Abuse of prisoners an important legacy issue

Posted By: July 22, 2015

Jim Gibney. Irish News ( Belfast). Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Seanna Walsh
Seanna Walsh spent 21 years in jail on three different occasions between January 1973 and September 1998. He was 16 when he first went to jail.

There, in the cages of Long Kesh he met Bobby Sands, who was, like Seanna, a teenager.

They became great friends. Their lives 

criss-crossed inside prison over the next eight years but for a few short months of freedom in the summer of 1976 when they were active republicans together in Twinbrook.

In a communication to the leadership of the IRA in 1980 Bobby advised against Seanna being appointed O/C of the H-Blocks because he believed, such was their friendship, that Seanna would not let him die on hunger strike should the need arise.

Seanna knew Joe McDonnell and Kieran Doherty and met all the other hunger strikers in different wings in the H-Blocks except Kevin Lynch.

When Bobby and Seanna walked around the cages of Long Kesh as teenagers in 1973, recognised by the British government and prison authorities as political prisoners, little did they know that within a few short years they would be plunged into a prolonged and harrowing life-and-death battle – some five years long – which would test their republican resolve to its outer limits.

Such is the high regard with which the leadership of the IRA view Seanna Walsh he was asked to read out on camera the IRA’s statement which ended its armed struggle, 10 years ago, on the 28th of this month.

That respect is due in no small measure to the leadership qualities that Seanna displayed over decades of involvement in the struggle in prison and outside.

Seanna works with Coiste na nIarchimí (a political ex-prisoner group) which primarily campaigns for rights for former republican prisoners.

In recent months this campaign has been focused on gathering historical accounts from former political prisoners who protested for political status in the H-Blocks, Armagh women’s prison and Crumlin Road jail, between 1976 and 1981.

A few weeks ago 45 ex-prisoners, eight from Armagh Women’s prison, who took part in the five-year-long prison protest, relived the horror they experienced in their daily lives as defenceless prisoners at the hands of an inhumane prison regime which involved staff at all levels.

The prisoners’ story which is often overlooked because of the heroic sacrifice of the hunger strikers was told to a panel of experts from the legal profession, mental health, penal system and human rights. They were drawn together by Coiste na nIarchimí and the human rights lawyer Padraig Ó Muirigh. Two former governors of the H-Blocks attended the hearings.

The purpose of the brutality was to break the will of the prisoners to resist Margaret Thatcher’s attempts to criminalise them and thereby the freedom struggle.

In the H-Blocks several hundred prisoners were confined to their excrement-covered cells wrapped only in a blanket. In Armagh women’s prison the conditions were also appalling. Anne Quinn was there for nine years and a small group of prisoners were held in Crumlin Road on the blanket including MLA Fra McCann.

To break the prisoners’ will warders used many practices including the degrading mirror and table searches, denial of proper medical attention, refusal of compassionate parole, refusal of legal representation at their adjudications, the use of toxic disinfectants and detergents in confined spaces, sleep deprivation by running heavy compressors in occupied wings, drenching with fire hoses, assault with scalding water, turning off heating, waiting until food was cold before serving. Contamination of food and water with faeces, urine and maggots.

And all of this was carried out amid daily beatings by some warders with fists, boots and batons to the sound of sectarian abuse and drink-induced fury.

I was with Tom McElwee when he told his mother that he would not end his hunger strike unless the five demands were won because it was only then the prisoners would be protected from the relentless violence of the warders.

This is a horrendous legacy of conflict issue. It needs included in the legacy section of the Stormont House Agreement. Those responsible must be made accountable for their brutal behaviour.