Republican prisoners Hugh Rooney and Freddie Toal 'on the blanket' in their fouled cell

'Blanket' and 'no-wash' protests in the Maze prison

September 1976 - October 1981

The 1980 and 1981 hunger strikes in the Maze prison were the culmination of four years of protest by republican prisoners.

The protests began in 1976 when Kieran Nugent went 'on the blanket', escalating to the 'no-wash' protest in 1978. This was called off in March 1981. The 'blanket' protest ended seven months later.

Photo: Republican prisoners Hugh Rooney and Freddie Toal 'on the blanket' in their fouled cell

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More information about: 'Blanket' and 'no-wash' protests in the Maze prison

In June 1972, IRA prisoners in Crumlin Road Jail launched a hunger strike to gain 'prisoner of war' status. At the time, the Secretary of State, William Whitelaw, was attempting to broker a cease-fire with the Provisional IRA after a recent spate of bomb attacks across Northern Ireland. Whitelaw gave in to the prisoners' demands, offering what was termed 'special category' status to all prisoners convicted of terrorist-related crimes. In effect, this meant that he had agreed to them being seen as 'prisoners of war' and not as ordinary criminals.

When the cease-fire broke down, the government began to examine its security policy in Northern Ireland. Detention without trial, or 'internment', was to be phased out by the new Labour government in 1975. It too had changed position on 'special category' status: emphasis was to be placed on the criminality of terrorism and it was within this context that 'special category' status was to be withdrawn. It was hoped that this would remove the distinction that 'special category' status had created between paramilitary prisoners and ordinary criminals. As an integral part of this strategy, troop levels were reduced and recruitment to the police was increased. This criminalisation policy was seen as a denial of the basic republican principle that the IRA was involved in a war of independence. It was also a deeply unpopular move among the loyalist community.

Her Majesty's Prison at the Maze was opened in 1976 and the prison's H-Blocks were to become the centre of protest against the removal of 'special category' status. "You must be joking me," Kieran Nugent said when he was asked what size he took in clothes before being given a prison uniform. He was the first IRA man convicted of a terrorist offence and sent to gaol after the cut-off date for special category status. On 14 September 1976, Nugent refused to wear prison clothes and, for breach of discipline, was confined to his cell twenty-four hours a day and lost his entitlement to 50 per cent remission of sentence for good behaviour. Other prisoners joined Nugent in his protest and, when they destroyed the furniture in their cells, the prison authorities confined them to those cells, restricting them to only another cell mate, a Bible, a mattress and three blankets each. What became known as the 'blanket protest' had begun.

In 1978, the prisoners were refused a second towel to wash themselves and, rather than being degraded by having to stand naked in the washrooms, they refused to leave their cells. The 'no-wash protest' had begun: this later escalated into the 'dirty protest' when the prisoners resorted to pouring their urine out of the cells and smearing the cell walls with their excrement. Nugent and three other former republican prisoners appealed to the European Commission on Human Rights, arguing that conditions during the 'dirty protest' were inhuman. On 15 May 1980 the ECHR made its report on the case. It rejected the case on the grounds that the conditions were self-inflicted and "designed to enlist sympathy for their political aims". However, the commission also stated that the British government was being "inflexible".

Tomas O Fiaich, Archbishop of Armagh, visited the H-Blocks holding republicans in the Maze prison on 30 July 1978. He was appalled at what he witnessed: men, naked except for blankets, some of their bodies covered in sores and bruises, unwashed and hair uncut, and - above all - the cells reeking with excrement. On 1 August, O Fiaich issued this report:

"One would hardly allow an animal to remain in such conditions, let alone a human being. The stench and filth in some of the cells, with the remains of rotten food and human excreta scattered around the wall, was almost unbearable. In two of them I was unable to speak for fear of vomiting. Several prisoners complained to me of beatings, of verbal abuse, of additional punishments (in cold cells without even a mattress) for making complaints, and of degrading searches carried out on the most intimate parts of their naked bodies."

This report received widespread publicity. The Northern Ireland Office felt it had to respond, not to deny the conditions the Archbishop had observed, but to explain that they were the result of the prisoners' actions:

"These criminals are totally responsible for the situation in which they find themselves. It is they who have been smearing excreta on the walls and pouring urine through cell doors. It is they who by their actions are denying themselves the excellent modern facilities of the prison. They are not political prisoners; more than 80 have been convicted of murder or attempted murder, and more than 80 of explosive offences. They are members of organisations which are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent people, the maiming of thousands more, and the torture by kneecapping of over 600 of their own people."

By late 1980, almost half of the republican prisoners in the Maze were involved in the dirty protest. It was to continue throughout the subsequent hunger strike in the prison that began on 27 October 1980, eventually being called off on 2 March 1981 in order to focus attention on the second hunger strike in the Maze that had begun the day before. The blanket protest had continued in conjunction with the 'no-wash' or 'dirty' protest and was maintained beyond the end of both the first and second hunger strikes, eventually petering out towards the end of October 1981.