THERE ARE many tragic aspects to the Northern Irish "troubles": one of which has hitherto been occluded is the grim world of 65 Irish prisoners held in jails in England. All are classified as highly dangerous category "A" prisoners, thus bringing the local number in this group in Britain to about 160. Such people can only be held in one of the seven dispersal (high security) prisons which include Wakefield in Yorkshire, Wormwood Scrubs in London. and Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight. The prisoners include those with such evocative media labels as the Birmingham Six. the Balcombe Four, she Belfast Ten and the Coventry Seven.
They represent the human flotsam of IRA attacks by either bomb or bullets in Britain. Most, if not all, of them are being held in exile: their nearest relatives live either in N. Ireland or in the Republic of Ireland. It would seem that even within the "A" category situation the Irish receive especially harsh treatment. The regulation visit of 30 minutes per month can be degrading.
There is a glass partition between the inmate and the visitor, and both have to go through an intimate body search beforehand. Irish prisoners are frequently transferred without warning from one dispersal prison to. another, the relatives only being informed up to six weeks later. Both incoming and outgoing letters are severely censored and many never arrive.
A reasonable case can be made for the transfer of these unwilling nomads dispersal prison system to a N Ireland jail. They come from Ireland and are normally resident there. Their relatives, guilty of no crimes, are forced to make long dreary journeys into a suspicious English prison town to visit them. It costs for example, one Belfast mother of six children about £120 in fares and overnight accommodation to visit her husband in Parkhurst. Their presence in the high security wings of English prisons can exacerbate the already high tension there.They could be transferred to the Maze Prison outside Belfast. There is ample room in this high security prison.
To date 54 members of the Security Forces convicted of criminal offences in Northern Ireland since 1969. including the murderers of two Fermanagh men, have been transferred to prisons in Great Britain.
Also seven Loyalists have been transferred to Belfast prison following conviction of terrorist type offences in English and Scottish courts. The humanitarian concern shown by the British Government for these prisoners is laudable. Why discriminate against the Republican ones?.
Many prisoners and their relatives have petitioned both the N Ireland Secretary, Mr Humphrey Atkins, and the Home Secretary. Mr William Whitelaw, for a transfer. The standard reply is that security considerations outweigh all others in locating the prisoners in England. When one tries to canvass support for the prisoners. one is eventually directed to the "Big Three' of prison reform pressure groups, namely. Amnesty International, the National Council for Civil Liberties. and the prestigious Howard League for Penal Reform.
This trio wax strongly on prison torture in Chile and forced feeding of psychiatric drugs to Russian dissidents; they can even manage a credible swipe at prison conditions in South Africa.
Alas, when challenged to speak out on British ,Government discrimination against Irish prisoners, their concerted voice has a timid and tremulous sound. I am not entirely convinced by their standard reply that if they did condemn the Government it would be construed as giving aid and comfort to the IRA.
It is only fair to point out that Amnesty was successfully" offered a good home in London, the NCCL is funded from Government resources, while the Chairman of the Howard League. Lord Gardiner, narrowly escaped being assassinated by the IRA in Belfast recently. I have every sympathy with the British Government in its task of containing securely not only the 65 Irish prisoners in England but also more than 2,000 Irish prisoners in N Ireland who are violently inimical to British rule in N Ireland.
However, it is double standard for a government to condemn penal malpractice in distant lands while actively practising prison discrimination within its on writ. No political harm would be done in transferring the hapless 65 to N Ireland prisons. It would certainly make life easier for their relatives. Eamonn O'Doherty County Derry Northern Ireland