Northern Ireland

Prisoners in Roe House at Maghaberry end dirty protest

Justice Minister David Ford
Image caption Mr Ford said the prison service was seeking alternatives to strip searching

Republican sources and the prison service have said no deal was done to end a dirty protest by some dissident republican prisoners.

Twenty-two inmates aligned to a group calling itself the IRA ended their protest over the routine use of strip searching at Maghaberry Prison.

Earlier this month, the group murdered prison officer David Black.

Members of other dissident groups in Maghaberry were not consulted about the move and remain on protest.

In a statement to the Irish News, prisoners on landing four in Roe House said they had taken the decision after "intense and detailed discussion and analysis".

The protest started in May 2011 in opposition to strip searches.

The prisoners claim that the prison authorities reneged on an agreement brokered in August 2010 to end a policy of routine full body searches, replacing it with electronic scanners.

The prisoners claim the deal was that they would be searched using a BOSS chair - a Body Orifice Security Scanner.

'Space for resolution'

Prison authorities said the agreement was for internal movement within the prison only, not when prisoners left and re-entered their wings for domestic and legal visits or trips to court.

Justice Minister David Ford welcomed the move but said the prison service had honoured and upheld its side of the agreement.

"Clearly this now presents the opportunity for a relaxation of tension, particularly if the other group of prisoners were also to move in the same direction," he said.

The statement said the prisoners on landing four believed the move would "provide the space required for a resolution of the current impasse".

"This initiative should be viewed as a genuine and sincere attempt to create the conditions in which a conflict free environment can flourish whereby all are treated with respect and dignity is guaranteed," the statement added.

Mr Ford said prison authorities were looking at the issue of how prisoners are searched.

"All prisoners in Northern Ireland on entering and leaving prison require to be full body searched - that is being dealt with at the moment by two pilots which are running at Magilligan and Hydebank Wood.

"We are also moving on our proposals for a different type of technology which might be applicable to Maghaberry.

"Following on from the report from the prison review team, the prison service has been actively working to avoid full body searching on the basis that it would be something which would ensure security for prisoners and prison staff, but something which is a lot more dignified to both prisoners and the staff who have to operate it."

The justice minister said there had been no "concessions made or discussions recently with the prisoners".

"This is an initiative which has come from them," he said.

Mr Ford said he did not know if those prisoners still on dirty protest would now choose to end their action.

"There have been two different groups within the separated republican prisoners," he said.

"Clearly there are complex relationships within the group of prisoners at Roe House and I'm hoping the group of assessors who have been assisting us in seeking to find a way through the current difficulties may be in a position to produce an assessment as to how the mood is on both landings of the house in the next week or two."

Paul Givan, the chairman of the assembly's justice committee, said republican prisoners were trying to return to the situation in the Maze Prison during the Troubles "when they ran their own wings".

"Irrespective of whether there is a protest or not, the current arrangements in Roe House for republican prisoners in Maghaberry are already a step too far and nobody should countenance a return to a Maze-style prison," he said.

"The NI Prison Service should outline the status of the prison protest in Roe House and its role in how the current situation has developed."

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