I have never been a fan of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, knowing only too well how petty it can be on a good day and brutal on a bad. I also feel it is one of the few entities of state officialdom in the North that has managed to find shelter from the reformist winds of change that have breezed through - there have been no hurricanes laying flat the old - other institutional corridors of power.
Nor can I foresee myself ever abandoning the perspective of the imprisoned in favor of their jailers. Scabs cross picket lines and as my sympathies were always more inclined toward Scargill than Lynk, I don’t envisage figuratively turning the key on a cell door.
Back in the day I could on occasion be found rejoicing when the Prison Service was attacked by the IRA, feeling that somebody had settled up on our account. It was little more than the revenge induced satiation that comes with seeing a vicious foe downed.
I felt none of that late last week on learning that a member of staff at Hydebank Prison had narrowly missed death when an “up and under” exploded beneath his vehicle as he travelled to work. Having been a republican prisoner was circumscribing enough without adding to it by continuing to be imprisoned in a mindset that sees in political homicide chivalry because it is done to the sound of trumpets.
Whatever the problems of the North are, and there are doubtless many, any redress will most certainly not be found in the application of strategically bankrupt armed force. Lethal on occasion, armed acts by republican groups are at best only marginally, if at all effective. They induce no political change and instead serve to justify the existence of a security apparatus that will sound the siren for more power over society in the form of greater anti-civil liberties measures and repressive legislation on top of the considerable raft already in place. If this is all the proponents of armed action can secure, their most salient achievement is a shackling of society rather than any liberation of it, incrementally moving it in the direction of a “carceral archipelago” where citizens are increasingly surveilled and controlled.
There is no war against the British in the North, just the rare armed attack from any one of a number of republican groups at best drawing legitimacy from their own ideological rigidity and not from the people whose interests they spuriously claim to be advancing. Senior PSNI officer Stephen Martin inflates the relevance of armed republican activity with his assertion that their potential is at "the upper end of severe". In terms of their ability to make anything happen, armed republican actions are not severe at all.
Politically powerless, strategically sterile, militarily miniscule it is exceedingly challenging to find a logic other than that of tradition for these armed actions. If they serve a purpose other than to sate some existential need for retribution against a perceived injustice, I wholly fail to see it. Strategicless armed adventurism easily qualifies as the antithesis of what a republican strategy should be.
Martin McGuinness, who armed republicans will not listen to anyway, said those who carried out the attack need to "reflect on the futility of their actions and realise there is no prospect of them achieving anything in this way." He should know, having directed an armed campaign that claimed the lives of many prison staff, just to end up philosophically endorsing and routinely administering the very partition he long sought through armed struggle to overthrow.
Not all Sinn Fein’s elected representatives are as unambiguous as McGuinness. Tony McCaul, one of the party’s councilors in the Causeway Coast and Glens is someone armed republicans will see as making more sense than McGuinness. Commenting shortly after the attack, although not in relation to it, Councillor McCaul said armed attacks were a question of expediency, that “Republicans can never rule out any tactic including violence.”
His main difference with the bombers seems to have been not that the attack on the prison officer was wrong: just the timing. It just doesn’t happen to be expedient right now.
Bobby Sands’ much cited comment on the laughter of our children seems so far removed from last week’s bombing attack which caused no children to laugh. More applicable than the words of Sands are those of his fellow writer Iain Banks: “Fuck Every Cause That Ends In Murder And Children Crying.”