Ghosts from a prison past haunt today's republicans
Dissidents have kept the Maghaberry stand-off in the headlines, but it's a battle they can't win, says Brian Rowan
Published 16/08/2011 | 08:00
I remember stepping onto the UDA and IRA wings of the Maze Prison in 1998, onto wings which, at that time, housed Michael Stone, Johnny Adair, Bobby Storey and Padraic Wilson, the then IRA 'OC' - officer commanding.
It was immediately obvious that this was no ordinary jail, but something very different; it was a place and a prison where the tail wagged the dog.
In early January 1998, a number of journalists had been allowed inside the Maze to talk to those held on loyalist and republican wings.
The next day then Secretary of State Mo Mowlam was due at the prison for face-to-face talks with the UDA jail leadership.
There had been inside rumblings that loyalists could withdraw support for the developing political process and even whispers that their ceasefire could collapse.
Just weeks earlier, the LVF leader, Billy Wright, was shot dead inside the jail, a republican had also walked out, mingling with families after a Christmas party, and, at the time, the discovery of an advanced IRA escape tunnel was still fresh in the memory.
The prison administration held the keys, but they did not have control of the place.
And these are the ghosts of a prison past that still play in the present.
The description of a high-security jail did not fit with the reality and the headline prison breaches were a humiliation for those who were meant to be in charge.
And, now, there are more problems and protests - this time in a different jail and involving a different group of prisoners.
The stage is Maghaberry, where, in Roe House, dissident republicans linked to a number of factions are held.
And there is another battle going on behind bars. It is about strip-searches, lock-up times and how the dissident prisoners' movement is controlled.
And, in this developing story, there is a 'dirty protest', some prisoners have just ended a time-limited hunger strike and prison rules are imposing a lockdown.
It sounds familiar, but this is not on the same scale as what played out in the Maze.
That said, what is happening is both serious and dangerous and it has implications both inside and outside Maghaberry.
One of the dissident factions, Oglaigh na hEireann (ONH), used threats to try to force change, warning that it had the personal details of prison staff up to and including the rank of governor. That threat was later publicly withdrawn.
In May, ONH used a series of bomb alerts to cripple parts of Belfast and a device was thrown at the rear of the Alliance Party's headquarters in the city, designed, in the words of one senior dissident, "to get the attention" of party leader and Justice Minister David Ford.
Then, last week, members of the Republican Network for Unity (RNU) staged a protest inside the same Alliance Party office.
The police arrived on the scene, arrests were made and the story played out in pictures and news.
"Nobody was talking about Maghaberry this morning," one dissident leader said; "Now it's the headlines."
And, for RNU, this was the success of this latest protest; that it brought a focus and attention to what is happening inside the jail and to this row over conditions.
The two sides have put themselves on a hook.
Dissidents are arguing for an end to strip-searches and the prison authorities are insisting that such strip searching is an essential part of security, not just here but across the whole UK.
This is the stand-off and deadlock. It is down to who blinks first.
The Prison Service still has all the scars of the past. It still has in its memory the traumas and humiliations of those security breaches that read back into the Maze. And that makes compromise all the more difficult.
The Maze and Maghaberry prison disputes are two different stories in terms of numbers and scale of protest.
But one is a reminder of the other; a reminder of those ghosts from a prison past.