From 1980 (pre-1980 hunger strike)
In 1972 the British Government under the pressure of a hunger strike by Republican Prisoners in Crumlin Road Jail, accompanied by mass demonstrations in the streets were forced to concede Political Status. However with the phasing out of Internment people became passive, and there was a turn down in street demonstrations. PEOPLE tended to forget that the power to intern without been brought before a court still existed.
The British Government in an attempt to prepare for Criminalisation, and in order to put a judicial facade on the Criminalisation policy, appointed a Royal Commission in 1975. The Commission chaired by Lord Gardiner decided that it was essential, if Republicans and other Anti-imperialists were to be effectively defeated, then the status of Political Prisoner would have to be removed. The Commission recommended that all people convicted of Political offences alleged to have been committed after the 1st March 1976 would be labelled Criminals. Thus the date for the beginning of the Criminalisation policy was set for the 1st March 1976. We should not forget that the campaign to remove Political Status was part of an original Political package, which included the Northern Ireland Convention, a ceasefire leading to a general ending of hostilities, and the phased release of Internees. The convention is long gone, and a state of armed insurrection still exists. Thus all the other elements have fallen asunder, which leaves the Criminalisation policy an absurdity standing by itself. British propaganda at this period attempted to establish that the military and political struggle that had been going on over the last decade in the 6 Cos had ceased to exist, and that the British were only faced with the conspiracy of a few criminals.
At the start of their campaign to deny any special status to the Political Prisoners Britain made great play with the fact that prisoners, who refused to accept Criminal Status would lose their 50% remission. The British Government calculated that this threat in itself would be enough to stop any campaign by the Political Prisoners inside the jails from getting off the ground. The British Government was proved totally wrong in this thinking, and there after adopted the tactic of physical assaults by the warders against the P.O.W.'S to try and break the campaign inside the prisons against Criminal Status.
In the beginning people thought of Criminalisation only as that point, when the political prisoners were convicted of Political offences by the non-jury courts. But gradually people realised that Criminalisation was a more complex system. It came to be known as the conveyor belt of Torture. The policy linked the torture techniques of interrogation at Castlereagh, and other holding centres, with the system of Internment by Remand, where prisoners were held for periods up to over 2 years on remand in Crumlin Road Jail, and Armagh Prison. During the period of remand P.O.W.'s, especially in Crumlin Road Jail were subjected to continuous physical assaults in an attempt to soften them up prior to their conviction by the non-jury Diplock Courts. The Diplock Courts acted as sentencing tribunials rather than as courts in the accepted sense of the word. They attempted to put a bogus respectability on the torture carried out on the political prisoners, that had preceeded their appearance before the court, in addition to this the Diplock courts were meant to give a legal facade to the Criminalisation policy. From the Diplock Courts the P.O.W.'s, if they were men were sent to the 'H' Blocks Long Kesh, and if they were women were sent to Armagh Jail. Especially in the 'H' Blocks the final phase was enacted, where the physical and mental torture was stepped up in a final attempt to break the morale of the prisoners and force them to accept criminal status.
However the policy to deny the P.O.W.'S Political Status rebounded on the British Government, when Kieran Nugent and the other prisoners rejected Criminal Status, by refusing to wear prison uniform, and launched the BLANKET PROTEST in the 'H' BLOCKS.
The first of the Relatives Action Committees were formed in Belfast at Easter 1976. They were comprised of relatives and supporters of Political status campaign. The Relatives Action Committees set out to break the wall of silence surrounding the issue of the P.O.W.'s fighting for political status. At the start the struggle in the streets was at a low key level, for instance when Kieran Nugent was sentenced on September 14th 1976, members of the Relatives Action Committees picketed the court. But as the struggle in the jails escalated, so it became imperative to step up street protests.
At the beginning of the 'BLANKET' protest in the 'H' Blocks, besides losing their remission, the P.O.W.'S were denied any food parcels, letter writing materials, newspapers, books, radio, or T.V., in short they were denied all contact with outside world. During this period the Relatives Action Committees had moved from pickets on courts to occupations of buildings, for instance Air Lingus Airline Office, the U.S.A. Consulate etc, alongside this more aggressive road blocking was mounted in the centre of Belfast. A further prong in the strategy was the organising of large marches in Belfast geared to breaking into the centre of Belfast. At the same time a continuous stream of marches were organised in local areas to ensure the strengthen of the grass roots organisation, and to show that the Political Prisoners had popular support in all areas.
The situation in the 'H' Blocks gradually became worse, the P.O.W.'s were suffering under a escalating campaign of both physical and mental torture, nor were the women P.O.W.'s in Armagh Jail immune from this campaign either, while the conditions of the women political prisoners were different to those of the 'H' plock prisoners, the women P.O.W.'S were fighting their struggle to establish their Political Status. On the 20th March 1978 the 'H' Block prisoners launched their non-cooperation campaign. This had been made necessary by the intensifying of the campaign of harassment by the Prison Authorities. Since the prisoners refused to wear a prison uniform, when moving about wing to use the toilets or to wash,t hey had to either wear the towel or go naked. A request was made for a second towel since they were using the first towel to cover themselves after washing. This request was refused. The prisoners embarked on a policy of non cooperation. The prison screws responded by insisting that the men should ask permission to go to the toilet and address them as Sir when doing so. Further to this the P.O.W.'S were told that they had to wear the prison uniform going to and from the toilet. It was as a direct result of this action, that the P.O.W.'S were forced to carry out all their natural functions in the cells. Once word was passed to the outside of this new situation, there was a rapid increase in street demonstrations both by thc R.A.C., and Sinn Fein. Throughout 1978 there had been a rapid expansion of Relatives Action Committees all over the 6 Cos, by the middle of the year these committees had come together to form the Central Coordinating Committee. The first of the marches supported by all Relatives Action Committees in the 6 Cos was organised by the Central Tyrone Relatives Action Committee and was held on August 24th 1978. This was the march from Coalisland to Dungannon. Since then the Relatives Action Committees have come together on several occasions for mass marches.
At this moment in time the prisoners are subjected to physical treatment, which combines sadism with obscenity, with intimate examinations of back passages. This examination is carried cut by using a medical forceps to prise open the back passage. This can happen when the prisoners are being given a wing shift, or when they are coming back from a visit with a relative, or when they are coming back from hearing mass, in fact these examinations now operate on a regular basis.
The Relatives Action Committees have succeeded in mobilising many people behind the demands for Political Status. But we feel the need to draw many more people into the struggle.
The conference has been called to explore ways of expanding the support for the Political Status struggle, and harnessing all groups and individuals behind the basic demands of the P.O.W.'S, and to elect a National Committee to spearhead this campaign. It is equally important to draw in doctors and Solicitors to support the basic demands of the prisoners, even it is only on a humanitarian basis.
The campaign in the streets in the future while it should be based on marches that show that the P.O.W.'S have mass support. Alongside this we need to continue with pickets, vigils, occupations, road-blocking. However we must at the same time show a sense of emergency in the task of mobilising Irish and International public opinion behind the just demands of the P.O.W.'S.
The Political Status struggle has entered its fourth year, we must show by our actions that we are not prepared to see the suffering of the Political Prisoners go into a fifth year.