Seven years after the hunger strikes, some prisoners in the Maze Prison demanded vegan diets, declassified government files reveal.
Stormont documents about prison catering drew attention to the increase in vegan and vegetarian diets among both ‘normal’ prisoners and ‘special category’ paramilitaries.
A file released at the Public Record Office in Belfast details discussions between the Home Office, Department of Health and Social Services and Northern Ireland Penal authorities over how to approach this growing ‘nuisance’ with the chief medical officer describing the requests of a Maze prisoner as a “constant demand for raw vegetables”.
The documents include a series of letters from a ‘life sentence prisoner at H block 1’ to the prison authorities stating that “... the present general diet leaves much to be desired from a healthy eating aspect”.
The individual, whose identity has been blacked out in the files released, also expressed discontent at the frequent inclusion of chips in the diet and the lack of ‘All-Bran provisions’.
The prisoner exchanged a series of letters with the community dietitian regarding ‘veganism,’ ‘healthy living’ and literature regarding a balanced diet and after reviewing the general dietary information of the penal services stated that provisions were “very satisfactory” while noting “grave concern” at the fact that fruit boxes for prisoners contained an incredibly meagre offer of apples and oranges.
The principal medical officer, MC Dickson, expressed clear frustration with this “nuisance” emphasising that ‘[this] man is not a ruminant and thereby does not have the physical capacity to break down the cellulose wall of the vegetables’.
Mr Dickson eventually compared this dietary request to the hunger strikes, stating that “if one takes this to the extreme i.e. refusing all forms of sustenance (Maze hunger strike 1981) death will ensue”.
The confidential letter from June 1988 infers that a “low key protest going on in the Maze ... with its origins in the special category prisoners of H [block] 1 and 2” may have been exacerbated by this dispute with “rumblings of a possible threat against medical staff”.
In an indication of how veganism – now a popular diet – was viewed at the time, he continued to argue against a vegan or vegetarian diet, saying that “... vegetarian diets and indeed in the extreme i.e. vegan diets can result in the long-term deficiencies as well as other deficiency states caused by the absence of a protein fraction in a normal balanced diet”.
The Home Office advised the NIO in June 1987 that “membership of a particular ‘philosophical group’ such as veganism does not entitle an inmate to all the facilities he may wish” and that “inmates are usually required to provide some form of proof that they are genuine vegans”.
Subsequently, the Home Office provided a vegan dietary scale in order to encourage the prisons in Northern Ireland to do what they can to accommodate the growing demand such as “allowing vegans to wear slippers or trainers”.
Despite the plethora of requests for veganism, vegetarianism, fruit boxes and balanced diets, prisoners also complained at the restriction of “privilege parcels” that had the potential to include 400 cigarettes or 25 cigars.