It ended as suddenly as it began. When the dining room at Roe House in Maghaberry was stormed late on Monday evening, what had threatened to become a full-blown emergency at Northern Ireland’s largest prison was averted.
The two-day protest in which 28 dissident republican prisoners barricaded themselves into a room underlined the sense of crisis surrounding the prison. It has been the subject of a series of damning inspection reports and is still without a governor following the resignation of Steve Rodford last year.
Prison Service sources say the protest by 16 Continuity IRA, 10 Real IRA and two INLA prisoners ended without violence after police and prison officers stormed the dining room.
A group linked to the Continuity IRA said the protest, which started on Sunday, was over prison conditions.
It said these included lock-downs, the use of sniffer dogs for visitors and prisoners not being allowed to wear Easter lilies.
Prisoners are only allowed to wear the lilies — worn to commemorate the 1916 Rising — in their cells.
Geraldine Taylor from Republican Sinn Fein, which is linked to the Continuity IRA said: “They just decided enough is enough — which we totally agree with — and they're not going to take it lying down any longer.
“That was really the reason because they're locked up for 23 hours. During that period they don't get fed, they don't get water, they don't get using the showers, they don't get out for exercise or anything else. Mentally, they just explode.”
Sources say that the resistance of the prisoners “melted away” after the door was rammed open.
“They were given their steak and chips meal and as they were digesting that the riot team backed by the PSNI marksmen smashed open the door and rushed in. Nobody offered any resistance and they were put in forensic suits and taken from the dining hall”, one source said.
It’s not clear whether the order to break into the dining hall was given by the Director of the Prison Service Robin Masefield or came directly from the Secretary of State’s Office which still has overall responsibility for the running of prisons here.
Unconfirmed reports say that the NIO demanded that the incident be ended before Gordon Brown travelled to Buckingham Palace yesterday to ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament.
“The NIO didn’t want this continuing as an active situation yesterday as the Prime Minister was launching the General Election campaign and going to see the Queen,”one source said.
Inside the prison yesterday questions were being asked about how the Roe House dining room was taken over so easily and why no intelligence was collected inside the prison indicating that a major incident was being planned.
Prison officers say that the prison management should have detected something was wrong when prisoners in Roe House requested no visits for Sunday and doubled up on tuck shop purchases.
The Prison Service declined to answer any specific questions about the incident yesterday but in a brief statement said that the men returned voluntarily to their cells on Monday night under the watch of the Independent Monitoring Board.