Belfast Telegraph

Prison protests will fail without outside support

By Liam Clarke

Irish republicans have always continued their struggle within the prison walls. The results have not always been great, but occasionally prison protests have been successful, or affected the big political picture.

The Maze hunger strike of 1981 was a case in point. There, the strike paved the way for Sinn Fein to weaken its stance on abstentionism.

It first stood Bobby Sands as a prisoner candidate and, when Mr Sands died on hunger strike, replacing him with a Sinn Fein member, Owen Carron.

Although the 1981 strike was ended without agreement after 10 deaths, it did herald a gradual improvement in prison conditions and in more control by the IRA over conditions on the wings.

Republican prisoners fairly quickly won segregation from the loyalists by fighting with them whenever their paths crossed.

Segregation also led to a greater degree of control of the wings. That, in turn, allowed them to plan for the mass escape two years later.

It may not have all been mapped out from the beginning, but there is a republican prison play-book that tends to get used if circumstances are repeated.

Before and during the Maze protests, republicans studied previous prison protests for guidance on what had worked in the past.

No doubt the dissidents in Maghaberry's Roe House hope for something similar as they agitate not to be strip-searched and seek more control over the conditions of their own confinement.

They should remember, though, that these prison protests usually don't amount to much without a mass organisation on the outside to back them up.

The republican dirty protests, which were ended by the hunger strike, attracted only niche support for years.

Sinn Fein worked hard to highlight the issue and build up support networks. Even then, it took mass mobilisation and an election victory before it could set the political agenda.

Barring a miracle, or a disaster, depending on how you look at it, that won't happen for the inmates of Roe House.

They know the hard way that there is no internationally recognised category of political prisoner into which violent Irish republicans fit - that generally only applies to prisoners of conscience.

You need popular support to effect major change in a democracy. That applies to extensive prison reform, not just removing the border.

This is a message the dissidents need to take to heart. History shows that most prison protests are quietly forgotten unless they are backed by a mass political campaign.

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