I don’t recall what expletive escaped my lips upon being told of the utterances of David Ford the Northern Justice Minister about an incident at Maghaberry Prison in November where prison staff assaulted Tony Taylor, a republican prisoner. Taylor was beaten badly enough to leave him with a broken wrist as well as a range of less serious injuries.
The SDLP’s, Pat Ramsey, the most active campaigner in Stormont for prisoners’ rights in the North, asked Ford to detail:
the circumstances surrounding the assault of Tony Taylor, a prisoner in Roe House, where he sustained a broken wrist while awaiting transport to court ...whether, as has been mooted, Mr Taylor began the altercation, how he did so when handcuffed and connected to a chain which meant that he could not lift his hands ... whether any prison officers have been charged by the PSNI or reprimanded by the Prison Service in relation to misconduct.
Following an investigation into the circumstances surrounding this incident, it was found that the prisoner became aggressive when refused permission to bring documents to court. Under the Data Protection Act (1998) it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the specific details of the investigation other than to confirm that the prisoner has been informed that no evidence has been found to support his complaint that he was assaulted by a member of prison staff.
In terms of being believable, in Northern political discourse this is on a par with claims by Gerry Adams that he was never a member of the IRA. Anyone familiar with Northern jails, particularly those who have spent time in them know only too well that violent thugs belonging to the POA gang have long roamed the North’s prisons. But Ford is not interested in doing anything about that inconvenient truth. He shows no inclination to investigate, preferring instead to read from the NIO template of the 1970s when beatings were as routinely administered as they were denied by British officialdom. He lacks the courage required to administer justice in the jails he claims to be in charge of.
Despite thousands of assaults during the course of the blanket protest there was never one member of prison staff hauled before the courts. Every beating was denied by the NIO. It was organised lying, from the top of the bottom of the penal establishment. There was nothing short of systemic violence and cover up.
The violence against people in custody was a feature of the times. The ridiculous Ken Newman head of the RUC, would Ford-like lay blame at the bruised feet of the victims by claiming they were beating themselves up to blacken the name of his force.
Hiding behind the Data Protection Act is a foil to the ethos supposedly behind the Freedom of Information Act. It is designed to ensure that closed institutions remain closed from public scrutiny.
At the very least David Ford as Justice Minister demonstrates by resort to timeless NIO tactics that the political face lift that the North was in receipt of continues to mask an underlying reality: violence against Irish citizens by agencies of the British state will be addressed as it has always been: covered for and not confronted.
In the second week of November former republican prisoner and recipient of more than one beating, Sinn Fein MLA Raymond McCartney publicised his intent to ask:
the Justice Minister David Ford to carry out an investigation into this incident. And I will also be in contact with the Prisons Ombudsman Pauline McCabe to see if she is has initiated an investigation and I will be requesting to be kept fully up to date of all matters relating to this incident.
Raymond McCartney, better than most knows a fraudulent denial of prison staff abuse when he sees one. For years he experienced firsthand the lies endlessly churned out by the NIO to cover up the beatings it approved. He realises the Ford response is disingenuous nonsense. Is he prepared to challenge Ford in the way that previous governmental brutality-deniers such as Don Concannon were challenged? Hopefully the comforts of a plush office will not dissuade him from recalling the Spartan harshness of a bare cell.