'The obscenity of H-blocks'

'THE SUNDAY PRESS' recently published the best, and certainly the most thorough, analysis of the H-block struggle and of the reasons why the 'blanket men' deserve political status yet to appear in an establishment newspaper.

The article entitled 'The obscenity of H-blocks' and subtitled 'Immediate issue is humanitarian' was by 'The Sunday Press' columnist Claud Gordon.


WHEN Bishop Cahal Daly recently described the British Government's treatment of the H-Block prisoners as 'foolish', he was putting it mildly.

As the facts about the punishment regime being inflicted on a selected group of men in Long Kesh prison camp become more widely known, the policy behind it is likely to prove a miscalculation as damaging to Britain's international reputation, as was Bloody Sunday in Derry - not to mention the repeated scandals over police torture of political suspects.

Quite apart from the merit or otherwise of the demand by the men 'on the blanket' for special status, or for political status, one aspect of the story which must eventually stand to Britain's disgrace in the eyes of Europe and America is the apparently vindictive and retaliatory cruelty with which the prison authorities, acting under the political guidance of the government, responded to a protest which began simply as a refusal to wear prison clothes and do prison chores.


Questions will inevitably be asked.

Why does Britain appear incapable of asserting her authority over the six-county area without persistent and repeated violations of ordinary, accepted rules against the ill-treatment of prisoners and suspects?

Is Britain's claim to the area, therefore, not just as spurious as her claims were to former colonial territories, which she attempted to hold on to by the practice of other barbarities?

So while the immediate issue is unquestionably a humanitarian one, the political factors are also inescapable. It is doubtful if the H-Block prisoners can count on humanitarian support alone in their campaign to resist 'criminalisation' by Westminster edict.

Far more effective will be the growth of a clearer public appreciation of the nature and origins of the prolonged conflict in a very small corner of Ireland, where the majority of the prison population is there as a direct result of the political mess Britain has made of the place, and where the building of new prison camps is now the only booming industry amid general economic stagnation.


A better political understanding among people generally, and among other governments, should lead to insistent and unrelenting pressure on Britain, pending a proper political settlement to alleviate the H-block agony by concessions more consistent with both political justice and ordinary standards of humanity.

The facts are now filtering out. Despite the rigid refusal of British authorities to allow any independent inspection of the H-Block regime, and despite some panic and repressive measures to prevent information emerging, many personal testimonials are now available to describe conditions in what more than the prisoners themselves have called the 'Hell-hole of Long Kesh'.


Until recently, however, while politicians and publicists have waxed eloquent and indignant over the treatment of dissidents in far off places, certain inhibiting factors appear to have denied a comparable measure of publicity to more than 350 Irish prisoners enduring incomparably worse punishments than some individuals who have hit the headlines.

The inhibiting factors may have been lack of information, now being corrected, combined with bias on political grounds and a tendency to accept at face value a number of falsehoods and fallacies about the H-Blocks spread by the British authorities at Stormont and at Westminster.


The main fallacies, briefly, are:

First - Suddenly, at some phase of the moon on March 1st 1976, IRA captives were no longer 'political prisoners' or even 'political offenders'. Thev had become common 'criminals' and were to be treated a such.

Second - All the subsequent humiliation, deprivation and degradation imposed on the prisoners to force them to accept this decree was somehow a suffering voluntarily undertaken and self-imposed on themselves by choice.

Third - The H-Block prisoners anyway are somehow collectively responsible for all the death, suffering and destruction that has attended the collapse of Britain's old Unionist regime, so they deserve all they get. This is the 'Think of the 2,000 dead' sort of argument.

Fourth - Anyone who objects to the ill-treatment of prisoners when the prisoners are Provos must therefore be in favour of everything the IRA has been up to.

The last point, which contains the implicit and inhuman corollary that if you are against the Provos you must approve of torturing the ones you catch, has been effectively demolished in public long ago.


The only really high and influential voices that have so far spoken out loudly about the shame of the H-Block are voices that are also repeatedly heard in vigorous condemnation of the IRA campaign - the voices of the clergy, high and low.

Cardinal O Fiaich, Bishop Daly himself, Father Denis Faul. They are never done denouncing the Provos. And for too long they have been in the lonely forefront of whatever public outcry there has been against the calculated cruelties of Britain's political prisons.

More lately, however, there have been signs of a wider awakening of the public conscience. A crammed meeting in Dublin's Mansion House last December drew support from a broad spectrum of public opinion - including well-known lawyers, trade unionists, journalists, sportsmen, theatre people and others.

Many unlikely 'Provo supporters' were present, such as Una O'Higgins O'Malley, for instance, who had the courage to speak out in support of the anti-H-Block protest specifically on the understanding that this should not impute support for IRA aims or methods.

This gathering represented those people whose deeper political understanding brought a more intelligent compassion to bear on a tragic situation, few of whose victims can be said to be the authors of their own misfortunes, and the ultimate responsibility for which lies in the higher regions of political power.


By contrast, however, the editor-in-chief of the Sunday 'Observer' Conor Cruise O'Brien, who sacked his Irish correspondent Mary Holland because of the way she wrote up an interview with the mother of an H-Block prisoner, made it quite clear that he objected to anything that might arouse sympathy for the H-Block prisoners. His own peculiar political bias sets the cold seal of approval on cruelty, so that even the faintest suggestion of Iiberal humanitarianism on the issue is, ipse dixit, taboo.

The third point above about the prisoners being to blame for all the North's troubles is seIf-evidently absurd, even if it could be proved that every one was an active Provo.

The idea that 'sympathisers' may be punished for the alleged misdeeds of others is legal heresy as well as intolerable tyranny. And moreover, it is by no means a legal certainty that all or even most of them are in fact guilty of the particular offences for which they were 'convicted'.


All are the 'end-products' of the notorious 'conveyor belt' system designed by Britain to replace internment and in fact continuing a form of internment under a facade of 'legal' process, arrest and detention incommunicado; torture to extract confessions in RUC interrogation centres; prolonged remands of up to two years as part of the softening-up process; arraignment before sentencing tribunals which replaced trial by jury under the Diplock system; and finally, in more than 80 per cent of the cases, 'conviction' on the sole basis of extracted confessions.

The horror of the H-Blocks is then before them, in the knowledge that other men of violence and of potential violence, whose political views are more in conformity with current British political policy, and whose share of responsibility for the North's horrors may be apportioned differently by those with different political views, walk free and unmolested.

The most persistent falsehood about the H-Block prisoners is also the biggest lie - the one in the second point about them being responsible for the treatment being meted out to them. The facts now confirmed by numerous testimonies are these:

In an effort to bully, beat and terrorise the selected victims of the Diplock show trials into accepting that they are 'criminals', the prison authorities are operating a non-stop punishment system of a severity far in excess of any reported from any source in Europe today and one which by any standards constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, contrary to Article 3 of the European Convention of Human R ghts.


Permanent 24-hour lock-up in cells, month in and month out, year in and year out; no physical or mental exercise permitted; no newspapers, no books, no bibles, even; no writing materials; no free association with other cell inmates, conversation being forbidden; no radio, no TV, no music; virtual denial of all contact with the outside world; denied food parcels and given fouled and adulterated food.

And on top of that - denied access to the toilets except on terms calculated to degrade the prisoner's humanity; fouling up of cells, not by themselves but by warders 'spilling' pots or refusing to empty them; hosing of the contents back into the cells during attempts to empty them out the window, repeated and unnecessary 'body probes' of the most humiliating, and frequently violent sort, on 'security' pretexts; frequent beatings and assaults, both bodily and by high-pressure cold water hoses, followed by dousings with buckets of scalding water...

All in an effort to force the prisoners to don the criminal's uniform. The vary resistance of the prisoners, however, is producing a damning indictment of Britain instead.

By any test of logic, it is a gross and transparent hypocrisy to pretend that the republican prisoners 'on the blanket' in Long Kesh are not political.

They are political for reasons too numerous to list, but primarily because they are there as a direct result of the inevitable conflict and turmoil accompanying the breakdown of Britain's old, rotten political system in the six counties.

They have proven that they are political by their own extraordinary prison protest, by their endurance of suffering and by their detemmination. At the Mansion House conference, the writer Ulick O'Connor called them 'saintly men' on that account.

Few, perhaps, would go along with that, but certainly they have shown a moral calibre above the ordinary - and far above anything likely or possible from a bunch of criminals imprisoned for deeds of seIfishness, greed, lust or even vein-glory.

They are political because the very legislators who decided to tag them 'criminal' acknowledged that they thought it a good political idea. The relevant Acts themselves, as well as the Diplock and Gardiner reports under which the prisoners were 'criminalised', define terrorism as the use of violence 'for political ends.'

They are political because the ultra-loyalist sectarian Orange tribe are openly delighted with the gift of being able officially to call the other sort 'criminals'.

It may be a comforting thing to some members of the British Parliament to call their political enemies criminals, especially when a minority of those enemies give them an excuse by using violent methods, but in the long run it is more likely that the H-Block prisoners will be seen as hostages held to Britain's own guilty role end frequent criminal culpability in irish affairs.


For above all, the blanket men ere political prisoners because of British political policy. If British policy were to change in favour of withdrawal from involvement in Irish affairs, republican terrorists would cease to exist.

On the other hand, we have oft-repeated public assurances from Unionist political leaders that, in such an event, they themselves would become the generals and godfathers of a massive loyalist-terrorist campaign of violence.

Thus it is that the direction taken by British policy is itself the main factor which determines who is and who shall be deemed to be either 'political terrorists' or 'terrorist criminals' in the context of any six-county solution.

The republican prisoners may represent a minority which is prepared to pursue its aims by violent means, but a decision by Britain to move towards disengagement would be welcomed by the non-violent majority of the Irish people as well.

Therefore it would be fatuous to hold that such a decision would be 'capitulating' to terrorism and violence. It would be doubly fatuous in view of the repeated capitulation by the British Government to terrorism and violence in the Unionist camp - and the continuing capitulation represented by its present policy in the area.


Since all these factors clearly make the blanket men 'political' in the six-county context, their demands are, in themselves, moderate and reasonable: the right not to wear prison uniform and not to do prison work; freedom of association and the right to organise educational and recreational facilities; to have one weekly visit, to receive and send one letter per week, and to receive one parcel per week,

It is little to ask to put an end to the continuing obscenity of the Long Kesh hell-hole. To deny it indeed would be more than 'foolish'. It would be to confirm a malevolent appetite on the part of the British Government for continual human sacrifice to justify its own political bankruptcy.

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