Kevin — Real IRA men threaten new hunger strike

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The Scotsman
Sat 19 July 2003
Real IRA men threaten new hunger strike
THE spectre of republican hunger strikes yesterday loomed over Northern Ireland‚ as inmates on a “dirty protest” planned new action.
Inmates linked to the Real IRA and other dissident terror organisations, who are staging their protest by smearing excrement over cell walls in Maghaberry prison, were prepared to die, supporters insisted.
Fears have also been raised for the lives of prison officers as the crisis deepens.
It is understood that the campaign – the republicans want to be separated from loyalists at the high-security complex near Lisburn, Co Antrim – is set to intensify and spread to Magilligan prison, Co Londonderry.
Even though the authorities are confident the segregation attempt does not have widespread backing, inmates at the second jail are plotting wrecking sprees or
temporary fasts in a show of solidarity, sources said. But nearly three weeks into the protest, there was a growing threat of a first full-blown hunger strike in two decades.
Marian Price, the chairwoman of the Real IRA-linked Irish Republican Prisoners’ Welfare Association, said that the protesters were determined.
“They told me they will take it as far as they need to. I didn‚Äôt pursue that because I knew what they meant,” she said.
In 1981, IRA men inside the Maze prison went on a fast to gain political status. Ten of them died.
Ms Price, a former Provisional activist who was jailed for her part in the 1973 IRA bomb attacks on London, went on hunger strike herself in protest at being kept in an English jail. She was released in 1980.
Ms Price warned: “If one of these young men dies in prison there are going to be consequences, and it doesn’t bear thinking about. Lives will not be lost on just one side.”
A rally planned for west Belfast today will show how much support there is among republicans on the outside for inmates, who are demanding segregation for supposed safety reasons.
But Edwin Poots, a Democratic Unionist councillor in Lisburn, said he feared the protest could lead to attacks on staff.
“They are talking about hunger strikes and I suspect it won’t be long until they try to knock off a prison officer,” Mr Poots said.
“The management seem to be winding the clock back and making the same mistakes of 20 years ago.
“Staffing shortages have made the situation extremely dangerous, and it’s time the Northern Ireland Office handed over the resources to run a safe prison.”
Maghaberry houses about 700 Category-A prisoners, including some of the most dangerous criminals in Northern Ireland.
The authorities have been committed to an integrated penal system in Northern Ireland ever since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement recommended a more inclusive criminal justice policy.
“Segregation is these people’s attempt to gain power and control over their destiny, which you can’t do in a prison environment,” a source said.
It was also said there were more attacks, including the murder of loyalist terror chief Billy Wright inside the Maze, under segregated regimes.
Republicans said tensions finally erupted into the dirty protest when a prominent dissident was put in a holding cell along with an Ulster Defence Association (UDA) commander, Mo Courtney.
The allegation was strenuously denied by Maghaberry managers, who insisted cell-sharing happened only after rigid risk-assessment checks.
One Prison Service source said: “The stories doing the rounds saying we have mixed high-ranking dissident republicans with top UDA or UVF [Ulster Volunteer Force] men are totally untrue.
“We would be fools to adopt a policy that would give us so much grief. Safety is our paramount concern, and if we think people won’t get on we won’t ask them to share.”
Out of the nine republicans who began the protest, eight have been moved to a special supervision unit for health and safety reasons.
“It’s a slightly more austere regime, but still humane,” a Maghaberry source said.