18 October 2010
Prison officers are said to be living in fear of an imminent attack by dissident republicans.
The threat is thought to centre on prominent republican Colin Duffy who has been involved in clashes with prison authorities all last week.
Reports that a warning was issued relating to a serious risk of an undercar bomb being attached to an officer’s vehicle have been circulating through the ranks of the service from last week.
Fears of a threat to prison officers comes after the continued row over the forcible strip-searching of Duffy, who is being held in connection with the murder of two soldiers at Massereene Army barracks in Antrim last year.
On Saturday night, text messages were passed from prison officer to prison officer, spreading the worry that there was a “high threat of close-quarter shoot. Please pass on”.
The Prison Service has officially denied that it placed any threat warning on its internal ‘Oasis’ communication system, which can only be accessed by officers from within prison establishments.
It says it is aware of material being transmitted through an unofficial network which warned of a bomb attack over the period covering next week, but insists it has no notification from the PSNI that any such attack is imminent.
Nevertheless, some prison officers appear to have been individually alerted to a renewed interest being taken in their movements by characters connected with dissident republican elements, including in north Down, where many officers live.
So the tussle between Duffy and the Prison Service, which ensued last Monday over mandatory strip searching before he leaves the prison to attend preliminary hearings in Coleraine, isn’t easing concerns.
Duffy refused to submit to the mandatory search on Monday and after being given 15 minutes for |reflection on his decision, was submitted to a physical restraint procedure by members of Maghaberry Prison’s riot squad.
Restrained, most of his clothing was removed before he agreed to undergo the search in a compliant fashion.
The Prison Service insists that mandatory searching before a prisoner leaves, enters or returns to Maghaberry is obligatory and is not covered by an agreement made over the summer with dissident republican inmates which ended a mini ‘dirty protest’.
Duffy is highly regarded within the republican fraternity and what he would regard as his “humiliation” at the hands of riot squad members is unlikely to go without response, however obligatory a search procedure is considered.
In May this year, director-general of the Prison Service Robin Masefield told a Stormont committee that the danger to prison officers had increased significantly and that some had been issued with body armour.