FF government pressurised British to grant special status to republican inmates at the Maze Prison


MAZE PRISON PROTESTS:THE FIANNA Fáil government of the day raised the issue of conditions for republican prisoners at the Maze Prison, Long Kesh, with the British government in late 1978 but State Papers released under the 30-year rule show that no pressure was applied for the restoration of special category status.

The so-called "dirty protest" against the removal of special category or political prisoner status was already under way and would lead to the upheaval of the hunger strike, which in turn precipitated the downfall of the government in the June 1981 general election, by which time Charles Haughey had succeeded Jack Lynch as taoiseach.

A briefing note for the taoiseach prior to a meeting with Jim Callaghan in London on November 27th states that: "For the past eight months approximately 330 of the prisoners in H-Blocks 3 and 5 have been refusing to wash, clean out their cells or empty slop buckets. The cumulative effect is that these two blocks are now disgustingly filthy and unhygienic."

Reaction to the protest among "the minority" in Northern Ireland is characterised as one of "general indifference" but the note adds that this situation could change quickly if the protest were to result in fatalities among the prisoners.

The document adds: "In private contacts with British representatives we have taken the line that . . . it should be possible to take some measures to improve the situation without any concession on the principle of special category status."

At a meeting with British secretary of state Roy Mason in Dublin on September 20th, minister for foreign affairs Michael O'Kennedy had indicated that "anything which could be done to take the tension out of the confrontation on aspects which did not involve questions of principle would be welcome".

Some weeks later, on October 16th, Mason had written a personal letter to O'Kennedy in which he repeated that the British government will not be deflected from its policy of phasing out special category status.

The Mason letter states that "apart from a few minor skin conditions, no prisoner has been found to be suffering from any illness, physical or mental, attributable to the protest. The operation of the new steam-cleaning equipment in use in the prison is also described."

A further background note suggests various headings for the prime ministerial meeting, including "H Block Situation" and observes that "if the H Block situation could be resolved in whole or in part, the PIRA and kindred organisations would have much less going for them both here in Ireland and abroad than they have at present."

The night before the November 27th meeting, deputy governor of the Maze Prison, Albert Miles (50) was shot dead by the IRA at his home in north Belfast. The government's note of the Downing Street talks next day records that "the taoiseach began by expressing sympathy at the murder".

The meeting was mainly taken up with a discussion on the European Monetary System which was a major issue in British-Irish relations at the time. No other reference to the H Block situation is recorded although the taoiseach did raise the question of the proposed increase in the number of Northern Ireland MPs at Westminster from 12 up to 17 (now 18).

The taoiseach said it was difficult in the run-up to a general election to take positive steps in relation to Northern Ireland.