Church leaders meet jail protest inmates on visit
Two of Ireland’s most senior church leaders have met the protesting republican prisoners in Maghaberry jail.
The visit by Cardinal Sean Brady and Church of Ireland Archbishop Alan Harper was unannounced, but details have emerged from the prison.
Senior church and Department of Justice sources confirmed the meeting, which took place three days before Christmas as part of a wider pastoral visit.
Prisoners’ support group Cogus believes the meeting demonstrates the “seriousness” of the churches as attempts continue to end the so-called dirty protest.
In a statement Cogus said the church leaders were told that the Northern Ireland Prison Service has to date “scuppered any chance of having a calm and relaxed wing that allows for prison security and prisoner dignity”.
Several dozen dissident prisoners linked to a number of factions are involved in the jail protest, with some smearing excrement on their cell walls.
The row relates to strip searching and arguments over the controlled movement of prisoners.
Church sources are emphasising the pastoral nature of the visit.
But the Belfast Telegraph has been told they asked for “sufficient time” to talk to representatives of the protesters. One source described this as “a priority in the visit”.
It is understood the two were in the prison for several hours, meeting staff, prisoners and chaplains as well as inspecting facilities.
“Christmas is always a sensitive time for prisoners and their families, hence the timing,” a source said.
“As the Prison Service is facing significant change in the months ahead, so this is also a sensitive time for prison officers and their families for whom the churches also have pastoral concerns.”
It is understood Archbishop Harper met loyalists held in Roe House while Cardinal Brady spoke with republicans, then together they met the representatives of the protesting prisoners.
They were briefed on the prisoners’ interpretation of an agreement reached in August 2010.
Cardinal Brady is in Rome, and the Church of Ireland Press office said Archbishop Harper would prefer not to make public comment on a pastoral visit.
A spokesman for Cogus said he welcomed the involvement of the church leaders. He insisted there was a scanning alternative to strip searching, and said if a date was announced to introduce a pilot scheme and end controlled movement, the dirty protest would end.
The Department of Justice has insisted full body searching is an essential part of prison security.
Dialogue only way out of impasse
By Brian Rowan
This protest has not been kept behind bars. In an effort to force a policy change inside Maghaberry, dissidents have targeted Alliance Party offices.
The party leader is Justice Minister David Ford. But intimidation has not worked.
And those who, from past experience, know about these things insist that dialogue is the only way to resolve prison disputes.
But dissidents believe Mr Ford “fears a backlash from elements within the DUP”.
And, yes, senior members of that party have warned that Maghaberry should not become another Maze — another jail in which security is compromised because of concessions to prisoners. But this cannot become a political football. The situation is too serious.
And, so, decisions have to be made by those who have operational responsibility.
Can they be convinced that there is a scanning alternative to full body searching?
Dissidents argue it works on the republican wings in Portlaoise. So why not Maghaberry?