Belfast Telegraph

Sinn Fein knows the real risk of a prison stand-off

Sinn Fein has no shortage of experience of jail disputes which is why their concerns about Maghaberry and Hydebank must be taken seriously, says Brian Rowan

Republicans know the history of prison disputes - the stories and reality of dirty protest and hunger strike. And they also know these are issues that cannot - and should not - be ignored.

So you read concern and some urgency in two Sinn Fein statements issued at the beginning of this week. Both relate to jail matters - the continuing stand-off inside Maghaberry on the issue of strip, or full-body, searching and the holding of Marian Price after her licence was revoked by Secretary of State Owen Paterson.

Price's roots are in the IRA, but she has long since parted company with Adams and McGuinness and the mainstream republican leadership, believing their peace strategy to be a sell-out.

In the 1970s, along with Gerry Kelly, Price was jailed in connection with two bombs in London, including one outside the Old Bailey.

But her position on the peace strategy now puts her in the camp labelled dissident and recently she refused to meet representatives of Sinn Fein on a visit to Hydebank, where she is being held.

Republicans know the danger in prison disputes and protests; know where these things can lead. They also know how they can reach out beyond prison walls to become street issues.

And, in the new politics, when Sinn Fein can't change a situation, they become vulnerable inside their own community to the charge that the peace process hasn't really changed things - not when it comes to the jails and the republicans held inside them.

MLAs Jennifer McCann and Sean Lynch are both members of the Stormont Justice committee and both made that recent visit to Hydebank.

"The bottom line is that Marian Price's present medical condition cannot be adequately treated in jail and she should be moved to an outside hospital," Ms McCann said in a statement on Monday.

"Sinn Fein are opposed to the revoking of licences and, if there is evidence against someone, it should be brought before a court of law.

"We recently visited the Hydebank Prison and, although Marian Price refused to meet Sean Lynch and myself, we were able to inspect the conditions she is being held in and talk to prison staff.

"The Justice minister [David Ford] has the authority to move Marian Price to an outside hospital and should do it immediately."

Less than 10 minutes later came the second Sinn Fein statement - this one in the name of Raymond McCartney, vice-chair of the justice committee and, this time, the issue was Maghaberry.

For months it has been the stage for a stand-off; a place of dirty protest on the dissident republican wings, with strip-searching at the heart of the battle.

There have been negotiations and agreements and then disagreement and dispute and deadlock. The prisoners have long argued that there is a scanning alternative to what the authorities call full-body searching.

And now McCartney, who has personal experience of jail protests, including hunger strike, wants a date from David Ford - the timeline for the introduction of a pilot period using the full-body imaging scanner.

"We welcome the fact that the minister has had this review carried out and that he intends to initiate a pilot into replacing the use of strip searching," McCartney said.

"However, David Ford did not give a date for when this pilot will be implemented and that is something he needs to do.

"The sooner there is movement away from the unnecessary and humiliating practice of strip-searching the better."

Republicans always have to think, 'What if?' What if Marian Price went on hunger strike? What if one of the prisoners protesting inside Maghaberry started to refuse food?

If any of that happens, then you move from difficult to dangerous situations. So these things, in the republican mind, can, and should, be sorted - and sooner rather than later.

And this is the urgency in the Sinn Fein statements - trying in their terms to get things fixed before it becomes too late. The Republican Network for Unity (RNU) speaks for a number of the protesting prisoners.

Its spokesman, Carl Reilly, also indicates a growing seriousness in the situation.

"There is no indication of a timeline whatsoever.

"We would urge David Ford to produce that timeline as quickly as possible and to spell out to us and the prisoners how it will work."

Reilly made clear that the protest will continue unless things change. And these jail battles are playing out in the build-up to Easter and as mainstream republicans are thinking about the next steps in the peace process.

The big thinking is on the question of acknowledging hurt and using the word 'sorry'. This is a leadership initiative made public by Sinn Fein's national chair Declan Kearney and is now the subject of debate inside and outside the republican movement.

He is not asking for an apology for the IRA war, but for the word sorry to be used to acknowledge all hurt caused by armed actions - words that would speak to the families of 'combatants', as well as 'non-combatants'.

We don't yet know how advanced that conversation is, but we do know there is a growing concern about what is happening inside Maghaberry and at Hydebank.

The words in those Sinn Fein statements earlier this week are intended to explain both the concern and the need for urgent attention.

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