gave themselves up.

On 15 March 1977, a report states that a proxy bomb, estimated at 50-60 lbs, exploded outside the prison.

Protesting

By June the number protesting had risen to 122.

According to a note in the file, the position of the "blanketmen" was raised at Westminster for the first time on 16 June 1977 by the Independent Nationalist MP, Frank Maguire.

He claimed that three prisoners had been "in a state of nakedness since early May... and are punished by three days solitary confinement every fortnight".

Replying, Secretary of State Roy Mason stated that the prison rules required convicted prisoners to wear prison clothes.

"They have chosen not to wear it as a form of protest against the ending of Special Category status."

The role of UVF commander Gusty Spence at the Maze is also highlighted in the releases.

According to the minutes of the Prison Management Committee of July 19, 1977, Spence had "banned alcohol in the UVF wing following drunken brawls on July 12".

Two UVF prisoners were rejected because of "this spree" and were placed in cells.



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