Ban on Irish speaking in Maze prison sparked political row

Prison authorities defended regime for security reasons

Gerry Adams: Sinn Féin leader had distributed a questionnaire to IRA prisoners asking for “details of ill treatment”. Photograph: Pat Langan

Gerry Adams: Sinn Féin leader had distributed a questionnaire to IRA prisoners asking for “details of ill treatment”. Photograph: Pat Langan


The use of the Irish language in the Maze prison caused a major headache for the Northern Ireland Office in the early 1980s, according to previously confidential files released in Belfast.

One of the controversies was sparked by Brendan Ó Cathaoir, an Irish Times journalist who wrote to the minister for prisons at the Northern Ireland Office, Lord Gowrie, on June 15th, 1982, to protest against the decision of prison staff to end a meeting between him and a prisoner that was being conducted through Irish.

Ó Cathaoir told the minister that he had visited Hugh Rooney, a prisoner in the Maze, a few days earlier.

“A few minutes after the visit had started,” he went on, “a warder intervened and asked: ‘are you speaking a foreign language?’ (We had been conversing in Irish because of Mr Rooney’s interest in the language). I answered ‘No’.”

Visit terminated
The reporter was asked to sign a form, after which the visit was terminated.

He told Lord Gowrie: “The reason given was that we had spoken in Irish. At no stage were we told explicitly that English must be used.”

The warder could produce no written evidence for such a restriction. In conclusion, he told Gowrie: “Please don‘t tell me that it has anything to do with security. This gratuitous insult to the Irish identity of these prisoners serves no other purpose than the perpetration of hatred and violence in Ireland. Those who govern the Northern Ireland prison population feed a cycle of fanaticism.”

The matter was also raised by John Hume, MEP and SDLP leader, in a letter to Lord Gowrie questioning the legal basis for such a policy.

In a note on the file, John Mitchell from “prison regimes” branch noted that governors were instructed under prison standing orders to ensure that all visits took place in English, unless either party was incapable of conversing in the English language.

“Such a restriction is necessary on security grounds to enable officers supervising visits to effectively monitor conversations,” he wrote. While they could not depart from this rule, he had asked the prisoner governor to brief the officer on duty so that a visitor speaking Irish would be warned to continue in English or have the visit terminated.

In his reply to Hume, Lord Gowrie said he was sorry that Ó Cathaoir had had his visit terminated, but the instruction to governors was quite explicit that visits to prisoners should be “in sight and hearing of the prison staff”.

Fluency in Irish
“This is rendered ineffective if staff are unable to understand the language used. You will understand that we have difficulty, to put it no higher, in finding staff who are fluent in Irish,” wrote the minister.

The issue continued to rankle and in January 1984, an Irish language enthusiast, P Mac Thiarnian, chairman of the Lecale Gaelic Society in Downpatrick, wrote to the secretary of state expressing concern at reports of action taken by the prison authorities against prisoners possessing books in Irish, musical instruments and playing certain games “on the grounds that they were sectarian”.

He asked, in particular, if it was true that the violin was “classed as a sectarian instrument but the guitar is not”.

Replying to Mac Thiarnian on January 27th, 1984, J McCarley of the Northern Ireland Office assured him that any restrictions on these activities were “purely for security and not designed to suppress any expression of national identity”.

He hoped the complainant would understand that few prison staff were fluent in Irish.

Approved texts
However, he stated, the 124 Maze prisoners taking a formal course in Irish were permitted approved texts in the language, as well as a Gaelic Bible and a small Irish-English dictionary.

Such censorship restrictions were not confined to the Irish language but applied equally to other languages.

Turning to musical instruments, he acknowledged that restrictions on these were “necessary for security reasons”, though guitars were permitted.

A further headache was created for the prison authorities by the election of Gerry Adams as Sinn Féin MP for West Belfast. On July 2nd, 1983, Adams wrote to the British home secretary, Leon Brittan, to challenge a ban against him visiting constituents in jail.

This unexpected letter prompted the British home secretary to write directly to his Northern Ireland colleague, Jim Prior on the issue.

Brittan referred to his earlier decision to refuse to allow Adams to visit British prisons, but expressed “particular concerns about the precise grounds” on which such a policy could be justified.

He proposed to tell the West Belfast MP that “in consultation with the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, who had adopted a similar policy, I have decided that because of your attitude to terrorism, you will not be allowed to visit prisons”.

A problem arose, however, in that the Northern Ireland Office had already allowed the Sinn Féin leader to visit his brother in a prison in the North.

Brittan also raised the question of correspondence between Adams and prisoners, noting that the Sinn Féin leader had distributed a questionnaire to IRA prisoners asking for “details of ill-treatment”.

In a memo on the file, SC Jackson of the Northern Ireland Office opined that it was unlikely that Adams would seek to challenge the ban as a breach of parliamentary privilege, since this only applied when an MP took his seat.