Previously confidential state papers from the height of the Troubles have shed new light on Dungannon priest and human rights activist Father Denis Faul and his attempts to raise concerns about security force harrasment and the plight of prisoners.
Minutes from top secret meetings in early 1985 outline how government ministers prepared to deal with the priest’s allegations.
The briefings include advice on what line to take over the strip searching of female prisoners and the confiscation of Irish bibles at the Maze prison.
Father Faul, Coalisland Councillor Jim Canning and Father Raymond Murray were due to meet the Secretary of State Tom King on July 8, 1985, to discuss various prison and security issues.
The three men were active members of the umbrella organisation ‘Help the Prisoners Committee’ set up in August 1981. One of their primary aims was to achieve the speedier release of prisoners serving life and ‘at the Secretary of State’s pleasure’ sentences.
Father Faul had also expressed concern about the confiscation of prisoners’ bibles.
The papers reveal that prison authorities had removed the bibles after concerns about the possible propaganda and fund raising potential of the items, which had the names of prisoners ‘autographed’ on the flysheets.
Advisors believed that the bibles might become highly prized in certain circles, such as among Noraid donors.
One of the bibles shown to ministers had 117 signatures, as well as personal sentences from the prisoners.
Ministers were also concerned that the bibles could be used to transmit information about certain prison officers and their home addresses.
A sense of the Northern Ireland’s office caution before the meeting can be divulged from a warning that ministers would have to prepare in detail for Father Faul’s complaints about security force harassment, in particular from the UDR. Father Faul was vociferously calling for the disbandment of the force, at the time.
Ministers acknowledged during briefings that many prisoners serving life had been caught up in violence at an early ‘impressionable’ age. At the time, there were 377 persons serving life imprisonment and 62 persons detained during the pleasure of the Secretary of State.