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Irish language books, incendiary publications and racy films among items banned from Northern Ireland prisons during Troubles

An Phoblacht
An Phoblacht

By David O'Dornan

A file on books and films banned from prisons has shown that items glorifying paramilitary violence was the main concern for officials.

A previously marked confidential NIO file on Prisons' Censorship from 1989 which has now been declassified in a release of papers from the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland also showed discussions around access to porn.

An attempt to smuggle in a Bobby Sands book was exposed in the folder, in a memo from the NIO on July 15, 1988.

It said: "It has been drawn to our attention that a book under cover of the title 'A New Book of African Verse' was recently presented for a prisoner at HM Prison, Belfast.

"On examination, however, it was discovered that the original contents of the cover had been removed and had been replaced by a copy of One Day In My Life, by Bobby Sands, a book that is not permitted in prisons.

"We have been advised that the book had been rebound in a very professional manner and that it was only on close examination that the change was detected."

A handwritten note on censorship of videos for viewing by prisoners said that films not permitted at the Maze were "anything which would attract adverse publicity or cause embarrassment if the public knew" - listing examples as raunchy films Nine and a Half Weeks and Electric Blue, as well as horror flick Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Doing Life, which has a hostage scene.

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A memo dated October 1986 said that publications representing "particular problems" included those in Irish.

It said: "Currently publications wholly in Irish are banned while those containing an article or two, e.g certain Irish national daily newspapers are admitted."

It noted that political and current affairs magazines "can pose particular problems" and that there can be "strong personal views on this difficult subject" in relation to porn.

It stated too that paramilitary organisation publications "An Phoblacht/Republican News, Combat and the Starry Plough are barred on the basis of their evident support for violence".

Examples of banned publications in 1989 in the file included Belfast Graves by The National Graves Association who "erect memorials to those 'who have died for Irish Freedom' and the bulk of the book contains pen pictures of IRA 'volunteers'...I consider this whole book to glorify paramilitary violence".

However, Gerry Adams' book A Pathway To Peace was "found to be acceptable for admission" on June 16, 1989, but an issue of Ulster in April 1989 was withheld over an article in support of Milltown massacre killer Michael Stone.

A letter headed 'In Praise of Stone' said: "I fully understand the feelings which must have outraged Michael Stone. I clapped with glee when I heard that someone in Ulster had aired my feelings of outrage against a mob of so-called 'mourners'... no doubt he will inspire others, if others so brave can be found."

The assessment also took exception to Stone being referred to as "the loyalist hero", "the brave loyalist" and "Brave Rambo Stone".

A memo dated May 22, 1987, in the file detailed policy regarding porn - after a circular "announced our intention of allowing pornographic publications into the prisons".

Bobby Sands
Bobby Sands

It said the precise wording was "any magazine or publication of a soft pornographic nature if available outside the prison in reputable bookshops and newsagents" but with the caveat that a governor can stop the item if it was "likely to present a threat to good order or discipline".

The memo wrestled with the idea on how to define 'soft porn' making the point regarding one prisoner's magazine request that it "was straightforward - it was undeniably hardcore porn which we do not allow".

It added: "Therefore, anything which is not hardcore porn must be softcore porn, so how is hardcore porn defined?"

The memo, whose author's name is redacted, said officials sought help from the police but they did not have the answer.

It read: "We approached the RUC to find out whether there was some form of guidance used by them to determine what material would be confiscated by them and deemed obscene. They were not much help."

Civil servants later checked out top shelf mags in a newsagent as part of their research, the document revealed, deducing "that these are the types of magazines which are, these days, considered soft pornography."

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