Doco on The Maze prison

Philip Ferguson plf13 at
Mon Sep 2 16:02:57 MDT 2002

Below is something I wrote yesterday about a BBC documentary on The Maze
prison (H-Blocks of Long Kesh) which was screened on TV1 in NZ on Monday
night.  List members might be interested in it, and a follow-up
discussion, which I will post after this:

Last night TV1 screened the BBC documentary on the history of The Maze
prison in the north of Ireland.  The prison is probably better known
internationally as the H-Blocks, the place where ten Irish freedom
fighters died on hunger strike in 1981.  The prison has now closed, as
the last of the prisoners were released as part of the 'peace process'.

The documentary featured both loyalist (pro-British imperialist) and
republican (anti-imperialist) ex-prisoners, most notably longtime
loyalist military leader Gusty Spence and two of the leading IRA figures
in the prison in the late 70s/early 80s, Brendan 'Bik' McFarlane and
Brendan 'Darkie' Hughes.  Catholic priest father Faul (now monsignor
Faul) and several prison officers, one of whom is now a priest, also featured.

The documentary noted that in the 30-odd years the prison functioned
some 20,000 men passed through it - proof enough that the 'Troubles'
were not, as clips of Margaret Thatcher claimed, about crime, but about politics.

Also interesting, and something that I had actually forgotten (mainly, I
guess, because Labour was out of power for so long in Britain) was that
it was the Labour government which had removed political status from the
prisoners in The Maze.  (In the early 1970s the British government
recognised the political nature of the conflict and its opposition and
IRA and other prisoners were recognised as politicals, which gave them
particular rights as prisoners.  In 1976, the British Labour government
removed the political status and attempted to treat prisoners as common
criminals, thereby provoking the chain of events which led to the
'blanket' and 'dirty' protests and, eventually, to the hunger strikes of
1980 and 1981.

What happened in the north of Ireland was an interesting measure of the
ruthlessness of the 'civilised' imperialist powers.  The British
routinely used torture, shoot-to-kill and assassination, single-judge/no
jury courts (the Diplock courts), paid perjurers and various other
repressive judicial and non-judicial means to destroy the struggle for
Irish national liberation.

In The Maze, the removal of political status meant the regime tried to
impose prison uniforms and prison work on the incarcerated.  The refusal
of prisoners to submit to this led to the regime forcing them to be
naked in their cells except for a single blanket and to shit and piss in
the cells.  The least un-hygienic thing to do in that situation was to
mere the shit over the walls and ceilings of the cells.  Prisoners lived
in those cells day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and
month out.  Brendan Hughes, who was IRA commander in The Maze at the
time of the first hunger strike, recalled going to sleep with maggots
all over the cells.

In late 1980, in order to improve conditions, Hughes led a hunger
strike.  The prisoners were led to believe the British government was
abut to meet their demands and came off hunger strike, but the British
double-crossed them.  Several months later Bobby Sands, who had taken
over as IRA commander in the prison while Hughes was on hunger strike,
launched a new hunger strike.  Seven members of the IRA and three of the
socialist-republican Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) died slow and
agonising deaths, while the British government refused to budge an inch,
let alone make the reforms in the prisons which only really involved a
return to the pre-1976 status quo.

For obvious reasons, the section of the doco that covered the hunger
strike was the most moving.

At the time of the hunger strikes I was living in London.  I recall
being absolutely appalled by most of the British 'revolutionary' left's
indifference.  The 'Marxist' groups would turn out in huge numbers to
big CND peacenick marches about the (almost non-existent) danger of
nuclear war, while ignoring the fact that a real war was being waged by
the British government, in an extremely brutal manner, just a few miles
across the Irish Sea.  I also recall being on a picket outside the home
of Michael Foot, the 'left-wing' leader of the Labour Party and him
calling on the cops on us.  The LP stood full-square with Thatcher.
Their spokesperson on Northern Ireland even went to Sands' deathbed to
inform Bobby that Labour was totally opposed to the demands of the
hunger strikers and was fully with Thatcher.

In the course of the hunger strikes, Sinn Fein emerged as a sizeable
political force.  Two IRA hunger strikers were elected to parliament -
one in the north capturing a Westminster seat in a by-election (Sands)
and one in the south (can't recall if this was Kieran Doherty or Kieran
Nugent) capturing a seat in the south's general election.  Several
others came close to winning southern seats while in prison on hunger
strike.  100,000 people attended Bobby Sands' funeral and in the
following by-election for the seat he'd won, his election agent Owen
Carron (a leader of Sinn Fein) captured the seat.  In the south, the
establishment was shaken by huge demonstrations and soon decided to beat
the mass protests off the streets of Dublin and other southern cities.

The British and their loyalist allies also moved to crush the hunger
strike support movement, assassinating a number of its key organisers
including Miriam Daly, the main leader of the Irish Republican Socialist
Party (and also a member of its military wing, the INLA).  Miriam was
tortured and executed in her own home, most likely by the SAS, her body
being found by her daughters when they came home from school. Bernadette
(Devlin) McAliskey, the most prominent spokesperson of the H-Blocks
Committee, was riddled with bullets in her bed as assassins broke into
her home one morning.  Her husband was also seriously wounded.

Up to the time of the hunger strikes I had always been very interested
in Ireland and strongly supported the cause of Irish freedom, but I
disagreed with the armed struggle and thought it a counter-productive
tactic.  The hunger strike totally changed my opinion on that.  I came
to the view that the armed struggle was not only tactically and
strategically correct but needed to be as sharp as possible.  Its
escalation was vital and the key to this escalation was the escalation
of the political movement and struggle.  As this grew, it could
strengthen the war for liberation, as the two fed off each other dialectically.

Ultimately, this led to my move to Ireland and involvement for the best
part of eight years in Sinn Fein, including several years as a full-time
organiser.  A major area of my work was in the campaign to prevent the
extradition of IRA members from the south to the north and Britain.  I
regularly visited comrades in prison to keep them informed of
developments and discuss the curse of the campaign, and sometimes wider
political issues with them - most notably with Dermot Finucane, whose
extradition was successfully fought although he spent several years
locked up in the south while his case went through the courts.

Dermot was one of the escapees from The Maze in 1983, and this escape
was featured in the documentary.  It showed the ingenuity and
determination of the IRA prisoners that what was regarded as the most
secure prison in Europe could not contain them.  The 1983 break-out saw
about three dozen IRA prisoners break out, half of them remaining free
for a number of years - and in some cases more.  Dermot was eventually
caught in the south in Operation Mallard in 1987.  This was a huge
operation in which the southern regime organised raids on 50,000 houses
in the south, by armed gangs of Special Branch officers, often wielding
Uzis, ripping up floorboards, searching basements and attics, smashing
in walls etc.

At the end of the documentary Brendan Hughes said he missed the prison
and its comradeship.  Some people might find this odd, especially as he
(and many others) spent such a large chunk of their lives incarcerated,
away from their families (I think he did about 15 years).  But an
important part of what he was talking about was to do with the
denouement of the struggle.  To his great credit, Brendan took the hard
road of principle, opposing the sell-out of the struggle by the cabal
around Gerry Adams.  Brendan has written and spoken eloquently about the
betrayal of recent years and how SF has opted to help administer
continuing British rule in the north.  The nationalist middle class and
capitalists, who did none of the fighting and struggling, have emerged
as the winners and are now courted by Sinn Fein which increasingly
represents their interests.  As Brendan noted a couple of years ago, a
lot of the people who did the fighting are now working for crap wages,
employed by Catholic capitalists who are now the best friends of Adams
and co.  Sinn Fein cabinet ministers in the northern government not only
administer British rule, but also capitalist austerity.  SF leader
Bairbre de Brun, for instance, has proven she's just as capable at
closing hospitals as Labour and Conservative ministers in Britain or as
Helen Clark was when she was minister of health in NZ in the late 80s
and closed more hospitals than any health minister in NZ history.

Debates over the end of the struggle by the IRA/SF leadership, and its
rightward drift as it attempts to become the Blairite party in Ireland
nationally, are actually quite rare.  This is mainly because the
leadership shuns such debates, so they tend to be somewhat one-sided.
Hughes and a number of other longtime prisoners around magazines such as
'Fourthwrite' and 'The Blanket', along with longtime revolutionary
activists such as Bernadette (Devlin) McAliskey, are the chief critics
of the sell-out.  These critics do not oppose the IRA ceasefire, since
they argue (and I would agree) that the armed struggle had gone as far
as it could in the circumstances - they disagree with the political

Critics also include Bobby Sands' sister Marcella who leads the
32-County Sovereignty Movement which is linked to the Real IRA.  The
32-County Sovereignty Movement and Real IRA are splits from Sinn Fein
and the IRA.  Republican Sinn Fein and the Continuity IRA are also
continuing to struggle; they arise out of a 1986 split in SF and the
IRA, led by former IRA and SF leader Ruairi O Bradaigh.

(On a side note, 'revolution' #1 ran an interview I did with O Bradaigh,
while the current issue of 'revolution' contains a review of 'Republican
Voices', a book in which Brendan Hughes and a number of others,
including some supporters of the current SF/IRA direction, converse
about the struggle, in all its aspects, and the outcome.  I'd highly
recommend this book.)

The other chief critic of the current betrayal is the Irish Republican
Socialist Party.  One of the criticisms I'd have of the documentary was
that no members of the INLA/IRSP from the H-Blocks were interviewed.
The IRSP/INLA, in the period after the hunger strikes, was especially
hard hit by repression and one of the unfortunate consequences was a
series of internal rifts that resulted in internecine war within the
organisation, as factions opened up on each other.  A number of
IRSP/INLA leaders and activists were brutally killed by factional
opponents within the disintegrating organisation.

Thankfully, that ignominious era seems to have finished and in recent
years the IRSP and INLA have reorganised and are attempting to provide a
coherent socialist-republican alternative to SF's new-found faith in
capitalism and the merits of collaboration with the British in the north
and the national bourgeoisie in the south.  The IRSP paper, 'Starry
Plough', has reappeared - although still only once every two months -
and IRSP branches are now active again in most parts of Ireland.

For people interested in revolutionary perspectives on what is happening
in Ireland, I recommend the IRSP/INLA website, along with those of
Republican Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Writers Group which
produces 'Fourthwrite' and other material.  I think there are links to
most of these from the 'revolution' website.

I hope to be writing some historical articles for the 'Starry Plough' in
the future.

Lastly, this year marks the 25th anniversary of the murder of the chief
founder of the IRSP, Seamus Costello, probably the most outstanding
Irish revolutionary since James Connolly.  Whereas Connolly was executed
by the Brits, Costello was murdered by a member of the biggest
pro-Moscow group in Ireland, an outfit that was rapidly moving in the
direction of pro-imperialism at the time.  The other chief founder of
the IRSP was Bernadette, but she left early on as she disagreed with the
decision to set up an armed wing (or that it was done behind her back,
anyway, which was rather unfortunate.)

At present I am thinking of doing an interview with Bernadette on the
lessons of the last 30 years in Ireland and the betrayal of the struggle
by the SF/IRA leadership cabal around Adams.  So, look out for the first
issue of 'revolution' next year.  A longtime member of the SF
leadership, who left over the Good Friday Agreement, is also doing a
review for 'revolution' of an interesting new book by northern
journalist Ed Moloney, a history of the war which also blows the lid on
Adams; secret dealings with the Brits, which seem to have gone on for

Philip Ferguson

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