The Granting of Special Category Status, 1972

After internment was introduced in 1971, the issue of political status for IRA prisoners became a very important aspect of IRA propaganda. The IRA leadership realized that if the prisoners could gain official recognition of political, or prisoner-of-war, status in prisons, this would help to legitimize the "war" in the eyes of the Catholics in Northern Ireland and people in general throughout the world.

The Provisionals in 1971 and early 1972 had drafted cease-fire proposals which would end the Republican violence, and in each the IRA referred to its "political prisoners" in its list of demands. The first proposal, a five-point list of demands which if met, would lead to a cease-fire, was announced in August 1971 with the introduction of internment. The cease-fire demands called for the release of all "political prisoners, tried or untried, both in Ireland and Britain." The IRA also called for an end to Stormont and additional reforms which would give a political voice to the Catholic population, a cease-fire on the part of the British forces, and compensation to the victims of British Army violence.(1)

Because the British government ignored the first series of demands, the IRA made public in early March 1972 a second set of proposals, calling once again for "amnesty for political prisoners," a withdrawal of British troops and the abolition of Stormont (which, as explained above, occurred within the month).(2) Along with the second, revised set of proposals, as a show of good faith the IRA called a 72-hour truce among its own members, to prove to Britain that if the IRA's demands were met, the violence of the IRA soldiers could be controlled by the IRA leadership.(3)

Once again, the British did not take the cease-fire proposal seriously. But before the IRA leadership could devise a new plan, a wrinkle in British-IRA relations developed two months after the proposal had been issued. On 15 May 1972, Republican prisoners in the Crumlin Road jail in Belfast began a hunger strike. As in the first political hunger strikes fifty years previously, the prisoners, led by Billy McKee, wanted political status and were protesting as well against the general conditions in prison. The prisoners, who had made the decision to go on a hunger strike independently of the IRA leadership outside the prison, had informed IRA headquarters that five men would begin a hunger strike around May 10th, with five more joining the hunger strike each week until a solution with the British was reached.(4)

Sean MacStiofain was personally pressured by "churchmen, the media, opinion makers, everyone" to call for a cease-fire, as well as an end to the month-long hunger strike.(5) He responded by saying that a cease-fire would be considered only if it met the IRA demands and was binding on both sides-the IRA and Britain. "We would not be stampeded," MacStiofain explained, "into any one-sided ceasefire that would leave the entire initiative with the Brits, leave men open to arrest, and result in a needless loss of ground."(6)

As a result, three months after the previous 72-hour truce, on 9 June the Provisional IRA leadership decided to announce plans for a seven-day cease-fire (which could lead to a permanent end to hostilities), with the provision that Whitelaw would agree to meet in talks with representatives from the IRA. On 13 June 1972, at a press conference in Derry, MacStiofain, along with representatives of the Provisional IRA Army Council Dave O'Connell, Seamus Twomey and Martin McGuinness, made public the IRA's third cease-fire proposal, and gave Whitelaw forty-eight hours to make a decision.(7)

Significantly, as a pre-condition for meeting in talks, the IRA demanded that all Republican prisoners be given political status in the jails. This concession would bring an end to the hunger strike in Crumlin Road jail. Then, with that pre-condition met, the IRA's conditions for a cease-fire included its leadership's wishes to meet for talks outside of Stormont (with all its symbolism of Protestant repression), without any British restrictions on the team of negotiators the IRA sent to the peace settlement. Furthermore, the IRA called for the freedom of imprisoned Gerry Adams, at the time a young Sinn Fein politician, in order for him to be able to serve on the negotiating team. Finally, the IRA wanted the presence of a third-party independent witness at all talks.(8)

Whitelaw rejected the offer the next day, saying that he could not "respond to ultimatums from terrorists who are causing suffering to innocent citizens in Northern Ireland and shooting British troops."(9) However, within the next couple of days, John Hume and Paddy Devlin, both of the nationalist (but usually anti-IRA) Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), volunteered to be the IRA's spokesmen in the matter. Marking the SDLP's first discussion with the British government since the introduction of internment, the two men saw merit in the IRA proposal and repeated the cease-fire offer, along with the Provisional IRA's demands.(10)

On June 15th the two SDLP MPs met with Whitelaw in the Northern Ireland Office in London. Amazingly, because he was anxious for a solution to the violence in Northern Ireland, Whitelaw completely agreed to the SDLP men's proposal to meet with the IRA in talks, accepting all of the IRA's initial demands with the exception of the request for an impartial witness, but Whitelaw eventually gave into this demand as well. MacStiofain made the observation that "within hours of publicly refusing to treat with terrorists, the British were secretly agreeing to discuss a truce with us."(11)

Furthermore, on 19 June, after a second meeting with Hume and Devlin, Whitelaw met the IRA's pre-condition for talks by creating what he termed "Special Category Status," which was granted to those in Northern Ireland who saw themselves as political prisoners. This move on Whitelaw's part may have been an act of good faith, but more likely it was due to riots throughout Britain and Ireland following rumors that Billy McKee had died from his hunger strike. Regardless of the motives for the concession, Whitelaw's promise ended the hunger strike in Crumlin Road jail in Belfast, saving the still-alive but very ill Billy McKee and forty other IRA prisoners after hunger strikes of thirty-five days.(12)

The granting of Special Category Status officially was not supposed to be political status, however. It simply called for improvements in the rights and treatment of the paramilitary prisoners both Republican and Loyalist but did not specifically acknowledge the political nature of the crimes for which the men and women had been arrested. These prisoners were imprisoned in three main locations: men in either the Crumlin Road jail in Belfast or the Long Kesh internment camp, and women in the jail at Armagh.(13)

Before Whitelaw's concession, only prisoners in Long Kesh could have claimed a POW-type lifestyle. In Long Kesh (constructed during World War II as an airfield) all prisoners lived in "cages," compounds with four Nissen huts and surrounded by barbed wire. Each of three huts (120 feet by 24 feet) would house forty men, with the fourth reserved for use as a canteen. Because they could freely associate at all times, the men imprisoned here organized themselves as if they were functioning armies. They even drilled with dummy wooden guns.(14)

Now, however, with Whitelaw's concession about eighty Republicans and forty Loyalists in the Crumlin Road jail, as well as Republican women prisoners in Armagh, could organize like their comrades in Long Kesh, and all were acknowledged to be more than common criminals. They were housed in special wings of the prison, away from the ODCs ("ordinary decent criminals") and separated according to religious and paramilitary affiliation.

Life as a political status prisoner was considerably better than the lives of the non-political prisoners-men and women who served time before 1972 or who would be convicted after the end of Special Category Status in March 1976. For the IRA members in jail Special Category Status meant that the Republican command structures would be employed by the prison officials-meaning that the IRA "officers" elected by prisoners would be recognized as such, and the prisoners would be able to communicate with the prison governor through their own OC (Officer Commanding). The OCs would also be allowed to visit each of the Republican areas within the compounds weekly. Furthermore, the Republicans were allowed to wear their own clothes and they began to receive more visits and food parcels. The prisoners could also freely associate with other prisoners, organize activities and entertainment, abstain from prison work, and very importantly, they received fifty percent remission of their sentences.(15)

Special Category Status prisoners such as these were allowed to attend classes in Irish language, history, math, geography, art, music, dressmaking, and so on. Most of their activities were unsupervised, or at least the guards were unobtrusive. As Father Raymond Murray noted, there was extensive freedom for the prisoners to associate amongst themselves, and their movements between wings were not restricted.(16) Whatever Whitelaw wanted to call it, to the prisoners Special Category Status was de facto recognition of the political nature of their crimes and acknowledgement of the "war" being fought.(17)

It is important to note at this time that the Republicans were not the only ones to benefit from the hunger strikes and the IRA proposals. Members of Protestant paramilitary groups also received Special Category Status. Although not as organized within the prisons, and not interested in joining the hunger strike specifically, Loyalists in the jail also had wanted political status, for they too perceived their crimes as politically motivated, even if the aims of their actions were the opposite of the IRA's. A letter written by Protestant prisoners in "A Wing" of Crumlin Road jail, dated 14 May 1972 (before the concession of Special Category Status), demonstrates the Loyalist perspective: "We only want the same treatment as Ulster's enemies the Rebel Internees, to leave here with no stigma, but only for what we really in all truth are Political Prisoners, Loyalists."(18)

Successful in achieving the goal of political status, the IRA worked towards its meeting with Whitelaw. On 22 June the Provisionals released their plans for a cease-fire to begin 26 June at midnight, provided that the British government agreed to do the same. Whitelaw responded in Parliament by saying if the IRA called for a cease-fire, "Her Majesty's forces will obviously reciprocate."(19) On 7 July MacStiofain and the other representatives were flown with safe conduct first by helicopter to a RAF plane in the Sperrin Mountains in Derry and then to London for their meeting with Whitelaw. In the meeting, the IRA representatives presented the following demands to Whitelaw: the IRA "called upon the British government to recognise publicly that it is the right of the people of Ireland acting as a unit to decide the future of Ireland," and also for the withdrawal of all British troops from Northern Ireland and freedom for all political prisoners.(20)

The British had appeared to accept the terms for a cease-fire at the beginning, Whitelaw promising to release all internees if the IRA was successful in its call for a cease-fire, and agreeing to try to work out solutions to the other IRA demands.(21) The truce soon ended, however, after an incident on 9 July. Catholic families in a housing development in Lenadoon, in Andersontown (part of Belfast), were attempting to move into homes previously occupied by Protestants. Unfortunately, these moves were hindered when the Ulster Defense Association (the Protestant equivalent to the IRA) decided to prevent the families from occupying their homes. The Catholic families, along with IRA members, fought the UDA until the British Army intervened, smashing a moving van in the process. Because the British claimed the IRA was the instigator of the subsequent violence, the IRA was blamed to have been the first to resume "official" hostilities, bringing the truce to an end. David O'Connell, a member of the IRA and Sinn Fein, disagreed with the British account, saying in an interview for the London Times in 1981 that "the British Army commanders and the Ulster Defence Association men created a situation in Belfast which resulted in the talks breaking down."(22) Whoever was to blame, as a result of the collapse of the cease-fire, concessions already gained, such as political status for prisoners, were retained, but the promised end to internment did not come about. (23)

1 MacStiofain, 209.

2 Provisional IRA's demands as quoted in MacStiofain, 209 and 234.

3 MacStiofain, 239.

4 Republican News, 21 May 1972, 7.

The first five hunger strikers were McKee, Kevin Henry, Malachy Leonard, Martin Boyle and Robert Campbell (who escaped from prison on June 7). On May 22 they were joined by Paddy Monaghan, Anthony O'Kane, Malachy Cullen, Billy McGuigan and John Cowan, and on May 29 by Ciaran Conway, Tony Bradley, Gerard McLaughlin, Michael McCrory and Noel Quigley. On June 11 Brian McCann, Liam O'Neill, D. Power, Hugh McComb and D. Donaldson rounded the number of hunger strikers to twenty. Furthermore, forty internees at Long Kesh began a hunger strike on June 2nd (Republican News, 21 May 1972, 7; 4 June 1972, 5; 11 June, 1-2; 18 June, 1).

5 Bishop and Mallie, 224. MacStiofain quote ibid., personal interview with authors, 1986.

6 MacStiofain, 260.

7 MacStiofain, 260-1.

8 "Three-Point Peace Offer by IRA," The Irish Times 14 June 1972, 1; Bishop and Mallie, 224-5; MacStiofain, 265.

9 "Whitelaw's Reply Consistent with Policy," The Irish Times 14 June 1972, 1.

10 Renagh Holohan, "Devlin, Hume to meet Whitelaw today," The Irish Times 15 June 1972, 1. This was a significant gesture in that the SDLP, an organization supported more by middle-class and moderate Nationalists, rarely supported IRA decisions.

11 James Downey, "Whitelaw to begin talks towards N. I. Conference," The Irish Times 16 June 1972, 1; Alan Sked and Chris Cook, Post War Britain: A Political History, 2d ed. (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, Ltd, 1984), 274; MacStiofain, 265.

Many nationalist/anti-Unionist groups saw the IRA as selling out the interests of the Northern Ireland Catholics as a whole, in order to further the narrow goals of the IRA. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, for example, criticized the action by claiming that the IRA seemed "to be more interested in making cheap political capital for themselves than engaging in a non-sectarian struggle to win democratic rights for all the people of the North." Others complained that the IRA was not working hard enough to bring a complete end to internment, or that it was being foolish by accepting Whitelaw's agreement to meet in talks as sincere. Frank McManus, old-time nationalist politician and Member of Parliament for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, observed that Whitelaw's initial refusal meant that "Mr. Whitelaw does not want peace, he wants abject surrender, he wants an end to violence and to the civil disobedience campaign." ("Devlin, Hume to meet Whitelaw today," The Irish Times 15 June 1972, 1.) The "Official" Sinn Fein criticized the Provisional IRA's readiness to accept Whitelaw's offer, stating that " must be obvious to everyone that now at long last we are seeing the real Mr. Whitelaw. Despite his nice little utterances about peace and stability in Ireland, he cares nothing except protecting protecting British imperial interests here." ("Talks offer condemned by Gardiner Place," The Irish Times 15 June 1972, 11).

12 "Whitelaw closer to I. R. A. talks," The Irish Times 20 June 1972, 1; Beresford, 13; Bishop and Mallie, 224-5; R. G. [Richard] McAuley, "Political Status," Republican News 4 December 1975, 4.

13 Many male prisoners also had been held on the Maidstone prison ship anchored outside Belfast (until 9 April 1972), and in Magilligan camp outside Derry City (until 1 May 1972). (McGuffin, 95-99).

14 Beresford, 13; McGuffin, 90-1.

15 "Prison strike ends 12 hours after promise," The Irish Times 21 June 1972, 1; Republican News 23 June 1972, 1; Bishop and Mallie, 224-225; Nell McCafferty, The Armagh Women (Dublin: Co-op Books (Publishing) Ltd, 1981), 19.

On 13 November 1972 another hunger strike took place. This time the prisoners wanted the following: compassionate parole for prisoners who had ill family members or deaths in the family; privacy during visits; Irish prisoners in England to be returned to Northern Ireland, where they would receive political status (the status had not applied to prisoners in English jails); and the implementation of the promised educational facilities. On November 24th there were 25 Republican prisoners on hunger strike, and 19 remained on their fasts by the end of the strike at the beginning of December, when their primary demand for compassionate parole was met. (Republican News 24 November 1972, 5; 1 December 1972, 8).

16 McCafferty, 21.

17 Although Republican prisoners in Northern Ireland's jails received political status, their comrades imprisoned in England were not so lucky. There were at least thirty-four Irish prisoners in England in 1973, for example, and most were imprisoned in one of the following seven top-security prisons: Albany and Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight, Wormwood Scrubs in London, Long Lartin in Worchestershire, Cartree, near Leichester, and Hull and Wakefield in Yorkshire. Occasionally one or two Irish prisoners would be held in one of about ten other prisons located throughout England. (Republican News 21 July 1973, 8).

In 1974 IRA men Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg went on hunger strikes in England, demanding political status. Apparently the British had forgotten the lesson from 1917 and the death of Thomas Ashe, for Gaughan died on 3 June 1974 in Parkhurst Jail as a result of force-feeding, his death becoming "a major factor in the Government's subsequent decision to avoid force feeding when dealing with hunger strikes" (McCafferty, 19-20). Stagg ended his first after promises that he would be repatriated, but when the return to Northern Ireland did not occur, he embarked upon a second hunger strike, dying on 12 February 1976 in Wakefield Prison after a fast of 62 days (P.O.W. Bulletin of the Irish Political Prisoners in Britain, 7 December 1977, 1; Beresford, 14; Coogan, Disillusioned Decades, 25-6).

18 Letter from Loyalist prisoners Harry Palmer, Hugh Gloss, S. J. Murray, Jim Craig and Burce [Bruce?] McMenemy, dated 14 May 1972, Official U. D. A. News (n. d.; vol. 1 no. 10), 3. Interestingly, the attitudes of these men towards Whitelaw, who they refered to as "Whitewash," was actually very similar to those of the nationalist groups that had criticized the IRA's decision to talk with Whitelaw in the first place.

19 James Downey, "M. P. s' cheers follow Whitelaw's news," The Irish Times 23 June 1972, 1.

20 Coogan, Disillusioned Decades, 220; MacStiofain, 202.

21 Henry Kelly, "Concessions if IRA calls Cease-fire," The Irish Times 21 June 1972, 1.

22 Tim Jones, "IRA is ready for an indefinite fight," Times (London) 2 May 1981, 2.

23 Coogan, Disillusioned Decades, 221; Republican News, 14 July 1972, 1-2; MacStiofain, 287-8.

The above account is copywritten (C) 1991 by Jacqueline Dana