The Blanket

No Rest Days

Anthony McIntyre • 20.09.02

One of Britain’s Royal Family arrived here yesterday to see a few subjects, offer a couple of platitudes, sip wine, eat caviar and go back to the type of world where those whom she visited yesterday have already escaped the memory. Princess Anne’s reason for visiting ‘the colony’ was to tell the Northern Ireland Prison Service that she would never forget them although most likely, as I write, she already has.

Viewed as a form of auxiliary arm the Service has never managed to push its way through to the big hitting league in terms of how it is perceived in relation to the British state’s war against the IRA. Its members were often perceived as little more than mercenary types - bounty hunters eager to live off the fat which others in the RUC, British Army and UDR died to create. Such a depiction is somewhat ungracious, given that 29 members of the prison service died as a result of attack. Although only one ever died officially on duty the rest were doubtlessly killed because of their line of work. 27 died at the hands of republicans while loyalists claimed the lives of the other two. Up until yesterday, apart from a book by the journalist and author Chris Ryder, which ultimately concentrated more on the prisoners than their guards, nobody seemed to take much notice of the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

Republicanism is going through a form of remembrance culture these days with its events, gatherings, monument building and the construction of commemorative gardens. So it would ill behove us to complain about it when the Prison Service and their families do likewise. And, for sure, there is a majority of people in this country who would, in my opinion, wrongly view the IRA volunteers being honoured as little more than thugs with airs. Nevertheless, there is a form of historiography in the making which elevates certain experiences, surrounds them with particular myths, marginalises other accounts and seeks to establish as ‘truth’ one specific history.

Watching the gathering of the Northern Ireland Prison Service and relatives to receive their honour, I listened to one young woman who gave her name as Dawn Ferguson. She spoke sensitively about the father she had lost in 1988. He was a devoted ‘daddy’ who would always be loved and missed. Foolishly, I cast my mind back to 1988 trying to recall what prison staff had died around that period and who had the name Ferguson. It never occurred to me that Ferguson may have been the name assumed by Dawn when she married. I knew the name of one prison warder notorious for his violence but it was not Ferguson. Another was called Griffiths but he had died in 1989. He had served on the prison medical staff and had been killed by an IRA booby trap bomb, for what reason nobody in the prison seemed certain at the time. Perhaps a case of mistaken identity resulting from a logic that because a man may peer daily under his car before setting out to work that he must have a reason to fear being bombed and therefore merited a bomb being placed beneath his car. What logic governs such decisions is not always discernible.

Not long into the interview with Dawn Ferguson, it was revealed that her father was Brian Armour, a senior member of the Prison Officers’ Association. While I do not doubt for one minute that the ‘daddy’ depicted by Dawn Ferguson was everything she felt him to be, the experience of the blanket protestors of H-Block 4 was remarkably different. Brian Armour was a brutal man with a sadistic bent. From the circle of H4 despite being a basic grade officer - with no rank - he rather than the block’s Principal or Senior officers ran the show and framed the type of regime that prisoners would have to endure. Quite often, screws who were more humane in approach, while not actually joining in his violence, would acquiesce in the regime he imposed. Anyone openly dissenting would quickly be ostracised in the screws’ mess or have ‘IRA’ or something similar scraped on their car.

Brian Armour’s crimes against prisoners occurred with such frequency that it would take books to catalogue them. But amongst those that stand out as illustrating the malevolence of the man were regular beatings, degrading treatment, soaking, scalding and verbal abuse. On occasion he deprived those in his custody of food and tea. There were two obnoxious activities which he relished: during force washing he would vigorously scrub a prisoner’s testicles and buttocks region with a hedge hog type prickly brush normally used for cleaning toilets until blood, detergent and water mixed and flowed into the bath at the feet of some unfortunate; and during the mirror search he would finger a prisoner’s back passage and then use the same fingers to carry out an internal search of the mouth.

Christmas morning 1979 saw myself, Seamy Finucane and Micky Fitzsimons retuning from mass, each of us wearing only the prison trousers without which we could not have attended the weekly service. On entering the double cell at the top of the wing to disrobe and pull on a towel for the short journey back to our cells, I, fortunately was told to ‘clear off’ while my two fellow blanket men were kicked down into a squat position over the mirror and then beaten and anally searched. Most screws, the worst included, would not have bothered on that day. It was simply Brian Armour’s way of saying there was no rest day out of the 365 inflicted on us each year in that humanitarian desert.

When Brian Armour died in 1988, blown apart by an IRA bomb placed beneath his car, it left me cold. I merely felt that had a passer-by covered his body with a blanket it would have been fitting, symbolising both the potency and victory of our essentially passive protest over the futility of his violence. That coldness remained with me up until I saw his daughter on television yesterday. During the blanket protest I often wondered if he had children and if so would he be capable of showing love to them? Could a being so devoid of human compassion and motivated by sheer sadism abandon that persona when he took off the prison uniform at night? Dawn Ferguson obviously thought so. She knew a different person. I moved on to forget him, she can not. For that reason alone her loss wasn’t worth it. And on reflection the contrast between her experience and mine brought to mind the observation of Oscar Wilde: ‘the prison system - a system so terrible that it hardens their hearts whose hearts it does not break, and brutalises those who have to carry it out no less than those who have to submit to it’.





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Start doing the things you think should be done, and start being what you think society should become. Do you believe in free speech? Then speak freely. Do you love the truth? Then tell it. Do you believe in an open society? Then act in the open. Do you believe in a decent and humane society? Then behave decently and humanely.
- Adam Michnik

Index: Current Articles

29 September 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Landlordism and the Housing Question
Liam O Ruairc


No Rest Days

Anthony McIntyre


The Meeting
Davy Carlin


It Shall All Come Tumbling Down
Sam Bahour


26 September 2002


IRA Volunteer Charlie Hughes and the Courage of the Brave
Brendan Hughes


A Question of Identity

Billy Mitchell


Road Kill
Liam O Ruairc


Pakistan and Military Dictators

Anthony McIntyre


Baghdad's Think-Tank Bomb
John Chuckman


Solidarity: 2 Notices
Sam Bahour and Fred Schlomka




The Blanket




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