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Lessons from the past hold the key to jail deal

In conflicts, prisons become part of the battlefield. The hunger strikes and dirty protest are chapters in a war story still read - and still remembered - decades later.

For those republicans involved, they were battles against the system, against being criminalised - a struggle about political or prisoner-of-war status and something more. That something more is about control of your own space on the wings of the jails.

The more space you have in prison, the more you can push warders out of that space, then the more room you have to manoeuvre. And it was in these circumstances that escape and murder were planned inside the Maze.

When the jail was emptied as part of Good Friday Agreement and the prison closed, the hope was its ghosts would be exorcised. But, more recently, the dissident republican campaign has meant another jail battle - this time on another stage inside Maghaberry.

It started when prisoners barricaded themselves inside a canteen, cells were wrecked and, as things escalated, a no-wash and dirty protest followed. This is the stuff of the past - but back in the present

On the republican wing in Roe House there are prisoners linked to the Continuity and Real IRA, Oglaigh na hEireann and the INLA, as well as a number of men who are not card-carrying members of any of those organisations.

There is a 'committee' on the wing made up of the Officers Commanding (OCs) the different groups and every Monday they meet the Prison Service. In the words of one source, it is about "agreeing jail conditions".

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But after a deal brokered by facilitators in August, which ended that prisoner protest, there is still disagreement on the issue of strip-searching. And this battle behind bars became public during a recent court appearance by the Lurgan republican Colin Duffy.

Now those groups who speak for the Maghaberry prisoners on the outside are pressing for immediate and full implementation of the deal reached three months ago.

Willie Gallagher, of the INLA-linked Irish Republican Socialist Party, told the Belfast Telegraph: "The main area of tension is around the forced strip-searching [of prisoners] leaving and entering the prison and assaults on prisoners who have refused."

And there is a warning about what could happen next: "We would call on the prison administration to implement what they have already agreed upon in August, but have yet to implement in full and to do so as speedily as possible," said Gallagher. "Otherwise, the potential for renewed protests is very much a strong probability."

Carl Reilly, of the Republican Network for Unity, blames prison officers. "I believe that the crux of the problem in Maghaberry prison still rests with a disgruntled Prison Officers' Association. They have, in the most part, been opposed to any form of progress or a relaxing of the regime that exists in the prison," claimed Reilly - himself a former Maghaberry prisoner.

In recent days, the facilitators who brokered that deal in August met Justice Minister David Ford and have produced a briefing document since.

It points to progress:

* The cessation of the protest by the prisoners which has eased tension within Roe House;

* Prisoners now have freedom of movement within the recreation room and yard and access to education and related activities in the classrooms;

* Significant repairs have taken place along with the cleaning and replacement of broken toilets/sinks, and;

* The new search facility is nearing completion.

But the document also highlights tensions in relation to full-body searches.

Carl Reilly describes this as being "against the grain" of the agreement reached in August and which ended the prisoner protest. "It is my belief that the deal needs to be implemented in full and the issue of strip-searches needs to be abandoned forthwith," he said. Willie Gallagher agrees: "We cannot understand why there are still delays in its full implementation. We urge the administration to resolve the situation immediately."

The recent briefing document compiled by those facilitators who brokered the deal in August highlighted another concern: "The perception/fear by prison staff of a return to 'a Maze-type' prison regime." And this is part of the standoff.

"The prisoners and their support networks still have faith in the Joint Facilitation Group, but their faith in the prison administration is at the point of collapse," said Willie Gallagher.

Past experience tells us that conflicts on the inside can become confrontation on the outside. And what we are seeing is a re-run of the past - a story of jail protest that then plays out beyond the walls of the prison.

The Prison Service carried the can for the mess the Maze became and for all the failures in security. And this is its ghost - the reason why it can't, and won't, allow the same thing to happen at Maghaberry.

But the prisoners will keep pushing - and the threat of further protest still exists.

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