25 August 2005

Outrage at DUP man's Hunger Strike comments


“I have friends who are prison officers, and they told me that their best time in the Maze was when the Provos were on hunger strike, because they lived like animals, and that’s what they were!”

Republicans and nationalists expressed outrage yesterday, following the comments of a DUP councillor who claimed his friends in the Prison Service revelled in the suffering of the 1981 hunger strikers, and described them as “animals”.

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DUP's Paul Given

Speaking at Lisburn City Council on Tuesday night, Councillor Paul Given (above) expressed his views on why councillors should bestow the freedom of the city on the Northern Ireland Prison Service, saying: “I have friends who are prison officers, and they told me that their best time in the Maze was when the Provos were on hunger strike, because they lived like animals, and that’s what they were.”

Minutes after Cllr Given’s comment, members of the DUP, UUP and Alliance passed a motion to bestow the freedom of the city on the Prison Service.

Yesterday, nationalists and republicans reacted angrily to Tuesday night’s events. Former hunger striker Lawrence McKeown said that he was “not surprised” by the alleged mentality of the prison officers.

Angry reaction to DUP man’s hunger strike comments

“The period from 1976 to 1981 was obviously a delight for many prison guards in Long Kesh,” he said. “They were brought in to oversee a policy of criminalisation of republicans, and earned substantially more money than others in their field for doing so. This young councillor’s comment only verifies what we already knew, and it’s also no surprise to me that the DUP would want to commend people of this twisted mentality by offering them the freedom of the city, for what it’s worth.”

Mike Ritchie, who now works for Coiste na n-Iarchimí promoting the economic and emotional well-being of republican ex-prisoners, said Cllr Given’s remarks are “consistent with the demonisation of ex-prisoners that has infused DUP thinking since the Good Friday Agreement.”

He added: “The prison protests were caused by the refusal of unionism and the British government to recognise the political motivation which led people to involve themselves in conflict.”

Mr Ritchie added that all those involved in the Coiste are “repulsed” by Cllr Given’s statement. Coiste plan to send a letter to Lisburn City Council expressing their condemnation of what was said in council chambers.

“The people described as ‘animals’ by Mr Given are the peace-builders of Ireland,” he said. “When they stand for election they are endorsed by the electorate, as was Bobby Sands MP. When they speak in support of the peace process they are listened to. The protest – and the sacrifice of the hunger strikers – has been internationally recognised as emblemetic of the justness of their cause.

“This is evidenced by the fact that the prison and the hospital where the hunger strikers died has been listed as a building of significant historical importance – an argument we successfully made to the Maze Consultation Panel that made proposals for the future of the site in January 2005.”

Mr Ritchie pointed out that the Prison Service has been exposed as “a sectarian institution, which has no confidence amongst nationalists, as evidenced by the fact that less than 10 per cent of staff are from a Catholic background”.

Sinn Féin councillor Angela Nelson, who was in attendance during Tuesday’s meeting said the comment was “not only offensive and disgraceful in its own right, but an illustration of the sectarian and bigoted character of many within the Prison Service, whom the DUP are only too happy to commend through their motion to bestow freedom of the city.”

SDLP councillor Brian Heading, who also attended Tuesday night’s meeting, said that if Cllr Given’s claims were true, they cast serious aspersions on the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

“If it is the case that these prison officers have voiced this opinion, then this is a grave matter and Cllr Given, if he can stand by what he says, should pass on the names of these employees who have failed to carry out their duty as prison officers.” He added that to bestow the freedom of the city on the Prison Service minutes later, with no condemnation of Cllr Given’s remarks, was “highly insensitive”.

Responding to Mr Given’s remarks, a spokesperson for the Prison Service told the Andersonstown News: “There is a duty on prison staff to ensure that prisoners are treated with dignity, and when outside the prison environment they shall not commit any action by word or by deed that is likely to bring discredit on the Prison Service.”

Speaking to the Andersonstown News last night Cllr Paul Given said he stood by his comments.

Journalist:: Staff Reporter

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