Declassified files: Loyalist and republican prisoners ‘colluded in sham fights’

One of the watchtowers at the high-security Maze Prison during the Troubles
One of the watchtowers at the high-security Maze Prison during the Troubles

Loyalist and republican prisoners colluded in sham fights in attempts to secure segregated conditions in which they could run parts of prisons, according to NIO files.

Several documents declassified at the Public Record Office in Belfast refer to the practice whereby supposed enemies were working together in an attempt to each secure sections of the prison to themselves.

A confidential May 29 1990 paper from JM Steele in the NIO’s Prisons Department said that paramilitary leaders had done everything they could in an attempt to re-establish segregation in prisons, because achieving that would allow them to exert control over other prisoners.

Highlighting the sometimes violent nature of the control which paramilitary leaders exerted, the paper noted that the only murder of inmates during the Troubles had been in segregated conditions and that in neither case was it possible to bring the perpetrators to court.

It went on: “So keen are the paramilitaries to achieve segregation that the leadership on each side is prepared to collude in taking on the prison administration, in arranging incidents to portray that each side is in fear of the other, or to go to the extent of denying their own members access to facilities.

“A good example of the extent of this collusion was contained in the find of an illicit communication at Magilligan during the campaign for segregation there in the mid-1980s.

“The republican leader in one block wrote to his loyalist counterpart addressing him by his first name.”

The prisoner’s secret message is then reproduced: “At the moment we must maintain night about (ie denying each other facilities to ensure that only one faction uses them at a time).

“Regarding football and gym as many republicans and loyalists should tell them to stuff it until it can be arranged along the lines we had last year, ie one week loyalists, next republicans etc.

“What we hope to do is to work for a situation where there are separate eating facilities setting up strong staff structures to bring as many men as possible into line on issues such as football and gym.”

The NIO paper went on to note: “It is significant that during the fights of so-called sworn enemies prisoners generally emerge either uninjured or with relatively minor bruising whereas those staff who intervene to stop the fight often receive serious injuries.”