The British policy of criminalizing the Irish struggle for independence continued when the “criminalization” of Irish republican prisoners was launched on March 1, 1976. Prisoners had their “Special Category Status” (de facto political status) revoked by the Thatcher administration that day. The revocation of political status meant that Irish republican prisoners would be treated the same as ordinary criminals. The significance of this revocation was encapsulated in Francie Brolly’s “H-Block Song”:
”I’ll wear no convict’s uniform, nor meekly serve my time, so that Britain might brand Ireland’s fight eight-hundred years of crime.”
By criminalizing Irish republicans of the 1970s, the Thatcher administration was attempting to sever the legacy of Irish republicanism that had been passed through the generations since 1798. When Kieran Nugent was the first prisoner sentenced under this new legislation, he told the prison warders they would have to nail the criminal uniform to his back. Left with just a blanket, he became the first “blanketman,” and the “blanket protest” had begun.
Savage beatings and intrusive body searches left republican prisoners unable to use the toilet facilities, so the blanket protest soon escalated to the “dirty protest,” with prisoners forced to wipe their excrement on the walls to combat the spread of maggots. It should be noted here that a number of women prisoners in Armagh Jail also took part in this anti-criminalization protest, with an even greater physical challenge. Throughout all of this, Irish republicans “on the outside” were working both clandestinely and publicly lobbying their respective governments to encourage the British to bring an end to these conditions that Cardinal Ó Fiach compared to the “sewer pipes of Calcutta.” Among the Irish Diaspora to advocate for better conditions for Irish republican prisoners was Brooklyn-born George McLaughlin.
George McLaughlin headed the New York H-Block/Armagh Committee. Under his direction, protests were staged across New York for this umbrella organization that united all sorts of Irish societies – a major feat unto itself. George also travelled throughout the United States and to Ireland to represent the plight of the prisoners. Another song of the period laments the lack of assistance prisoners in the North got from the Dublin government when compared with the Diaspora:
”I’m 90 miles from Dublin town and it seems so far away, there’s more attention to our plight in the USA.”