Inmates in a Northern Irland prison revolted after guards conducted full body searches. Now the prisoners have agreed to end their protest. Experts say the truce is a small but important step for the peace process.
About 40 Provisional IRA (Irish Republican Army) members are currently imprisoned in the Maghaberry prison in Northern Ireland. Many of them here are celebrated as heroes by Belfast's Republican Catholic community. Its community center on the Falls Road has large murals demanding reform at Maghaberry prison, and other murals calling on residents to support the so-called "dirty protest."
The protest started about six months ago as a means of opposing full body searches by Maghaberry prison guards. The dirty protest was dirty indeed, said Jane Winter, who heads the British Irish Rights Watch group. "They have ripped out all the sanitary wear in their cells and [they were] smearing their own excrement on the walls of their cells or throwing it into the corridors."
Truce between inmates and government still holds
Winter's group closely monitors the Irish peace process. Last week the prisoners, who are held in isolation to keep them safe from other prisoners, agreed to end the protest, while the UK government indicated it would improve conditions. This week, that truce of sorts held. Winter called for those changes, and says the problem with the searches, and the ensuing dirty protest, was that it gave the Real IRA, labeled a terrorist organization by the UK and US governments, support among some Catholics.
"Just like they did in the old days. And they have real capacity, real capability, and they are dangerous," Winter added.
Maghaberry prison officer shot dead
According to authorities, they are extremely dangerous. Earlier this month, the Maghaberry prison officer was shot and killed in his car. Self described Real IRA members, an IRA offshoot, claimed they killed the warden in response to the ongoing problems in Maghaberry prison. Other Real IRA members, wearing ski masks, have made public pronouncements the past two years, saying they will kill to achieve their political ends.
"The Catholic Church, the constitution, will be unable to protect those who turn favor. They are able for execution, as anyone, regardless of their religion, cultural background, or motivation," a speech by the Real IRA filmed in 2011 announced and threatened anyone, including other Catholics, who stand against a united Ireland.
Shortly after the killing, which was the first of a prison officer in more than 20 years, members of the British Parliament heard from experts the threat of widespread violence was a real possibility. Meanwhile, several other self described dissident Republican splinter groups have merged with the Real IRA, according to several press reports. Besides the prison conditions, experts like author Joshua Levine say many Northern Irish male teens are sympathetic to the proclaimed political ends of the Real IRA. According to Levine, "there still are people who want to continue the war."
Levine, who wrote about the Troubles in his book Beauty and Atrocity: People, Politics and Ireland's Fight for Peace says that many young Catholic men he spoke to recently held a deep resentment against the British.
"They were adamant that it would have to continue until the British were off Irish soil. And they were very very angry at a lot of provisionals, people that had gone before them, people had lived the life and had their chance to fight against the Brits, and people who were now telling them to put the guns away, the fight was over, as far as they could see that nothing had changed."
Small but important first step?
Experts believe the end of this dirty protest is a small but important step in continuing the Irish peace process because it takes away what has been a powerful recruitment tool for the Real IRA. But Winter, along with other experts that testified before the House of Commons, say the paramilitary group's older leadership has exploited horrendous economic conditions in Ireland.
"And they have recruited a lot of much younger men, very often from very deprived areas, lads that don't have much education, or understanding of the situation, who have very little hope of getting a job or being anything in their community, and find, very erroneously, getting involved in a paramilitary group is a way of getting some status," Winter said.
According to recent UK government statistics, youth unemployment is over 20 percent and has been at historic highs this fall. Authorities estimate, the Real IRA's membership is around 300 today. Contrast that with when the Troubles ended - at the time of the Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998 - youth unemployment was just under 10 percent, and the Real IRA is believed to have fewer than 75 members.