As abolitionists in Britain, we often see America — specifically the Black radical tradition in America — as the home of abolition. This is for good reason; with revolutionaries such as W.E.B. Du Bois, George Jackson and Angela Davis, Black Americans have been pioneering abolition for centuries. However, an abolitionist tradition is much closer than many of us realise. If we were only to look to the North of Ireland — or occupied six counties — we would find a long, popular struggle against the oppressive forces of prisons and policing.
Policing in Ireland was a colonial invention to suppress anti-British dissent, and it has functioned that way ever since. After the partition of Ireland in 1920, Irish Catholics in the North of Ireland faced brutal and unrelenting state violence for their very existence. Gerrymandered into squalid ghettos, terrorised by police and segregated from society, any attempt to agitate for basic civil rights was ruthlessly suppressed by the state.
It was calls from this persecuted Catholic community for defence against violent state forces that revived the previously dormant Irish Republican Army. When Bombay Street, a Catholic area in Belfast, was burned out by loyalist gangs with police aid in 1969, killing 5 and leaving many families homeless, the demand for resistance became widespread. In an environment where police murder and violence were an everyday occurrence, it is no surprise that Catholic communities became de-facto abolitionist.
The British reaction to this increasing resistance and IRA popularity was Operation Demetrius — internment without trial. The British army, with the help of the local police force known as the RUC, stormed Catholic communities, arresting, incarcerating and torturing people in the Long Kesh internment camps. With hundreds imprisoned and 7,000 people made refugees, the true function of policing and prisons was indisputable within Irish Catholic communities.
It was in this environment of severe police violence that the Catholics of Derry began to riot, resist and defy the state. After residents of the Bogside area revolted against police forces in the Battle of the Bogside, they declared it an autonomous zone. People erected barricades and blockades to prevent the police entering. ‘Radio Free Derry’ broadcasted rebel songs and calls to resistance. ‘You are now entering Free Derry’ was painted on a corner house signifying a police-free zone. It is now an infamous slogan adopted the world over — from Palestine to the Basque country. Lasting intermittently for three years, Free Derry shows the power of a community united against policing. It is a symbol of revolution — the seizing of the streets by an oppressed people. Free Derry is abolition.
One resident of Free Derry was Bernadette Devlin, a strong-willed, working class woman whose straight talking made her a natural advocate for her people. Elected as an MP aged only 21, she is well known for slapping a Tory MP in Parliament and as a leading voice in the fight to abolish the barbaric H-Blocks prison. After her 4-month prison sentence for ‘riotous behaviour’, she gave an insightful interview on the oppressive function of the law. Typifying abolitionist views on the criminal justice system in one sentence, she explained
‘When we break the law, we go to jail. When the government breaks the law, the government changes the law.’
Bernadette Devlin would later become friends with the revolutionary abolitionist Angela Davis after Devlin visited Davis in prison in 1971. In future, Davis would be a leading voice in the struggle to free Bernadette Devlin’s daughter, Róisín McAliskey, from prison. Speaking at a rally protesting McAliskey’s detention, Angela Davis condemned the ‘terrible treatment of Róisín McAliskey by her British captors… Róisín must be freed, and Northern Ireland released from the shackles of British imperialism!’
Bernadette herself went on a tour around America to raise funds for refugees and political prisoners in Ireland, only to be faced with the violent racism of Irish American assimilationists. Despite these crowds sending millions of dollars to support Irish Republican prisoners back home, many were agents of the same oppressive policing system that tyrannises marginalised communities in America. Devlin was known to scold these crowds, meeting instead with the Young Lords and Black Panthers, famously giving them the freedom key to New York that she had been awarded by the city’s mayor.
The Black Panthers themselves reported on the situation in the six counties, publishing an article with unbelievable foresight entitled ‘Ireland Oppressed Fights Back.’ An Phoblacht, the Irish Republican newspaper, was in-turn outspoken in their support for Mumia Abu-Jamal, a political prisoner in the struggle for Black liberation, asserting that
‘We in Ireland have had too much experience of corrupt legal systems in the past to watch quietly from the side-lines as Abu-Jamal goes to his death.’
It is no surprise that Irish Catholic communities were so quick to express solidarity with other political prisoners, given their long history of imprisonment at the hands of the British state. For centuries, Irish prisoners of war have resisted incarceration in various ways – Terence MacSwiney’s hunger strike in 1920 was known to have inspired figures including Ho Chi Minh and Marcus Garvey. It was this long-held tradition of hunger striking that political prisoners seized upon during the Troubles to gain support for the movement.
Whilst multiple hunger strikes were held during the war, the 1981 hunger strike stands out as both the most notable and devastating, with 10 hunger strikers being led to their deaths by British governmental contempt. One hunger striker, Bobby Sands, was even elected as an MP during his 66 days of starvation, an act of revolutionary defiance that exemplifies the support Republican prisoners had within Catholic communities. Public consciousness was permeated with the abolitionist understanding that prisons function to silence the oppressed and resisters. To this day, Irish Republican reverence of prisoners is expressed in commemorative ceremonies and murals plastered across street walls.
This solidarity with republican prisoners extended beyond just vocal support from the outside – prison breaks were a key feature of the Irish anti-colonial struggle. On one occasion, an IRA member hijacked a helicopter and soared into D wing of Mountjoy prison to pick up 3 IRA prisoners, flying off to a brief 3 days of freedom. During the infamous 1983 Maze Prison escape, 38 IRA prisoners’ elaborate plan included smuggling in guns, dressing as prison officers and hijacking a food truck to escape. This was not without hitches – many escapees were captured, whilst others returned to IRA active service or lived on the run. One man, Gerard Fryers, has never been traced since.
Whilst the Troubles was largely contained to the six counties, Irish communities in Britain were also under constant surveillance. This over-policing led to the famous cases of the Birmingham Six, Maguire Seven and Guildford Four, where Irish people were convicted of terror offences based on their nationality and fabricated evidence, despite their innocence. Abolition doesn’t differentiate between guilt and innocence when thinking about the humanity of those incarcerated, but these blatant injustices further entrenched Irish communities’ already existing mistrust in security forces.
When the war was finally brought to a close by the fragile peace talks enshrined in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, one of the agreement’s terms led to the release of 500 prisoners convicted of violent offences. Society did not erupt into chaos, despite the uncertain post-conflict landscape. If that’s not an obvious endorsement of #FreeThemAll, what is?
The war against british occupation in Ireland was characterised by pain and struggle, but the forging of community abolition provides seeds of hope for those of us fighting against the carceral state years later. Irish Republicans cannot afford to lose sight of our radical tradition. In Bobby Sands’ own words,
‘People of Ireland, dwell well on these lines…
If you knew but the torture, that the prisoners know well,
You’d storm these dungeons, you’d tear down this hell.’
No one is more aware of the violence of policing and prisons than oppressed communities across the world, and no one is more imaginative in their resistance. It’s time we learnt from their example. Let’s liberate our communities like Bogside residents liberated Derry. Here’s to an abolitionist United Ireland and a Free Derry World.
Róisín Spealáin is a freelance writer and activist based in London, focusing on abolition and the psychiatric industrial complex. You can find them on Twitter at @roisinminh
Pluto publishes extensively on Partition, the IRA and other issues relating to Irish Republicanism and unification. Where Grieving Begins is a new memoir of the IRA fighter Patrick Magee, otherwise known as the Brighton Bomber. Our forthcoming books include Repealed by Camilla Fitzsimons and Sinead Kennedy, about the fight for reproductive justice, and 32 Counties by Kieran Allen, which looks at the history of partition and calls for a united Ireland.