Category: Archive

A View North Politics springs from the Maze of history

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

The ride out to the Maze was usually a long and dreary one. When I first made the trip it was early one summer’s morning, and the weather was fine. But I could imagine how it would be for the women and children in the little Sinn Fein van that was used to bring them to see their imprisoned menfolk on a winter’s day, when dawn hardly broke at all, and the low dark sky squatted on the slopes of the Black Mountain.

The van left from outside what used to be a pub on the Falls Road but had by 1979 been converted into a Sinn Fein office. It was a poor, dismal place outside of which the women and their children would gather, and standing there it was easy to see the misery of the lives they were forced to lead. Yet, en route to their regular rendezvous with Irish history, I remember how cheerful they became. In spite of the kids falling in the van, or knocking their heads against the windows as it bumped along, there was a lot of spirit among them.

As the van sped down the motorway heading toward The Kesh (they never referred to it as the Maze) they began to sing "The Sash," among other tunes. They told stories, swapped gossip, speculated with the bus driver about the future — usually how long the war was likely to go on and if the protesting prisoners would win their demands.

Who would have predicted, on that summer’s morning in 1979, that the war would last another 15 years, and that before it ended Sinn Fein would have become one of the most important political parties in Ireland?

I doubt if anyone in that van could have foreseen those developments. The dingy little converted pub has long gone and the party that once consisted of a few long-haired volunteers in jeans and ankle-length boots now holds two seats in Westminster, one in the Dail, and occupies two ministries in the Northern Ireland government. Its premises have been considerably improved, reflecting the rise in its political fortunes.

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Had I suggested such a prospect to the women on the van that morning I would probably have been declared a nutter and thrown off.

The prison came into view, its watchtowers and barbed-wire capped walls looming up incongruously above the quiet pastoral landscape — fields, hedges, farms, and cows — in the midst of which it had been built three years earlier. As it appeared, the van fell silent, and a look of resignation settled on the faces of the women. The place looked so permanent. And as far as the mothers, girlfriends, daughters, sisters and wives of the men inside were concerned, it was permanent. Since about 1971 they had lived with that prison, in one shape or another. It had changed their lives completely, just as it was to change the course of Irish history.

After the myriad security checks, we were treated to another ride through the prison to the visitors’ center, where we were shown into a nissen hut lined with little cubicles. My friend had been in for two years, on an attempted-murder conviction. But because he had been badly wounded in gun battle with British troops during his arrest, he had not been allowed to take part in the prison protest. (He had tried but had been ordered off.) We talked for about 30 minutes about politics, inside and outside the jail. I spoke of New York, where I had gone to live. He asked about my family and gave me a bag of sweets to pass on to my daughter as I left.

By the time he was released, nine years later, the political landscape had changed. Sinn Fein was becoming the dominant nationalist party in Belfast. Gerry Adams was an MP and it had a host of city councilors. This change had come about directly as a result of what happened inside the Maze in 1981. The hunger strikes had created a powerful electoral base for the republican movement. Many predicted it would crumble as the memory faded of the 10 men who died rather than wear a prison uniform. It did not. But it took another six years for the logic of the new situation to work itself out.

Treating republicans like criminals had turned them into politicians. The policy of criminalization had failed in another, fundamental sense. By the mid-1980s, special category status, which it was meant to replace, had been all but restored. Prisoners did not wear prison uniforms, they controlled their own blocks, got their visits and extra food parcels, and run things pretty much as they pleased.

Britain’s pursuit of its criminalization policy was a disaster, and underlying it was a failure to grasp the nature of the problem they were facing in Northern Ireland. In a sense, the British fell into the trap of believing their own propaganda, which tried to equate the IRA with gangsters or "ordinary criminals." The problem was political, not criminal. Unless the political issues that created the Northern Ireland problem were faced up to, then it was never going to be solved. But sometimes, if I may paraphrase George Orwell, it is very difficult to grasp the obvious. That is why it would not be such a bad idea if the Maze were left standing as a reminder of the follies of British policy in Ireland in the years 1976-81.

It is understandable, however, that many people should instead like to see the prison leveled to the ground, and the 130-acre site on which it stands used as a potato field.

According to former prisoner Jackie McMullan, who now helps run a republican prisoners’ advice center in West Belfast, some 15,000 republicans passed through the Maze. Others put the estimate as higher — closer to 25,000, including those held when the Maze was still Long Kesh internment camp. More than 10,000 loyalist prisoners also passed through its gates and the gates of other Northern jails. If it is remembered that the entire population of Northern Ireland is but 1.5 million, one can see why the Maze has left such an impression on Northern Irish society.

It is to be hoped as the last prisoners’ walk free of the Maze Prison, that Ireland has finally found its way out of the maze of history that caused it to be built.

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