Book review: Special Category; The IRA in English Prisons vol.1; 1968-78

Special Category: The IRA in English Prisons vol.1; 1968-1978 by Ruan O’Donnell
Irish Academic Press ISBN 978 0 7165 3141 8

ruan odonnell

It will come as a surprise to many people in this country that there have been political prisoners in English jails. In this book Ruan O’Donnell provides a comprehensive account of who they were, why they were there and what both the British government and the prisoners themselves felt about the situation.

We are, of course, talking about Irish prisoners who were in English jails from the late 1960s onwards because of Britain’s occupation of the Six Counties of Ireland (otherwise known as Northern Ireland) and the unresolved political situation which affected both sides of the Irish border and Britain, and also had an international dimension.

What is amazing about this book is the way in which Ruan has used an array of sources. He has interviewed many participants – including prisoners and their families – as well as using private collections of correspondence and papers, state archives, declassified documents and official records of parliamentary business. His attention to detail is incredible; in one chapter there are over 300 footnotes!

There have been Irish prisoners in British jails going back to the United Irishmen in the 1790s. In this book Ruan looks at a ten year period, beginning with the new phase of the Troubles in 1968. After this date the numbers of Irish Republicans jailed increased and the tactics of the British Government towards these prisoners changed. And, as the numbers of Republican prisoners in English jails grew, they organised against an increasingly harsh prison regime;
It was no coincidence that the first two fatal hunger strikes of the modern Troubles occurred in England and that events within the Dispersal System resonated, often powerfully,on Irish soil over three decades.

In the 1970s I went to a predominantly Irish secondary school in the heart of the Irish community in Manchester and, whilst the main agenda for the hierarchy of this Catholic school was to deliver law- abiding British children, there were Irish teachers who were Republican minded. I remember vividly one Irish nun telling us about the interned Irish prisoners in the Six Counties and their harsh conditions. And in that Irish area (like many parts of Britain in the 70s) houses were being raided by the police and Irish people were being dragged off to police stations. Many years later I would be involved in the various miscarriage of justice campaigns that had sprung up (driven by the relatives of the prisoners) to get justice for the well-known (such as the Birmingham 6) and the less well-known (such as Frank Johnson and Kate Magee).

One civil rights activist, a nun named Sister Sarah Clarke, played a significant role over twenty-five years in providing support to Irish prisoners and their families. She worked in London and, in her autobiography, explained how the effects of the war in Ireland affected the Irish in Britain:


The Irish population in British cities found themselves under attack by formerly friendly neighbours and an increasingly repressive and sophisticated police force.

The Irish community in Britain has always played a significant role in opposing Britain’s occupation of Ireland but, as the war intensified and the IRA brought its actions to England, it was the community which took the backlash. The British Government rushed through the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1974 after the Birmingham pub bombings which, whilst not stopping IRA activity, did severely curtail democratic debate in this country about the war going on in Northern Ireland. From 1974 to the early 1980s very few Irish people, and even less English people, wanted to be seen to be taking part in any public opposition to the eroding of civil and human rights of Irish people on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Ruan puts this into context and weaves together some of the campaigning work done by outstanding people such as Sister Sarah on behalf of prisoners and their families. She had been active from the 1960s but, after 1973, was barred from visiting prisoners. She only found out in 1985 that she had been stopped from being an approved visitor on the grounds of “security”. In her biography, No Faith In The System (1995), she outlines her reasons for her tireless work for Irish prisoners.

Whilst IRA prisoners in English jails asserted their Republican political views, for those individuals such as the Birmingham 6, Guildford 4, Maguire 7 and others who were victims of miscarriages of justice, in effect convicted of being Irish in the wrong place at the wrong time, it is heartbreaking to read the accounts of their unjust treatment by all levels of the police, courts and prison system. As Ruan says about the Maguire family;

Their case was arguably the single worst incidence of judicial abuse perpetrated under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and indicated that any Irish person, regardless of age, gender or political orientation, was liable to face imprisonment if elements of the British Establishment so desired.

Patrick, the youngest of the Maguire family, was only 13 when he was arrested with his family. Using later discredited forensic tests the police said the family had handled the explosive nitroglycerine. Patrick served four years, mainly in adult prisons. He was refused parole because he continued to assert his innocence. In 1991 all the convictions of the Maguire 7 were quashed as the evidence was ruled as unsafe.

pat maguire

Patrick is now a talented artist, while his biography My Father’s Watch has been turned into a play. Probably most importantly he, like Paddy Hill of the Birmingham 6, has gone on to help other prisoners who have been unjustly jailed in the organisation The Miscarriages of Justice Organisation

As the number of Irish Republican prisoners in English jails increased, they took part in a variety of strategies to seek their freedom. This included escapes, riots and legal challenges. They became very important in the Republican strategy for resolving the political situation in the Six Counties and, as we saw in the negotiations in the 1990s leading to the Good Friday Agreement, the prisoners had a major influence in the settlement. Ruan’s book covers the first part of this story up to 1978. It is a fascinating and important history of the Irish struggle, and makes one look forward to the next volume.

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About lipstick socialist

I am an activist and writer. My interests include women, class, culture and history. From an Irish in Britain background I am a republican and socialist. All my life I have been involved in community and trade union politics and I believe it is only through grass roots politics that we will get a better society. This is reflected in my writing, in my book Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women and my involvement in the Mary Quaile Club. .If you want to contact me please use my gmail which is lipsticksocialist636
This entry was posted in biography, book review, human rights, Ireland, Irish second generation, North of Ireland, political women and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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