Page last updated at 22:02 GMT, Monday, 29 December 2008

'Dirty protest' escalates in 1978

Maze protest
The 'dirty protest' against the loss of special category status began in 1978

Dr Eamon Phoenix examines the previously classified government files which chart the escalation of the 'dirty protest' in the Maze prison as republican prisoners demanded the restoration of special category status.

A number of files remain closed, including one which will not be released until 2062.

In a report dated 1 April from the Maze Prison, deputy governor Albert Miles highlighted signs of a stepping-up of the protest by prisoners in the H Blocks in order to gain "publicity for this propaganda campaign".

Mr Miles wrote: "The increase in protests is seen as a deliberate attempt to embarrass the prison service and to harass prison staff."

On 13 March, all the prisoners in H Block 3 refused to brush out their cells and were hostile to staff.

'No concessions'

The file contains lists of prisoners with details of remission lost due to the failure to comply with prison regulations.

Heading the list is Kieran Nugent, a Provisional IRA member and the first prisoner to be sentenced after the abolition of special category status in 1976. Nugent had lost 519 days of remission at that point.

In a note to the NIO junior minister Don Concannon on 4 April, an official called E D Barry noted that prisoners in two H Blocks had stepped up the protest and were refusing to work, shower or 'slop out'.

The RUC would become political police. Terrorism would become respectable.
E Hannigan
British official
By May 1978 leading Catholic churchmen were concerned at the deteriorating situation in the prisons.

That month Mr Concannon replied to a letter from Bishop of Derry Edward Daly, who expressed concern at the protest and proposed a form of "emergency status" as a possible way-out.

The minister replied firmly: "I must make it plain that there are going to be no concessions on the question of special treatment for prisoners, no matter how such treatment may be described."

Emergency status, the minister told the bishop, seemed to imply an amnesty at some stage.

This had been firmly ruled out by the NI Secretary Roy Mason.

Turning to the vexed issue of prison clothing, Mr Concannon stated: "Convicted prisoners can wear their own clothes of an appropriate type during recreation periods. This is as far as we are prepared to go."

'Calcutta slums'

In a briefing note for Roy Mason, dated 23 May, it was stated that 321 prisoners were currently refusing to wear prison clothes or to work in protest at the removal of special category status.

The protesting prisoners were to be punished by loss of remission and privileges.

However, as the protest entered its 18th week on 30 June, the authorities considered a contingency plan for its ending in the near future.

The problem of these prisoners is only sowing the seeds of future conflict
Archbishop O'Fiaich
This would involve no concessions by the authorities but, as an official put it, "in true Churchillian style… we can afford to be magnanimous in victory".

The end was far off, however, and on 1 August, the Archbishop of Armagh, Tomas O'Fiaich visited the Maze and issued a strong statement.

Dr O'Fiaich said he was aware of the grave concerns of the Holy See at the situation in the Maze and wished to provide the Pope with a factual account.

He said of the conditions in the H Blocks: "One would hardly allow an animal to remain in such conditions, let alone a human being."

The archbishop compared the situation to the slums of Calcutta, adding: "The stench and filth of some cells, with the remains of rotten food and the smell of human excreta, was almost unbearable.

"I was unable to speak for fear of vomiting."

Archbishop O'Fiaich argued that, contrary to the British government's contention, these prisoners were "in a different category to the ordinary".

"Many are youthful and come from families which have never been in trouble with the law though they lived in areas which suffered discrimination in housing and jobs."

He concluded: "The problem of these prisoners is only sowing the seeds of future conflict."


In a statement from Stormont Castle on 1 August, 1978, the NIO expressed surprise at Archbishop O'Fiaich's statement and reaffirmed the government's determination to "stand firm in its policy on special category status".

However, the growing international impact of the prison protest is candidly acknowledged in a memo circulated to NIO Ministers in May 1978.

"The protest has been the PIRA's main propaganda cause for the last year… it is also the main reason for renewed American support for the IRA."

H blocks
A government official warned of an "embarrassing" propaganda campaign

The British government was concerned that four prisoners had applied to the European Commission of Human Rights which would rule shortly.

Any change, an official noted, "would lead to expectation of an amnesty for terrorists".

The situation continued to escalate into the autumn and, in a memo dated 20 October, an official called E Hannigan reported to Roy Mason on the dangers in the situation for the British government.

"The determination of the protesting prisoners seems strong," he said.

"They may believe they are winning the propaganda battle which is being controlled by the PIRA… The government's determination is at least equal to the protestors', but the secretary of state needs to take into account the risks which PIRA shrug off.

"Responsible people and bodies who profess little sympathy with the object of the protest are worried about the disgusting conditions in the H Blocks and the apparent severity of the regime.

"They hold the government responsible for doing something about them."

'POW status'

The official added that the government would be held culpable if an epidemic broke out in the prison, while the filing of complaints by four prisoners with the European Commission for Human Rights raised the prospect of "an intensified and embarrassing propaganda campaign" involving well-organised marches.

Mr Hannigan noted that the prisoners' demands - the right to wear their own clothes, not to do prison work and to enforce their own discipline - amounted to POW status.

This would have severe implications for British policy, he stressed: "They would thus be prisoners of war and eligible for release at the conclusion of hostilities.

"The courts would be seen as political courts… the RUC would become political police, not the impartial guardians of the law.

"Terrorism would become respectable."

In conclusion, the official warned ministers: "Humanitarian concern makes the present regime vulnerable, especially if something goes suddenly wrong, and human concern can turn into political pressure, especially if it emerges that we may be vulnerable at the European Court."

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