Behind Maghaberry’s walls: the prison left behind by peace

Tensions in the Northern Irish jail are high despite paramilitaries being in the minority

Some people have trouble with the pronunciation: it's Ma-gaberry, Northern Ireland's high-security prison located on about 150 acres in rural Co Antrim beside the small village of Maghaberry, not far from Lisburn.

To get there, visitors must turn off the M1 motorway along which the New IRA shot dead David Black as he was driving to work in 2012. Maghaberry Prison, located on the site of an old second World War II airfield, opened in 1986.

Over the years, it has expanded and modernised: its cell blocks are named after rivers that flow through Northern Ireland such as the Bann, Erne, Quoile, Bush and Roe. The latter two hold loyalist and dissident republican paramilitaries.

“A good prison has wide corridors, good lights, long lines of sight,” says one of two senior officers during a tour. A new block is currently being built that will hold more than 400 prisoners. It will have four wings radiating from a central hub.


Erne House was one of the early blocks to be built. “It was badly designed,” the officer says. That’s because it is a square block with narrow corridors: “Square blocks don’t work because you can’t see around corners.”

During a rarely granted visit behind Maghaberry's walls, The Irish Times passes security barriers to a car park about 500 metres on. This is a big prison. Photographs are taken and mobile phones placed in a safe deposit box.

Electronic hand identification is used in Maghaberry, which requires a swipe card and accepted hand recognition before passage can be made through a succession of turnstiles that separate its different parts.

Entering the prison proper, visitors pass a plaque commemorating the 31 prison officers killed during and since the Troubles. The two most recent names are those of David Black and Adrian Ismay, also a victim of the New IRA, who died from bomb injuries in 2016. Both men were aged 52, both married, Black with two children, Ismay with three.

The Irish Times visit follows on from complaints made by TDs Éamon Ó Cuív, Maureen O'Sullivan and Thomas Pringle, Northern Ireland trade unionist Peter Bunting and Derry community worker Conal McFeely about the conditions facing dissident prisoners.

In November 2015, Northern Ireland’s Inspectorate of Prisons and Criminal Justice described Maghaberry as Victorian and Dickensian, “unsafe and unstable” and “in crisis”, though a follow-up report last November was more positive, finding that significant improvements had been made.

‘Power struggle’

The officers escorting us on a tour of the prison admit that Maghaberry faces big hurdles: “It is a long road and we are not at the end of it yet. The complexity of this prison means we face challenges on a daily basis, but Maghaberry is unrecognisable from 2015.”

Maghaberry, an all-male prison, holds about 900 prisoners, some held on remand. On the day The Irish Times visits there were 27 dissidents held in the Roe block and 16 loyalist paramilitaries in Bush.

Paramilitary inmates make up less than 5 per cent of the prison population but they grab a disproportionate amount of the headlines. Regular prisoners, or ordinary decent criminals (ODCs), are held in blocks such as Erne and Quoile.

It’s a bitterly cold late winter’s day as we pass the 17ft high steel fence topped by razor wire that surrounds Roe and Bush, two modern blocks that stand at right angles to each other. “A prison within a prison,” says one officer.

Cells and wings have been damaged, walls daubed with human faeces and prisoners going on dirty protest

All is quiet. However, while it has been calm for some time these can be volatile places, Roe House much more so than Bush. As prison officers, both those from senior and lower ranks, tell it, dealing with dissident republicans is a psychological “power struggle”.

In the past decade there have been regular protests. Cells and wings have been damaged, walls daubed with human faeces and prisoners going on dirty protest, all of which conjure images of the 1981 H-Blocks hunger strikes when 10 men died, and the years before.

A deal in August 2010 might have settled tensions, but it fell apart over body search rules and the murder of the two prison officers.

A veteran prison officer who spoke separately to The Irish Times paints a picture of stress and strain.

“It can be very normal, you are working with reasonable individuals, but then within a 30-second period you are then dealing with the most unreasonable, threatening, manipulative people that walk on God’s Earth,” he says.

“That can be turned on and off within the twinkling of an eye. When they want to up the ante, the ante is upped.”

The years have left him “battle-hardened”, unlike younger, less experienced colleagues.

“They are always watching, trying to pick up intelligence. They want to see who is nervous, who will stare them out, who won’t stare them out; it is down to psychological warfare.”

He recounts a story about a young woman officer. “‘I see your lawn needs cut’, one of the DRs [dissident republicans] said to her. ‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘my lawnmower is broken’.”

The prison officer soon put her right about the hidden menace in the words. “It had to be explained to her: the prisoner was saying, ‘We know where you live and we’ve been observing your house’.”

Easy banter

For security reasons, on this tour access is not allowed to Roe or Bush. Equally, Maghaberry’s staff cannot be identified. Soon, it becomes clear that that what happens at Roe can severely affect what happens elsewhere in Maghaberry.

Erne House and Quoile senior prison officers say they are drafted in to help colleagues in Roe when trouble erupts, which in turn means there are fewer staff to keep an eye on the regular prisoners.

Yeah, I'm institutionalised," a prisoner agrees, sadly but matter-of-factly

This results in the ODC prisoners in the non-paramilitary blocks being kept locked longer in their cells and denied access to recreation, which can feed ill-feeling and tension. Nevertheless, there is an easy banter between staff and prisoners in these regular blocks, though the line of authority is clear.

One man who is now serving life for murder, but was jailed for other offences in the past, chats briefly with one officer.

“I know him better than I know some of my officers,” says the officer.

“Yeah, I’m institutionalised,” the prisoner agrees, sadly but matter-of-factly.

Prisoners have access to a recreational room, with a pool table and other facilities; a computer room without internet access; a “quiet” room, a gym, kitchen, and laundry. Cells contain single beds, desks, TVs, radios, wardrobes, shelves, noticeboards, toilets and chairs.

Prisoners can smoke. “A cell is the same as their home,” says an officer. Maghaberry has AstroTurf pitches, too: one each for Roe and Bush. Republicans and loyalists can shout across to each other. “But they don’t bother, they tend to ignore each other,” says an officer.

The dissidents, says one of their outside representatives, Mandy Duffy, have three key complaints, including a rule that bars more than four prisoners from gathering at any one time as they assemble or transit from Roe's upper and lower landings. On the regular wings prisoners can congregate and socialise on their landings.

Duffy says the prisoners also object to what they call strip-searching, but what the prison authorities call full body searching; they also claim they are being denied access to educational facilities and expression of their Irish culture. They hardly seem like insurmountable issues . . . until one delves deeper.

Duffy, who is a sister-in-law of Northern Ireland's best-known dissident Colin Duffy, complains that Maghaberry is set against everything Irish. "It's 'ban, ban, ban'; it's an erosion of our culture; you are not allowed to be Irish in Maghaberry Prison," she says.

Young dissident prisoner Nathan Hastings from Derry also claims that "the jail administration ensures that OU [Open University] study for republican prisoners is laden with obstacles".

Seven years ago, I interviewed him in 2010 as part of a feature on dissident republicanism. Back then, he was a 17-year-old A-level student planning to go to university. Four years later he received a 10-year sentence, five in custody, five on supervised release.

A year before, he had been caught by the Police Service of Northern Ireland with a pipe bomb, guns and ammunition during an undercover operation. He was then in a relationship and the father of a three-year-old.

In a recent complaint letter, Hastings, who is studying for an Open University degree, portrayed officialdom at Maghaberry as going out of its way to make life difficult for dissident OU students. "These actions are no less than the weaponising of education by an administration determined to oppress political prisoners," he said.

Body searches

Politicians such as Éamon Ó Cuív of Fianna Fáil and Independents Maureen O'Sullivan and Thomas Pringle have pushed for changes, contending that a conflict-free prison helps efforts outside to get dissidents to end their actions.

The August 2010 agreement unravelled over different interpretations of the rules governing body searches. Prisoners argue that they were to end and were to be replaced by electronic searches. The Northern Ireland Prison Service said it meant body searches were required when prisoners left for court or were on hospital visits.

The deal’s collapse led to protests during 2011 and 2012. In some cases excrement was smeared on walls and urine thrown on to the landings. Some dissident prisoners, such as Colin Duffy, turned up in court with long hair and beards, triggering memories of the dirty protests ahead of the 1981 H-Blocks hunger strikes. However, the dirty protests petered out in late 2012.

Peter Bunting, now retired as head of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in Northern Ireland, and Conal McFeely of Creggan Enterprises in Derry, visit Maghaberry often, as members of the visiting committee.

In early 2010, both helped to persuade the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) to decommission weapons. However, solving the tensions in Maghaberry is proving a major challenge. They have pressed the Oireachtas and the NI Assembly for action.

They also helped broker the deal that collapsed in August 2010. They believe there is a workable electronic alternative to full body searches and cite how such a system operates successfully with dissidents in Portlaoise.

However, the Northern Ireland Prison Service has told Stormont that the technology has not yet been perfected. This argument was echoed by the officers on the ground.

“There have been considerable efforts to find a technological alternative to full body searches,” said the prison service official. “If there was the technology available that would mitigate against the need for full body searches, every prison in the developed world would have it because it would save a fortune,” he says.

“Why would we want to put our staff in that position where they have to conduct full body searches when they could have the same level of assurance from new technology?”

Another says: “There is no technology that is foolproof, that will detect everything, drugs, money, explosives, weapons.”

However, a senior official in the prison service says it is investigating new X-ray technology to see if it could reduce the number of searches that occur. That work is still under way.

Northern Ireland Prison Service officials also say they have tried to increase the number of prisoners who can gather on landings beyond four. “But there had to be an absolute ceasing of threats and intimidation to staff or we would go back to four on the landings. That condition was not acceded to,” the official says, adding that prisoners and their supporters are “hyping this issue” in a bid to ensure that they have free association rights everywhere in Roe.

Unnecessary aggression

However, Mandy Duffy disputes charges that prisoners intimidate staff. Instead, it is the officers who are guilty of unnecessary aggression, she says. “If the [2010 deal] was implemented then there would be no real issues in Maghaberry,” she says.

“If there is technology available at airports to keep people safe, then why can’t it be implemented in the prison and stop this need for men to be physically searched and to have their clothes removed? There is no call for it. It is degrading, it is humiliating.”

Sometimes the New IRA don't get on with the Continuity IRA and the Continuity IRA don't get on with the I-Can't Believe-It's-Not-The IRA prisoners

The Northern Ireland Prison Service response is that people using airport scanners “are compliant”. On the Maghaberry landings, four prisoners are accompanied by four officers, a ratio necessary to ensure safety, the prison service says.

Roe House is never easy. Sometimes, according to the prison officers, the different dissident groupings – the New IRA, Óglaigh na hÉireann and the Continuity IRA – clash: “Sometimes the New IRA don’t get on with the Continuity IRA and the Continuity IRA don’t get on with the I-Can’t Believe-It’s-Not-The IRA prisoners. They might get on today, but they mightn’t get on tomorrow,” says one prison officer.

“Ordinary” prisoners engage in vocational work, education and repairing wheelchairs. But the dissidents and the loyalists are not forced to work. Like all Maghaberry prisoners, they wear their own clothes, one of the lessons learned from the days of the Maze.

Officers dispute Mandy Duffy’s claim that it is “ban, ban, ban” the Irish language and Irish culture. “We don’t allow Tricolours but there are no union flags either. Prisoners can wear Easter lilies, just as staff wear poppies, but for a set period. UVF and UDA flags are taken away as well,” says one.

Bunting and McFeely have expressed frustration about the lack of an Irish language teacher at Maghaberry, saying they have been unsuccessfully pushing this issue for more than six years.

"You can go into west Belfast where there is no problem getting 150 Irish teachers," Bunting says. This issue, however, seems near conclusion. Money has been set aside to employ an Irish teacher for the prison.

Continuing tensions

Maghaberry’s continuing tensions, however, seem to hark back to the murders of David Black and Adrian Ismay and what from all sources appears to be the oppressive and antagonistic atmosphere at Roe House.

You can't go around murdering prison officers and then expect to have a non-aggression pact inside the prison

Black’s murder saw dissidents ostentatiously smoke cigars bought in the prison tuck shop outside the astro-pitch, apparently celebrating the killing. This is confirmed by the other officers. It is hardly the way to create harmony.

"With the DRs there is an agenda behind everything. There is no normal relationship on Roe House. You can get humour at times but it has always got that undertone, that we are picking our next target. They are looking for weaknesses every time," says one regular officer when speaking separately to The Irish Times.

Bunting, a plain-spoken, frustrated campaigner, acknowledges the complexities. “You can’t go around murdering prison officers and then expect to have a non-aggression pact inside the prison,” he says.

However, some officers have shown unnecessary hostility, he believes: “Let’s have goodwill from both parties. Let’s have a period of three months, for example, of no conflict by either party. That should create an atmosphere that is conducive.”

However, there is no sign of such an accommodation. Dissidents argue they have a reasonable case. The prison authorities insist that they are not acting punitively, but act only to ensure the safety of prisoners and staff.

Senior officers accompanying us argue that the dissidents are hugely exaggerating their case for propaganda reasons.

“It is a power struggle,” declares one. Yet both Bunting and one of the same officers who is now escorting us back out of Maghaberry know the place of prisons and prisoners in Irish history.

“Prisoner issues play really well within the republican psyche,” says the officer. “We know that, we have learned lessons from that.”

Bunting agrees: “There is a premise in the history of Ireland that that if you don’t look after the prisoners, you are creating excuses for people to continue their paramilitarism. But I still think there is room for movement and that could be attainable if everybody put their mind to it.”

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times