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Peter Hadden

H-Block and Armagh

Issues for the labour movement

(June 1980)

From Militant Irish Monthly, No. 84, June 1980.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

On February 7th of this year Republican women prisoners in Armagh Jail were beaten up by male warders. Here is just one description of what happened, written by a prisoner.

“They (warders) charged in, in full riot gear, equipped with shields ... I was suddenly pinned to a bed by a shield and the weight of a male screw on top of me... I was just bodily assaulted, thumped, trailed and brutally kicked. I was then taken out of my cell, and during the course of my being dragged and hauled from the wing, both my breasts were exposed to the jeering and mocking eyes of all the screws.”

Prior to February 7th the conditions in Armagh were bad enough. The women were locked up for 21 hours. They suffered restrictions on visits, on food parcels, lost all remission and were denied reading and recreational facilities. Severe restrictions, sometimes almost total, were applied to both washing and toilet facilities.

After February 7th the lock up was extended to 23 hours. The toilets were locked up by the authorities. Chamber pots were provided in the cells but when they were emptied out of the windows, the windows were boarded up. Now the prisoners are forced, like the men in H-Block, to smear their excreta on the walls and, as far as possible, empty their urine on the wing.

Add to such conditions the disgraceful denial of proper sanitary and medical facilities and a clear picture of life for the 32 women involved in the Armagh protest can be drawn. One of these women, who has a burst duodenal ulcer, has been taken off her special diet as a punishment. Another has suffered from constant vomiting, has lost 3½ stones, yet is denied hospital care. She is forced to lie, not only surrounded by her own excreta, but by her vomit.

H-Block Conditions

In H-Block conditions for the male protesters are even more harsh with a 24-hour lock up and with no clothes except a blanket. Despite these horrors there has not been, either in Ireland, Britain or internationally, any mass opposition to the torture of these prisoners. Even in the Catholic areas of Northern Ireland the protests have been limited.

Primarily, this has been because the entire issue has become associated with the Provisional IRA. Many workers who would be abhorred at the treatment of these prisoners will not engage in open protest because they fear that to do so would associate them with the Provisionals. And because the outside protest groups have been in the hands of or associated with the paramilitaries and thus denied mass support, the prisoners have been left isolated. This is the reason for the desperate situation and degrading conditions which have developed in response to the harassment and brutal ill treatment of the authorities.

However, H-Block and Armagh need not be a sectarian issue. Both in Ireland and in Britain it can be taken up in a class fashion by the organisations of the working class. To fight for decent conditions and an end to the torture in these prisons is not to support the false policies and divisive methods of the Provisional IRA.

Indeed, the Labour Movement has a responsibility to fight this and all forms of repression. What is today a weapon against paramilitary groups can tomorrow become a weapon against trade unionists.

Trade Union Inquiry

The Labour Movement alone has the mass power and influence to guarantee a retreat on the part of the Government on this question. Already in Ireland and in Britain the first steps have been taken to launch a class campaign on H-Block and Armagh. Separately on this page we publish a resolution recently passed by Derry Trades Council. At the end of May the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance is due to discuss a resolution which demands a trade union inquiry into the issue and, based on the results of this inquiry, a campaign for decent conditions in all prisons.

For the prisoners of H-Block and Armagh, as indeed for all prisoners, there should exist certain basic rights. Demands which should now be raised by the Labour Movement should include: the right to free association, to proper educational and recreational facilities, to a choice of work and training in skills, to wear one’s own clothes, to adequate food parcels, visits and to unrestricted letters. Prisoners should be entitled to trade union membership, trade union rates of pay and should be allowed to elect representatives to negotiate with the authorities on their behalf.


However, the question of H-Block and Armagh cannot end there. Most of these prisoners are the victims of a well-established system of repression which begins in the torture centres of Castlereagh and other police stations, where ’confessions’ are extorted, continues through the non-jury Diplock Courts and ends up in the stinking cells of these infamous institutions, Many have been framed or are in prison only because of the ’evidence’ of a forced ’confession.’ This holds true for both Loyalists and Republicans.

To the paramilitary groups all of their members are political prisoners who must be released. Many trade unionists in Britain and Ireland, thinking of the long tally of monstrous sectarian crimes committed by all of these organisations, will have no sympathy for such a claim.

The Labour Movement could not possibly advocate the total release of all of these prisoners. To do so would be to advocate the release of the Shankill butchers and other no less sectarian gangsters on the Republican side. The Labour Movement cannot fight on behalf of its enemies and the open agents of sectarian division are the open enemies of the working class in both Britain and Northern Ireland.

Instead there must be a review of all the cases of those sentenced in Northern Ireland on offences arising out of the troubles. Where convictions are the result of false confessions, framing or torture the movement must campaign for that prisoner’s release. With the one proviso - the Labour Movement will not fight for the release of the sectarian assassins.

In regard to those who could be designated as “political” prisoners, again this must be a matter for the Labour Movement, not the paramilitaries. As part of a review of all cases the movement could decide who is a political prisoner, working out its own grounds for the designation of such a title, and whose release it would therefore campaign for.

If the organisations of the working class do not now campaign against torture in the prisons they must take the responsibility for the fact that a variety of sectarian organisations will do so, and will be permitted to make political capital for themselves out of the miseries of these prisoners. Potentially the situation in both H-Block and Armagh is explosive. It is up to the Labour Movement to ensure that it generates class anger and class opposition, not sectarianism

Derry Trades Council motion

The following extracts are taken from a letter and resolution submitted to Derry Trades Council by an AUEW branch:

The resolution advocated the following rights for prisoners:

  1. The right not to wear prison uniform.
  2. The right not to do prison work.
  3. Freedom of association among political prisoners.
  4. The right to organise recreational and educational facilities, to receive and send out one letter per week, and to receive one parcel per week.
  5. The restoration of remission.

Derry Trades Council supports the above demands but believes that they do not only apply, to the abominable situation in H-Block, but apply to the prison conditions in the Crumlin Road, Armagh and Magilligan. Derry Trades Council again calls for a trade union inquiry into prison conditions generally.

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