Maghaberry Gaol – The Historical Context

Editor’s Note: This document has been republished with the permission of its author, IRSP member Nathan Hastings, a former prisoner, in order to develop people’s understanding of the current situation faced by political prisoners in Ireland today, as well as the prevailing conditions in the penal regime throughout the country which the governments both north and south use to reinforce their political control. The Special Criminal Court and Diplock Courts continue to be used to deprive republicans of their freedom, and many face extended isolation, unsatisfactory amenities, and a struggle for adequate legal representation. The support for political prisoners remains close to the CYM’s struggle for an Ireland with new values, against the wealthy elite that benefit from these same repressive methods used to hold the status quo in place.

The following is a short document designed to outline the historical context of Republican Prisoners and their conditions in Maghaberry Gaol. This is not aimed at providing a detailed history, but at illuminating the issues which exist in Maghaberry today.

There is a long history of Irish women and men being imprisoned as a result of their opposition to the occupation of Ireland. Throughout this history there has been a recurring theme of Britain and its agents using imprisonment and conditions in the sites of imprisonment to attack and harass those who it has viewed as rebellious or troublesome. This has been carried out as a result of both direct state policy and the cruelty and resentment of those in control in the sites of captivity. In response to this there has been the recurring theme of struggle and resistance to oppression amongst those imprisoned through generations. This theme can be seen, for example, in the refusal of members and supporters of the Land League to wear prison clothes, shave or cut their hair whilst imprisoned in opposition to the prison uniform. The response to this in the 1880’s was an offer of civilian-style clothing. This is almost identical to the situation which would play out in the H-Blocks a century later. The approach to Irish Political Prisoners taken by Britain has varied widely also in different sites of captivity and in different eras. At different times and in different places Irish Political Prisoners have been held without any large-scale conflict arising out of their conditions; yet Britain is seemingly determined to make its mistakes of old even today.


Since the latter half of the 19th century alone Irish Political prisoners have been held in various gaols, mainly in England and Ireland. The Fenians, the participants in the 1916 Rising and those held during the Tan War were held in various sites such as Pentonville, Mountjoy, Frongoch and others. After partition Republicans who opposed the Treaty and who engaged in resistance and campaigns throughout the period between the late 1920s and the 1970s were held in England also, but largely in the Free State and six counties. Gaols in the Free State throughout this period included Mountjoy, The Curragh and Portlaoise, whilst Crumlin Road Gaol in the six counties held Republicans also throughout this period. Conditions on these sites varied, often depending on a variety of factors such as the number of prisoners and the political environment. 


With the onset of heightened conflict in the late 1960s stemming from decades of unionist domination and sectarianism brought about by the doomed project of partition the struggle became increasingly centred on the six counties. The existing prison system in the six counties was soon unable to cope with the numbers being arrested and held, particularly after the introduction of Interment in 1971. Hundreds were therefore held in the cages of Long Kesh and Magilligan, living in large huts. There was a degree of freedom within the cages, those held there were largely recognised as Political Prisoners. It soon become clear however, that the conditions and treatment of Republican Prisoners was ‘offending’ the reactionary unionists and other right-wing elements in the British state. It was also at odds with the ‘criminalisation’ policy being adopted by the Brits which sought to portray Republicans as ‘Godfathers’ and ‘Gangsters’. The Gardiner Commission was established in 1975 to look at the situation surrounding the cages; it was a whitewash, and it concluded, against all common-sense, that ‘special category status’ should be ended. The British Government naturally accepted this and announced that anyone convicted after 1st March 1976 would be denied any such status. Accordingly, they began building a cellular prison at the Long Kesh site, these new cellular blocks were to become known as the H-Blocks. The Brits named it ‘HMP Maze’ and called the cages which were to remain for those convicted before ’76 the ‘Maze Compounds’. They were determined that those held there be treated as criminals-wearing prison uniform, doing prison work, and so forth. It is worth noting that there remained other sites of imprisonment also, in the 26 Counties and in England, and in other parts of the 6 Counties. These too were sites of struggle, but it was the conflict in the H-Blocks which was to be the most intense, and it is the legacy of the H-Blocks which remains most apparent in Maghaberry today.  

The H-Blocks

Naturally, resistance emerged among the Republican Prisoners arriving in the H-Blocks who refused to conform to the regime and refusing to wear the prison uniform; wrapping themselves in blankets. The Blanket Protest intensified with prisoners not washing and putting their excrement on the walls as a result of harassment and attacks against those seeking to wash themselves or slop out. This escalated to a Hunger-Strike in 1980 and a further Hunger-Strike in 1981 in which 10 Martyrs would ultimately give their lives like the Hunger-Strikers before them in British and Free State gaols. This Hunger-Strike had centred on five demands: the right of prisoners to wear their own clothes, the right to abstain from prison work, the right to free association, the right to educational and recreational facilities and the restoration of lost remission as a result of the protest. At the end of the Hunger-Strikes Republican Prisoners had retained the right to wear their own clothes; although the blanket and no-wash protest ended, the prisoners were still being punished for refusing to conform. Over the following years, particularly after the 1983 escape, the remaining oppressive aspects of the regime were largely broken down. By the time the last prisoners left the H-Blocks in 2000, as a result of the prisoner releases under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Republican Prisoners has attained considerably progressive conditions. 

What is key however is that not all within the six-county prison service, NIPS, were content with how this had developed; with unionist and right-wing politicians claiming that Republican Prisoners had taken control of their own wings. This was reflected in the continued mistreatment of prisoners in Crumlin Road. 


Maghaberry gaol had opened in 1986, it held Political Prisoners, particularly women Political Prisoners, although the H-Blocks had remained the primary prison. After the closure of the H-Blocks in 2000 Maghaberry was to become the main site for holding Political Prisoners. The Good Friday agreement had essentially signed away the conditions which had been attained at so much cost by prisoners in the previous decades. Political Prisoners being held in Maghaberry were to be held without segregation from the broader population. Once again NIPS and the British establishment would try to fit a square peg into a round hole, by attempting to hold political prisoners in degrading conditions.

Protests spearheaded by imprisoned Republicans who had opposed the Good Friday Agreement began. As the situation escalated the British Government commissioned the Steele Review (2003). This review concluded that segregation, which it called ‘a degree of separation’ was required. This was accepted by the British Government despite the protests of elements within NIPS, Unionists and right-wing politicians who claimed it would lead to a ‘return to the H-Blocks’. Although NIPS were forced to implement the new regime it was determined to make it as restrictive as possible with the support and acquiescence of the right-wing establishment and British ‘security’ apparatus. Their opposition to the new arrangement was made clear in comments made prior to, during, and after the Steele Review; these were widely recorded including by Steele himself and in the British House of Commons. The restrictive regime they put in place was borne out of bigotry, resentment and political interference. Whilst NIPS and others admitted openly that it was based on an irrational determination to ‘prevent the development of H-Block-style conditions’. This remains the position of elements within NIPS and their allies even today with the DUP referencing this determination in Stormont on numerous occasions over recent years. These irrational whims, political interference, British policy and bigotry remain key reasons as to why no lasting resolution has yet been attained in Maghaberry.

Restrictions, Reviews and Revision: between 2004 and 2010 the restrictive regime in place for

Republican Prisoners was criticised extensively. It involved, among other oppressive aspects, a ‘controlled movement’ policy and excessive invasive searching. Controlled movement involves the restriction of prisoner numbers on the landing to a maximum of four (formerly three), with a ratio of one gaoler to one prisoner, making it among the most restrictive of such regimes in Europe despite the total absence of violence etc. Whilst the regime was revised during this period it remains subject to consistent objective criticism and issues such as controlled movement and strip-searching remain in place today.

The Protest, The Agreement and The Gaol’s Reneging: By 2010 the regime was deteriorating further as recognised by the then prisoner ombudsman and at Easter that year Republican Prisoners initiated protest action. This lasted until August and ended with the signing of the August 2010 Agreement. This resolved the then core issues of controlled movement and forced strip-searching.

The core tenants of the agreement were, and remain, the key to resolving the conflict surrounding Republican Prisoners. The Agreement, however, came under the immediate attack from the cabal within NIPS and its reactionary political allies. The Stormont Justice Department and NIPS immediately reneged on the Agreement under pressure from the reactionaries. They failed to end controlled movement and after a short time re-introduced forced strip-searching. The contempt of the British State for the agreement was obvious also; the NIO which has responsibility for ‘permitting’ Republicans access to the wing began an isolation policy which it has utilised against numerous prisoners and which it continues to utilise today. With the gaol reneging on the agreement, a fact recognised by all objective observers and in subsequent ombudsman reports, Republican Prisoners once again initiated protest action in May 2011. This lasted until November 2012, through terrible conditions and brutality, when Republican Prisoners ended the protest to create the space for a dialectical process of engagement to deal with the unresolved issues. 

Attempted Resolutions, Intransigence and Sabotage: The process of dialogue which Republican

Prisoners had sought to initiate in 2012 was largely ignored. A Prisoner Ombudsman report in

May/June 2013 making progressive recommendations was also largely ignored. In 2014 the Prisoner Ombudsman recommended that the Independent Assessment Team, members of which had facilitated the agreement and were tasked with reporting to the Stormont DoJ on its implementation, carry out a ‘Stocktake’ to re-engage the implementation process of the August 2012 Agreement.

The Stocktake report made a number of recommendations, including that numbers on the landings be increased to six over a six-month period to begin. The stair grille, a gate at the bottom of the stairs between Roe 3 and Roe 4 was opened as a simple small step to make for more free-flowing movement at the onset of this process. The Stocktake immediately came under attack. DUP member Paul Givan arrived on the wing in September 2014 and shortly thereafter the stair-grille was closed, only weeks after it was initially opened. Givan then boasted in Stormont in November 2014 that he hoped he had helped to get it closed. A tribunal involving two former senior NIPS personnel in 2017 revealed what Republican Prisoners already knew, that the grille’s closure was contrived and NIPS had even misled the Stormont Justice Committee regarding this. The DUP’s Edwin Poots also boasted at this time that he had received information which had led to an aggressive raid on the wing during the Stocktake process in November 2014. 

These and other actions sabotaged the Stocktake and NIPS refused to move. The Stocktake had, however, recommended the establishment of a forum for Republican Prisoners to deal with the administration. Such forums had been established after the August 2010 Agreement to help with dialogue regarding its implementation, but the gaol had made a mockery of these and they ended. The Stocktake referred to a neutral chair for these forums, possibly from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which had been dealing with Republican Prisoners regarding humanitarian issues. The DUP made noise about the ICRC as a chair and the gaol initially tried to force another chair into the position until Republican Prisoners made clear that only the ICRC would be acceptable. Before any forums would begin prisoners sought bilateral talks between them and the gaol with the chair speaking to both respectively so he could develop a programme for progress which would be the basis for the forums. This began in 2015 and it was soon clear that the gaol was unwilling to move, finally rejecting the chair’s independent proposals in November 2015.  

Throughout these processes NIPS invented weak excuses for not moving, as did the Stormont DoJ. For example, they could not blame any violence by Republican Prisoners on the landings, so they claimed that there were verbal threats and intimidation. Republican Prisoners thus utilised the Freedom of Information act to attain the records of such ‘threats’ and other relevant information. With these statistics and common-sense arguments Republican Prisoners demolished these and other excuses, noting that incidents outside the gaol were nothing to do with conditions in Maghaberry and that the gaol had reneged on the Agreement in 2010, making anything which happened thereafter largely irrelevant.

After the ICRC until now, July 2017: Around the time of the ending of the ICRC process a damning report was released by HMIP/CJINI which had previously criticised the arrangements on the Republican Wing in reports dating back to 2005. The lead investigator described Maghaberry thereafter as the worst gaol in Europe. The report made reference specifically again to the

Republican Wing, although Republican Prisoners disagreed with aspects of it. Again, the gaol refused to make any changes. Furthermore, the Fresh Start Agreement was reached between Nationalist and Unionist parties after another crisis at Stormont. As part of this a panel began reviewing issues in the gaol although they were advised that given the overall nature of the Fresh Start project Republican Prisoners would not be dealing with them. They recommended that another panel be established to specifically review ‘the operation of separation’. Given the crisis at Stormont this panel has still not been formed, but it is expected that it will have the power to make recommendations regarding the conditions of Republican Prisoners. This has the potential, as such processes before it, to make positive or negative changes, but the position of Republican Prisoners remains the same: the implementation of the core tenets of the August 2010 Agreement and the end of the isolation policy are the basis for a lasting resolution.

In the meantime, Republican Prisoners have been subjected to increasingly oppressive conditions throughout 2016 and 2017. These, like all the information here, are subject to extensive, detailed and evidenced documents, but in sum this has involved; aside from the core issues, attacks on cultural identity, education, family visiting arrangements, healthcare, food, assaults on prisoners and sleep disruption. Republican Prisoners have consistently responded to this by highlighting and exposing NIPS’ actions, liaising with outside bodies from political, human rights and prison oversight backgrounds, and taking successful legal challenges whilst refusing to be intimidated on the ground.

Republicans outside the gaol have also maintained political pressure, highlighting and challenging the oppression of Political Prisoners. It is clear to all of those involved from various quarters that a resolution is both achievable and, at this point, long overdue.

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