H-Block Protest - Trade Unions must fight repression
Militant Irish Monthly, May 1979
Very few aspects of the Northern Ireland situation are capable of arousing as much controversy as the protest by prisoners in H-Block. From the various sectarian quarters, the 'blanket' protest has echoed conflicting, but predictable reaction. Yet through all the controversy the Labour Movement has managed to adopt almost the worst position - that of complete silence.
The problem of H Block, like every other feature of repression in Northern Ireland, cannot be wished out of existence. It is a fundamental responsibility of the Labour Movement in Britain in Ireland to face up to oppose all forms of repression, including the brutal treatment of the H Block prisoners - but to do so in a manner which upholds the separate and over-riding interests of the working class.
Other forms of repression, police brutality, army harassment, SAS terror and so on have been raised within the Labour Movement and have most often evoked a sympathetic response from activists. Very largely H-Block has not. Primarily, this is due to the association of the struggle of the prisoners with the Provisional IRA.
In addition the form of the protest itself, the utterly revolting and degrading conditions in which the prisoners exist, has numbed much potential sympathy. Workers find it difficult to associate with, or understand the reasons for, the horrifying form of protest. From the media and from the ruling class has poured out the propaganda that the conditions of H-Block are 'self-inflicted.' The true facts have been suppressed.
It is therefore necessary to restate these facts, to describe the actual events which precipitated the present 'no-wash' protest, in order that the myth of 'self-inflicted' conditions can be dispelled. What exists in H-Block are among the worst conditions suffered by any group of prisoners in the world. These prisoners did not lightly put themselves into such barbaric conditions. They were driven to these measures by two things. Firstly, by the brutal methods of the state, transmitted via the prison authorities and secondly because their association with the para-military organisations denied them access to mass support outside the prisons.
In 1972 Republican prisoners, through a hunger strike, won the concession of special category status. From this time the internees in Long Kesh were allowed one visit a week, could receive food parcels, did not have to wear prison uniforms, were excused from prison work and were allowed to live in compounds, each with its own command structure.
These concessions were squeezed out of the ruling class who, at the time, had to pay attention to the widespread sympathy in the Catholic ghettoes for the Provos. However, as Imperialism began to draw a tighter rein on all paramilitaries and succeeded in isolation them from popular support, these concessions were reviewed. Special category status was eventually revoked. Those convicted after March 1st, 1976 were to be confined to the specially designed and newly built H shaped cellblocks in Long Kesh .
In September 19776 one prisoner, Kieran Nugent, became the first man 'on the blanket.' He refused to wear the prison uniform provided. His clothes were taken and he was left with only a blanket or a towel to cover himself. Others followed as more people were convicted.
In addition to removing all the prisoners' clothes the authorities retaliated by denying the right to exercise, to receive food parcels, to see TV or hear the radio, to receive newspapers, to have pens or writing material, to engage in hobbies or associate with fellow prisoners. The blanket protesters were locked in their cells virtually 24-hours a day with only a blanket to wear and only the Bible and two religious magazines for reading material. In addition, they each lost one day's remission for each day's protest.
By the end of 1976 there were 49 prisoners involved. At present about 160- are taking part. This includes members of the Protestant UVF who are 'on the blanket' but not involved in the escalated 'no wash' campaign. Kieran Nugent has now been involved in the protest for two and a half years. But for this and the consequent loss of remission he would long since have been free.
It was in March 1978 that the escalation to the 'no wash' phase took place. Regular beatings, restrictions on the time allowed for showers, insistence by the warders that they should ask permission to go to the toilet (often refused) - these were replied to by a policy of non-co-operation. The prisoners refused to wash themselves or clean out their cells.
Retaliation form the authorities resulted in a further escalation. The men refused to leave their cells to empty their chamber pots. They offered to empty these into a bucket. Visits to the toilet were further restricted through the insistence by the warders that prison uniforms should be worn to and from the toilets. The prisoners could either accept this or use their cells as toilets. They did the latter.
This protest has continued for over a year. By now the conditions of the H-Block prisoners are almost unimaginably horrific. They are permanently confined in foul smelling cells, walls smeared with excreta. All the cell furniture has been removed except for a mattress. Every three weeks the cells are hosed down and powerful disinfectant is used. Prisoners have complained that they are forced into baths full of strong, stinging disinfectant and are scrubbed with deck scrubbers.
In July 1978 the catholic archbishop, Dr C O'Fiach, visited the H-Block and summed up the conditions: "The nearest approach to it I have seen was the spectacle of hundreds of homeless people in sewer pipes in the slums of Calcutta."
H-Block stems from the overall policy of repression of the ruling class. The prisoners had no choice but to resort to desperate measures. However, the chief reason for this was the association of their protest with the Provisionals. For the Provo leadership the miseries endured by their members in H-Block area godsend. Quite cynically they are maintaining the protest, holding out no prospect whatsoever to their members of victory. The benefits to them of their horror are measured in terms of propaganda and increased flow of cash, particularly from America.
So long as H-Block as an issue is tied to the Provisionals and their propaganda machine, so long its support will be restrained. Only the Labour Movement in Britain and Ireland has the capacity and the authority to galvanise enough support to ensure a retreat on the part of the government.
For their part, it is up to the prisoners to recognise the cold reality of this. The single greatest contribution they and any genuine support committees they may have could make would be tot turn their face away from the Provos and their political appendages and towards the organised Labour Movement.
In so doing they should spell out precisely their demands. To ask for the restoration of political status is not sufficiently clear. The Labour Movement should oppose the withdrawal of decent conditions from those in H-Block. But in fighting for proper conditions they are not fighting solely for those in H-Block. The entire prison system is in need of reform. If nothing else the riots recently in prisons in England have confirmed this. Decent conditions should be the right of all prisoners.
Separately we outline a charter containing some basic rights we consider should apply to all prisons. Such clear demands should be taken up by the Labour Movement who must support the struggle of those in H-Block and must also press for the extension of decent conditions to all prisoners. These demands are not simply for a return to the status won in Long Kesh in 1972.
In Long Kesh and other prisons are thousands of people serving sentences arising from the Northern Ireland troubles. Virtually all have been convicted by special non-jury courts which can boast of an extremely efficient conviction rate of 94%. Most of these cases are based on confessions extorted from prisoners while in police custody. From start to finish the entire system reeks of injustice. It is a form of legalised internment.
The Provos are demanding political status for all their members in H-Block. The Protestant organisations are no less slow to make such demands. Yet no trade union activists in Northern Ireland would be prepared to grace people like the Shankill Butchers with the title of political prisoners.
In Northern Ireland it is only the Labour Movement, not the paramilitaries, who can be entrusted with the right to determine who is a political prisoner and who should be immediately released.
H-Block, just like every other aspect of repression, is an issue which affects directly the Labour Movement. Repression used today in Northern Ireland will be retained by the ruling class for possible use against the Labour Movement in Britain and Ireland.
It is possible for the Labour Movement to take up and support the struggle of the H-Block protesters, in a class manner.
If the Labour Movement mounted a really serious campaign on this question the necessity for the prisoners to resort to the desperate tactics now pursued could be reviewed. The responsibility must now rest on the leaders of the trade union and Labour Movement to break their silence on the question.