Strip-search brutality in Northern Ireland

October 31, 2011

Sandy Boyer, the co-host of Radio Free Eireann on WBAI in New York City, reports on the struggle of Irish republican prisoners against strip searches inside prison.

POLITICAL PRISONERS in Northern Ireland are on a "dirty protest," smearing their excrement on the walls of the cells they are locked into 23 hours a day. They are protesting violent, degrading strip searches. Unless the strip-searching is ended, the dirty protest could escalate into a hunger strike.

The prisoners are searched before and after every trip to court. Whenever they refuse strip for a search, they are brutally beaten by guards.

One of them, Damien McLaughlin, sent out a letter vividly describing a strip search he endured:

Today, I was brought to the reception where the search team were waiting and forced into a 3-foot-by-3-foot cubicle by two of them, where I refused to strip. They laughed at me and said, "He's ready for it!"

Suddenly, the cell door bursts open and in they come in full riot gear--helmets, shields, body protection, the works. They ram the shield into my face, two of them grab my arms, another grabs my head, I'm forced to the ground--arms forced up my back, two knees forced into my head to hold it down, two knees in the back of my legs...

Then another one of them starts to force off my shoes, socks and trousers off. I'm then moved into a forced position so that my boxers are ripped down and my frontal private parts can be seen by them. I'm then forced back into a position where my boxers are completely forced off me and a hand-held metal detector is ran over my backside.

At this stage, it's hard to breathe with their gloves covering my face and mouth. I'm still being held by four of them on the floor, my private parts exposed...They then grab my boxers and jeans and force them up, hurting me...leaving my private parts still exposed--They then move me into another awkward position to take my T-shirt off...I think my arms are about to break in two!

It's agony at this stage...My wrists are just numb... Being twisted the whole time this is going on. My shirt is now off...I'm lying now with both my arms forced up my back towards the roof while the riot squad run out of the cell. My arms just drop to the floor.

I try my best to get onto my feet using my elbows, trousers hanging off me, boxers still below my private parts...I'm aching all over!

Protesters line the streets of Lurgan in defense of Irish republican political prisoners
Protesters line the streets of Lurgan in defense of Irish republican political prisoners

THE STRIP-searching is completely unnecessary. It serves no security purpose and only humiliates and degrades the prisoners.

The prison administration agreed to replace strip searches with scanners, similar to the ones used at airports, in August 2010 after a previous protest. Prisoners would only be strip-searched if the scanner detected a suspicious object.

David Ford, the Northern Ireland Minister for Justice, has refused to implement the agreement. Although Sinn Fein, which used to be described as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), is the second-largest party in the Northern Ireland cabinet, they have been unable or unwilling to get Ford to implement the agreement and end the strip searching.

The prisoners are members of "dissident" republican organizations that, unlike the IRA, are still waging armed campaigns to eliminate British rule in Northern Ireland. They are tried in special non-jury courts largely on special charges such as "membership in an illegal organization." We can be totally opposed to some of their political ideas and still be committed to building a campaign for their human rights.

Protests against strip-searching, as vital as they are, have been inadequate. They have frequently been fairly small and localized. Many have taken the form of "white line pickets"--a relatively few people standing with signs in the middle of the road.

Often, they have been organized by republican groups, with each group focusing mainly on its own prisoners and largely ignoring the rest. Even independent protests which embrace all the prisoners have largely been confined to local communities. There has been little effort to reach out beyond the narrow base of committed republicans.

The campaign to save the life of Brendan Lillis showed that unity can win.

Lillis, a political prisoner in Northern Ireland's notorious Maghaberry Prison, was close to death. But David Ford and the Northern Ireland Prison Service were refusing to let him be moved to a hospital. His partner, Roisin Lynch, spearheaded a campaign to get him to a hospital before it was too late. All the republican groups with political prisoners in Maghaberry joined in the campaign. Then it was able to win broader community support.

Roisin Lynch insisted that it was a purely humanitarian campaign to save her partner's life. She refused to let it be used to attack Sinn Fein, even when they were seen to be giving only token support. Eventually, Sinn Fein felt compelled to put serious pressure on David Ford, their cabinet colleague, to resolve the case.

Finally, the campaign won, and Brendan Lillis was transferred to a hospital. When he got there, the doctors said that without the medical care he could only get in a hospital, Brendan Lillis could have been dead within 48 hours. Today, he is home with his family, although still very ill and unable to even get out of bed.

Now the challenge is to build on Brendan Lillis' victory to create an effective campaign to end strip-searching. This would require all the republican organizations to put aside their differences, grievances and rivalries to work together for the prisoners. Without that, it will be very difficult to reach out to civil libertarians or labor and community leaders.

Time may be short. Unless there is progress soon prisoners could resort to a hunger strike. One of them, Martin Corey, told The Lurgan Mail a hunger strike could happen "very soon."

He said: "A hunger strike is looking like a very real possibility. The agreement of August last year is not being implemented, and this protest is likely to escalate...There are plenty of volunteers for a hunger strike. That's one thing there's no shortage of."

A united campaign for the prisoners may be the only alternative to a hunger strike. Eamonn McCann, the Irish socialist leader and founder of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement, recently told a meeting against strip-searching, "We need a campaign for decent treatment of the prisoners, recognition of their human rights. People right across the political spectrum should come together as best they can to mount a major campaign on behalf of the prisoners."

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