Plight of prisoners a galvanising force in bloody history of Irish republicanism
Prison struggles for generations of Irish republicans have been galvanising forces down through history.
In this centenary year of the Easter Rising it is worth remembering that one of the decisive factors which won over majority support for militant republicanism, from what had been an unpopular revolt in Dublin, was the arrest of thousands, the treatment in internment camps as well as the execution of the rebellion's leaders.
Down through the decades the slogan "put them in to get them out" was a rallying cry when the republican movement contested elections north and south. And as the late, great journalist Liam Clarke pointed out in his masterpiece on the hunger strike, 'Broadening the Battlefield', the H-Block battles culminating in the 1981 death-fast paradoxically (some would say cynically) enabled the IRA and Sinn Fein leadership to ultimately reverse the movement out of the armed struggle cul-de-sac towards electoral politics.
The dark side of the prison struggle overspill, of course, has been the targeting of prison staff throughout and beyond the Troubles. The aftermath of that murderous policy of selectively assassinating prison officers and other senior officials reverberated during the Irish general election when the family of a murdered southern prison officer challenged Sinn Fein representatives to retrospectively condemn their dad's murder.
Once again we see another soft target from the prison service targeted in the north, narrowly escaping death in yesterday's under-van bomb in east Belfast. There is no doubt that apologists for anti-peace process hardline republicans will provide excuses for the murder bid, citing the alleged maltreatment of CIRA, New IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann inmates in places like Maghaberry jail - a prison recently described as the most dangerous in the UK and where last year this writer highlighted the neglect of a young non-paramilitary prisoner with mental health issues who blinded himself due partly to a regime of neglect. None, however, of these issues or grievances, which can ultimately be addressed, can ever excuse the greatest human rights violation of all - the taking of life.
Mercifully, the prison officer targeted in this latest attack did not sustain life-threatening injuries and appears, according to eyewitness reports, to have walked away after the explosion.
Anyone who believes in genuine human rights would wish him a speedy recovery and hope that he and his family can get over such a terrible trauma.
Yet while questions will be raised again about the bomb-making capacity of the republican dissidents after this incident, it does demonstrate that whoever carried it out (in likelihood either the New IRA or ONH) operated with pinpoint intelligence in the heartland of unionist east Belfast.
Think back only a few years ago to the off-duty British soldier who had a bomb attached to his car outside a friend's house in the area, or the policeman travelling with his daughter to school one morning last year who escaped a blast under their vehicle.
It is only a matter of time before the dissidents' terror technology eventually catches up with its intelligence gathering. It is a chilling prospect to reflect upon on a day when, just an hour later, young primary school children could have witnessed potential slaughter.