Doug Beattie: ‘Segregating extremist prisoners gives them a centre of gravity’

The decision for prisons in Great Britain to separate and segregate Islamist extremist prisoners demonstrates a failure to learn lessons from the United Kingdom’s past.

There are quick gains from keeping all like-minded extremists in one place, preventing the spreading of their message to other prisoners and providing easy monitoring for intelligence purposes.

However, this type of segregation and separation gives those same prisoners a collective voice, an identity and a centre of gravity.

Experience tells us that it will be used by those outside the prisons - family, friends and supporters - as a rallying cry for others to support this new found Islamist extremist identity and that in turn will lead to other acts of violence perpetrated by those supporters.

If the authorities in GB need any reminding of the self-styled ‘Prisoner of War’ (POW) status of republican and loyalist paramilitary prisoners during the period of the Troubles here in Northern Ireland they only now need to look at HMP Maghaberry. 22 years on from the first paramilitary ceasefires the perception of POW status is long gone, but today we have what is called ‘a separated regime.’

There is strong suspicion that the so-called dissident republicans inside Maghaberry have directed terrorism from within the prison, including the murder of two Northern Ireland Prison Officers and the recent attempted murder of another. All committed outside the prison and perpetrated by supporters of those in the separated regime.

This separated prisoner regime was forced on the Northern Ireland Justice system by direct rule ministers through the 2003 Steele Report against the wishes of all those who operate our prisons here in Northern Ireland.

Although the radicalisation of Islamist prisoners is a concern, the problem can surely be dealt with by diluting the issue throughout GB prisons not by concentrating them in one place. Those same issues which we now see here in Northern Ireland will be replicated in GB and my fear would be that with the creation of a group of prisoners with a new identity, tensions could very well spill onto the streets of Great Britain and that prison officers could see themselves targeted as they are here in Northern Ireland.

• Doug Beattie is an Ulster Unionist MLA for Upper Bann