Intervista in esclusiva di Flavio Bacci a Stephen Murney, attivista di éirígí, tornato recentemente in libertà dopo aver trascorso 14 mesi tra le sbarre di Maghaberry in regime di ‘internamento preventivo’
La redazione di The Five Demands ringrazia Stephen Murney per la disponibilità e decide di dare precedenza alla versione in lingua inglese dell’intervista. (Versione in lingua italiana dell’intervista)
Stephen is a 30 year old political activist. In his role as an active member of socialist republican party, éirígí, he had reported on several occasions the actions of the PSNI in the Newry area, where he lives and works. One of the greatest concerns raised by Stephen was the repeated stop-and- search policy of the PSNI, this is a common practice to ‘monitor, humiliate and demoralise Irish Republicans and state opponents in the North’.
On November 28th 2012, Murney was taken from his home by the police to the Antrim detention centre where he faced several rounds of interrogations.
On December 1st, the activist was moved to Maghaberry where he remained for 14 months. Once charges were formalized, Stephen bore a lengthy process for three allegations:
- Collecting information likely to be of use to terrorists.
- Distributing information likely to be of use to terrorists.
- Having articles likely to be of use to terrorists.
The first two charges were referring to the numerous photos of commemorations, protests and meetings which Murney had attended along with many others. Those photos mainly consisted of evidence of police harassment of local people in the Newry area.
The third claimed that ‘suspicious items’ were found at Murney’s home. In particular police stressed how some clothes (which are later found to be part of a uniform of a local Republican Flute band, in which there are numerous pictures of him marching in a perfectly legal and legitimate manner) and two toy ns might be used for terrorist purposes.
The detention of Stephen Murney , considered illegal and as another facet of political policing, by Republicans, led to a huge mobilization on social media (Free Stephen Murney page reached a thousand ‘likes’ in a few days) and on the streets where many rallies were held.
After 14 months in jail awaiting the verdict (according to the interment by remand terms), Murney was found innocent and was immediately freed . Just out he said: ‘My imprisonment for the past 14 months was as a direct result of my political views and my membership of éirígí – an open and legitimate political party.’
F.B. First of all, how do you feel after a 14 months detention?
S.M. To be honest, the impact was far greater upon my family than any effect it had on me. My partner was left at home with three kids to raise. My youngest son, who was 6 at the time of my arrest, was very visibly shaken and terrified when heavily armed PSNI personnel smashed in the front door of our home at 6am, handcuffed me and took me away. Incidents like that can be very traumatic experiences for any young child.
Additionally, and although my partner, parents and the rest of my family knew there was no substance to the PSNI charges, they had no idea how long I would be held for. That simple fact alone caused them a lot of stress.
With regards to the effect it had on me, it has helped me learn a lot about Republican prison struggle and what prison life for Republicans entails, particularly when faced with an oppressive and restrictive regime such as the one in place in Maghaberry.
F.B. Let’s start from the beginning. The PSNI arrested you with three different allegations to which they will add others. In short, you have been accused of providing information to ‘terrorists’ otherwise the IRA. Do you consider that a simple miscarriage of justice or a proper judicial persecution?
S.M. I was initially charged with what the PSNI called information likely to be of use to terrorists, distributing information likely to be of use to terrorists and having articles likely to be of use to terrorists. It worth pointing out that these were photographs which had accompanied party press releases to the media.
On February 20, 2013, the PSNI removed me from Maghaberry Prison and took me back to Antrim interrogation centre for further ‘questioning’. The following day the British state levelled additional charges against me, in a move widely seen as an attempt to bolster the very weak case.
The new charges included one of ‘possession of articles for use in terror’ and ‘aiding and abetting in criminal damage to property owned by persons unknown’. The former charge relate to a single photograph allegedly recovered from my computer which I had already been charged with possessing. The later charge related to the possession of a number of political stencils.
From the outset I and my legal team made it clear that there no case for me to answer, that I was innocent of these charges yet I still spent 14 months in prison in what the British “justice system” would call “due process”.
‘Internment by remand’ is merely a more subtle and insidious form of internment. It is not a new invention given that, as a process, ‘internment by remand’ commenced as a planned strategy in the late 1970s. Britain would claim that this was part of a legitimate legal process as, unlike internment without trial, persons faced charges, court appearances and the possibility of a conviction at trial on some far off future date. Furthermore, as this strategy of ‘internment by remand’ also involves the prosecution service, the judiciary, and the wider legal system, Britain could respond to critics of the system and deflect justifiable censure by claiming that ‘due process must take its course’.
That, of course, was the illusion.
F.B. You probably visited Maghaberry in your role of activist before your incarceration. But what were your first impressions of the prison when you were transferred there, as a prisoner?
S.M. Before I was interned I was involved campaigns to defend the human rights of political prisoners and that entailed going to visit some of them in Maghaberry. Little did I know that as a result of my activism I would end up amongst them in Maghaberry as a political prisoner.
When I first entered the Republican wing on Roe 4 the first thing that hit me was the smell. It hit me like a brick wall. Just a fortnight beforehand, Republican prisoners had just ended a “dirty protest” lasting 18 months. When I was first placed in my cell there was still human excrement on the walls from the protest and it was several months before the prison administration decided to clean it off.
I had often heard the stories of what it was like in Roe House but nothing prepared me for the vindictiveness of the screws and the extremely restrictive regime that was in place. Controlled movement remains in place. At times only one prisoner is allowed onto the landing at a time. If you need to go to the shower, several screws escort you to the shower room. It’s the same if you need to go to the laundry room or back to your cell. Then we have the isolation of Republican prisoners in which some prisoners are selectively targeted and placed in isolation by themselves. When in isolation they have no contact with any other prisoners and are locked up 23 hours a day. Gavin Coyle has been held in isolation for a number of years now and this is nothing more than a form of psychological torture. And of course the strip searching of Republican Prisoners is still in place despite the advances in technology.
F.B. Long Kesh and Maghaberry. Past and present. Do you really think that prison conditions in Maghaberry are as drastic as those which were in Long Kesh? I was wondering if you could describe a typical day as a Maghaberry prisoner on a Republican landing.
S.M. A typical day would entail wakening up to the sound of alarm bells ringing at 7am. This would be after a sleepless night due to the screws banging and kicking your cell door, lifting the flap and shining a torch in your face before slamming the flap shut. This would happen throughout the night so you wouldn’t get much sleep.
The cell doors would then be opened at around 8.15, one at a time ( only 3 prisoners are allowed on the landing at any given time and sometimes just one) and you would then make your way to the canteen in which your are locked in. Basically rather than being locked in your cell all day you are locked in a larger room all day.
If you wanted to go back to your cell then the controlled movement kicks in again. You have to press a button for the screws to let you out of the canteen. Then you walk to the slider and step in between the grills. When the screws eventually open the grills you step onto the landing. You are then escorted by up to 3 screws to your cell. If you are staying in your cell the door is slammed behind you and locked. If you are simply getting something from your cell such as a newspaper etc then the screws stand at your door and watch you, then you have to go through the whole process again to get back to the canteen and once again locked in there.
You have to go through the same process if you want to go to the shower or the laundry room. It’s very restrictive and unnecessary.
While it’s not the same as Long Kesh there are similarities.
When I was interned in Maghaberry i read a book called “Hard Time” by Raymond Murray, which was about the women prisoners being held at the time. There was a page about strip searching and controlled movement and the similarities were shocking.
Here’s a short extract from the book:
“Male officers dressed in riot gear with batons and shields stood by….the prisoners were seized and dragged to the floor; their faces pushed tightly into the ground so that they could not see and their mouths were covered to stifle their screams. They were then stripped naked.”
Any Republican prisoner who has been in Maghaberry in recent times can relate to this description of the forced strip searches even though this account occurred decades ago.
Similarly in the same book there is a description of the controlled movement that the women Republican Prisoners were subjected to:
“There was severe restriction on movement. Once the prisoners left the cells and the bathroom area and entered the association and kitchen area they were cut off by a grill and could not re-enter. Similarly for outside recreation in the yard, the choice lay between being locked in the cell or staying outside whatever the weather.”
Bear in mind these are descriptions of the conditions in the mid 1980s
The resemblance between the strip searching and controlled movement that took place decades ago and the conditions in use today is very striking.
This shows how unwilling the prison administration is unwilling to move forward to help create a conflict free environment which is what the Republican prisoners envisage.
F.B. Something that really struck me while I was reading your own dramatic description of the practice of strip searches in Maghaberry (description shown below) was the absolute futility of the search. How do you maintain your political conviction in a place designed to be so oppressive and humiliating?
S.M. Strip searching of Republican Prisoners has been taking place for decades, as a child a remember taking part in a massive protest rally and i was holding a poster calling for an end to the strip searching of women Republican prisoners in Maghaberry at the time.
Today little has changed despite the advances in technology. The forced strip searching that takes place in Maghaberry today is still brutal, humiliating and very degrading.
I was forcefully stripped between 20-30 times during my internment and other Republican prisoners have endured it many more times. The technology, the BOSS chair, is in the prison and could put an end to this draconian practice, but the prison administration for their own vindictive reasons won’t use it for prisoners entering or leaving the prison.
F.B. I noticed you built strong relationships while in prison. What is the relationship between republican prisoners in Maghaberry? Could you talk about the importance of engaging in solidarity with other political prisoners?
S.M. I made some very good friends while I was in Maghaberry, some of them I knew beforehand from campaigning for them. The camaraderie and morale among the men is high despite the circumstances with which they are faced. I left Maghaberry knowing that I have developed, what will be, lifelong friendships. It’s important that people show solidarity and support with the Republican prisoners, even simple things like sending a letter or a card makes a difference to them.
F.B. After your arrest, the mobilization of the republican movement was very quick to your cause and it has raised awareness among the public opinion on your case and cases similar. How important was the external pressure on the decision to give you back your freedom?
S.M. The main thing about people mobilising on the outside is to create awareness about what is happening. Constitutional nationalist parties try to portray the six-counties as a “normal society” when in fact it is far from normal. Many of the old repressive injustices remain including internment, political policing, Diplock courts and ongoing MI5/British military activity.
It’s important for people to expose the reality of what is happening in the North.
F.B. If you could give a message to whoever it was in MI5 or the British establishment, that directed your arrest what would you say?
S.M. The agencies responsible for my arrest and internment are the same agencies who have been trying to break the resolve and determination of Republicans for decades using those very same means and methods. They failed in the past and they will fail today.
F.B. You have taken issue many times with the PSNI policy of stop and search, do you believe that this system works in the states favor in any way, or does it serve to highlight the political nature still apparent in policing in the north?
S.M. The stop and search powers are used for ‘dragnet’ low level intelligence gathering exercises and general intimidation and harassment. When the PSNI are targeting people using these powers simply because of that persons political beliefs that that is simply political policing which is very much still a part of British policing in the six-counties.
F.B. éirígí, the party you joined, attitudes towards the armed struggle is often ambivalent. What is your personal opinion?
S.M. As a party, éirígí is far from ambivalent regarding armed struggle and that has been made clear repeatedly. I believe that we need to be honest about the position in which Republicanism finds itself today. The Republican struggle is currently in a fractured and weakened state, there is no denying that fact. On numerous times since éirígí were formed we have made our position clear and have given our analysis on the way forward.
Murney account of his strip-searches
‘..at this point I made it known that I would not be complying with the strip-search as it was degrading and humiliating for prisoners. I was then taken and placed in a ‘holding cell’ and informed that I had 15 minutes to rethink my decision. This ‘reflection period’ is solely designed as a psychological ploy to strike fear and worry into prisoners as they wait for what lies ahead.
…the screw standing in front of me grabs me by the face with both his hands while, simultaneously, the two screws each side of me grab my arms and stretch them outright forcing me to stand in a crucifix position.
Both my wrists are forcibly twisted and bent backwards, causing extreme pain and discomfort. I am forced onto my knees. As the screw in front pushes my face into the ground, the screw behind me then pulls both my legs from under me. I am now being held on the ground still in a crucifix position by four screws. I am forcibly held down with my face pushed into the ground. Both my legs are being held by two screws.
My arms are still outstretched with both my wrists twisted and bent in an almost impossible position. While I am held in this position my jumper is forcefully pulled off and thrown into the corner, my shoes and socks are the pulled off, next my jeans are very forcefully yanked down in a manner, which clearly, is only used to inflict pain on the prisoner.
Lastly my underwear is pulled down. I am now lying on the floor of the cell completely naked, humiliated and degraded. My clothes are lying in the corner of the cell. My face is throbbing, my wrists are aching and, while I am lying there naked, those responsible stand towering above me…’