Paramilitary imprisonment in Northern Ireland 1969-1999 : resistance, management & release

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Since the beginning of the conflict in Northern Ireland, the treatment of paramilitary prisoners, and in particular the question as to whether and to what extent their political motivation has been recognised by the prison authorities, has been a defining issue for all of the protagonists. Prisoners have asserted their political status through a variety of resistance strategies over the course of the conflict. At different periods over the past thirty years, Ministers and prison managers have acquiesced, denied and re-framed the prisoners’ assertion of political status in their attempts to manage paramilitary prisoners. In the wake of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the British and Irish governments, together with the range of pro-agreement parties, agreed to release most of the prisoners by the year 2000. This thesis examines that history of resistance, management and release. John Whyte (1991:viii) has asserted that in relation to its size, Northern Ireland is the most heavily researched area on earth. Despite the centrality of prisons to the conflict however, they have generated comparatively little scholarly work over the past thirty years. A number of book chapters have been written from critical sociological and human rights perspectives highlighting the hypocrisy of the States attempts at criminalising politically motivated prisoners and the impact upon their families (eg. Hillyard 1978, Rolston & Tomlinson 1986, 1988, Tomlinson 1995). More recently an MSc thesis completed by a former Probation Officer at the Maze, based largely on interviews with Loyalist prisoners in the early 1970s has been expanded and published as a book (Crawford 1979, 1999). Two psychological articles were also published in the 1980s (Lyons & Harbinson 1986, Curran 1988) which included some analysis of paramilitary prisoners. Within the field of anthropology, there has been one book and one academic article written on the dirty protest and hungerstrike era (Feldman 1991, Aretxaga 1993). There has also been one history written of the hungerstrikes era (O’Malley 1990) and two sociological articles, one on the media coverage of the hungerstrikes (Mulcahy 1995) and one which analysed their political consequences (Smyth 1987). The primary output on prison related matters has been that produced by journalists and biographical accounts by serving and former prisoners. Journalistic accounts of the dirty protest, hungerstrikes and their aftermath (Coogan 1980, Feehan 1983, Collins 1986, Clarke 1987, Beresford 1989) have varied from the excellent and well researched to the poorly written and partial. There has also been two journalistic texts on prison escapes in Ireland which included details of some of the escapes of the most recent period of conflict (Dunne 1988, MacUileagoid 1996). A number of other journalistic accounts have been written, which while primarily concerned with the broader political and historical context of the conflict, have offered useful insights into the prison history (Coogan 1995, Stevenson 1996, Taylor 1997,1999). Finally biographical accounts from serving and former Republican prisoners have offered a rich and detailed insiders' view of key prison events (Adams 1990, Campbell, McKeown and O’Hagan 1994, Sands 1998, Morrison 1999). While a number of former prisoners have undertaken research degrees since their release, an “official prison service history” is apparently in preparation and at least one long-serving Prison Service Governor has suggested that he is preparing a “biography” of the Maze, none of this work is yet published. There are also a plethora of political pamphlets, leaflets, poems, artifacts, some musical tapes and other primary sources which contain accounts of the prison experience, many of them produced by former and serving prisoners. While informed by the above accounts, this thesis seeks to offer a unique and original analysis of developments in Northern Ireland prisons since 1969. It is a period which is rich in detail and it is not my intention to submit an exhaustive narrative of each and every event which occurred over that period1. Rather I have divided my analysis into three overlapping themes - prisoner resistance, prison management and prisoner release - in an attempt to draw out some of the salient theoretical and ideological insights which that history reflects. Such an analysis cannot lay claim to being the definitive or “true” story of paramilitary imprisonment in Northern Ireland. Rather it represents one attempt to understand and explain a complex series of interacting events, dynamics and relationships which I believe have significantly characterised the history of male paramilitary imprisonment over the past three decades. It is important at this juncture to enter the caveat that this thesis is predominantly focused on male paramilitary imprisonment Some of the key histories of punishment and imprisonment have been rightly criticised for ignoring the experience and insight provided by considering female imprisonment (Howe 1994). My focus on male imprisonment in this thesis should not be interpreted as a lack of awareness of the significance of female political imprisonment. Rather, on the basis of my lack of access to female prisoners and my awareness that another PhD student had begun work on the specific question of female imprisonment in Northern Ireland, I agreed with my supervisor at an early stage to limit my study to male paramilitary imprisonment.
Date of Award2000
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorJohn Morison (Supervisor) & Stephen Livingstone (Supervisor)

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