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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .


Defenders or Criminals: Loyalist Prisoners and Criminalisation
Colin Crawford

(Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1999)
l88pp. Index. Bibl. 12.99; ISBN 085640649X



Crawford's book attempts two things. Firstly, to ascertain the reasons behind the British Government's decision to end special category status for paramilitary prisoners in Northern Ireland. and secondly, to analyse the effects of imprisonment on the political psychology of paramilitary prisoners. focusing largely on the Loyalists; Loyalists being those paramilitaries who engage in violence in support of the Union with Britain and in opposition to Irish Republicanism.

The first section of the book is abrasive in its denunciation of prisons policy in Ulster and its place in the overall political strategy of the government. The criminalisation of paramilitary prisoners, who up until 1976 enjoyed status and privileges comparable to those of prisoners of war, in conditions which Crawford refers to as "humane containment," (p. 26) is described in terms of a psychological weapon "introduced to ruthlessly discount and delegitimise the prisoners not only as political prisoners but as human beings." (p. 21) Crawford's reasoning for this British engagement in psychological warfare is direct and provocative. His contention is that the Government was pushing for withdrawal from the province, but could not openly do so because of the constitutional guarantee to its citizens. In British eves, this necessitated a situation in which the conflict would be escalated to near anarchy by severely provoking the most important constituency within the paramilitary organisations. the prisoners. In the miniature civil war that would follow, the British could thus be seen "to be forced out, to have had no reasonable choice." (p. 65) Crawford's conspiratorial analysis has something of the X Files about it. Like all good conspiracy theories it contains a seed of truth, but the problem lies in the weak and rather infertile empirical medium within which it germinates. From 1974 - 75 there were widely held suspicions that the British Government was considering withdrawal, with some basis in reality, but the Government was not using the prisons issue as a means of fomenting disorder in pursuance of a slippery exit. There is evidence that the Government did attempt to steer Loyalist paramilitaries into a type of "Ulster Nationalism" in which they might break the Union themselves, but the effect was faltering and doomed to failure. The real germ of British criminalisation policy can be found in the Gardiner report of January 1975, an official report into prisons policy in Northern Ireland and a document for which there is inexplicably no reference in Crawford's work. The Gardiner report concluded that special category status gave political credence and the propaganda edge to terrorists, was insufficient as a deterrent and fostered the destabilising belief that an amnesty might occur. Following the collapse of various political initiatives, the British Government put the emphasis on a security policy of "normalisation" that might at least contain terrorism and deprive it of credibility, and within ten months the Gardiner report was largely being implemented. Criminalisation was a ham fisted and futile attempt at grafting a veneer of normalcy onto the conflict but it was not an attempt at British withdrawal. After all, criminalisation reached crisis point during the Hunger strikes of 1981 and can anyone seriously believe that Mrs. Thatcher was pursuing a policy of troops out?

The second half of the book is excellent however and extremely illuminating in defining the political thinking of Loyalist prisoners. The defensive, communal and largely amateurish nature of their campaign and the ideological processes within it is underlined by the author, in contrast to the more politically sophisticated, if equally militant, approach of Republicans. The empirical basis of this section is in the form of questionnaire data and excerpts from interviews with prisoners and highlights the counterproductive nature of criminalistion in subduing paramilitary violence. The interviews with former prison officers graphically illustrate the brutality involved in criminalisation when used as psychological warfare. The book is worth reading for part two alone, but the contention that criminalisation was British withdrawal by stealth, rather than an inept strategy for the suppression of terrorism is questionable.


Kris Brown
The Queen's University Belfast




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