The prisoners, by this time three hundred of them, including Kieron Nugent the first such protester who, if he had not taken a stand, would have been released last September, refused to slop out. When their pots were full, they were allowed to overflow. Or the prisoners would use other receptacles, such as their shoes. The contents were hurled out of windows or poured through the cell spy-holes.

At the same time, a wash strike was called. The prisoners refused to participate in the morning ritual of huddling naked around a cold tap. The combined effects were terrible, and loyalist prisoners, as orderlies, were made to clean up the mess the Provisionals had created. For loyalist paramilitaries, having to clean up IRA men's excrement must have seemed the very reversal of natural justice. Some UVF and UDA men refused to allow such a reversal, and some twenty or thirty were 
transferred to Magilligan camp in Derry as punishment.

As rumours got out, anxieties grew in working class Protestant areas, where there are already widespread fears of Republicans attacking the outnumbered 
loyalists in the "H" blocks. The manner of the protest seemed to confirm the very worst loyalist suspicions about Catholics. Keeping coal in the bath was bad enough.

"Our men aren't used to this sort of thing" said a protesting UDA woman picketing Crumlin Road jail. As for the other lot.. .. she didn't need to speak her mind.

John Garson, the North Belfast Unionist MP was one of a Unionist delegation allowed into the prison to see conditions. He came out gagging; "absoloutely stinking, deplorable, literally filthy, dirty, undescribable". Ian expressed his revulsion in calmer terms, and said that the Republicans seemed "very determined". The Unionist leader at Westminster, the South Antrim MP, James Molyneux said he was "pleasantly surprised" at conditions in H3 and H5, a remark open to a number of interpretations.

Most of the men not surprisingly, have developed minor ailments, sores, headaches, and, a particular scourge in prison, insomnia. The warders have started to hose down the cells with disinfectant to reduce the chances of serious disease breaking out. The fumes linger in the cells or hours seriously irritating prisoners' eyes. The last item of discomfort has now been introduced. The beds are dismantled in the morning so that the prisoners spend the day, naked but for a blanket, on a soiled, wet floor, with nothing to read.

There is no doubt that the Provisionals also feel very strongly about the issue of political status but many, perhaps a majority, have not joined the protest.

There are about nine hundred prisoners in the "H" blocks, 110 of them loyalists, three hundred of them protesting Republicans. Of the other five hundred, it is not possible to say for certain how many are ordinary crooks and pimps, and how many Republicans. The Northern Ireland Office refuses to differentiate and says it has absolutely no idea how many loyalists, republicans, or straight "criminals" are locked up; as far as the NIO is concerned, they are all straight criminals. The Irish question, the most persistent and intractable problem in English history for almost a milennium has not for the first time, thus been reduced to a matter of mere criminality.

The banality of such an analysis has not in any way enhanced the support the Republicans are getting from outside. Both marches on Belfast's Falls Road
in support of the prisoners were attended by several thousand people, there was a three line whip on, and smaller turnouts would have been catastrophic.

But little support is coming from outside the bed-rock of IRA support and from small groups like Trade Union Campaign Against Repression. They knew what they were letting themselves in for, goes the argument. They can't expect us to bail them out.

"I MUST PROTEST; I feel they are being ill-treated" said a recent correspondent to the Times. The author of the letter was referring to the protesting Provisionals in Long Kesh prison who are refusing to accept criminal status. What is unusual is that he is not one of the quasi Provisional supporters who come out of the woodwork whenever the Provisionals raise a good, liberal issue. Dr Donnell Deeny is an Alliance councillor, a rigid opponent of the Provisionals, and by the bye, the father of Belfast's latest Lady Mayoress. He has seen the conditions in the two "H" blocks affected by the protest, H3 and H5, and was stunned. Other visitors 
have come out reeling and vomiting because of the smell. For two months, almost three hundred Republican prisoners have refused to slop out their waste or wash and in recent weeks have been pouring it onto the corridors. In the words of an official Northern Ireland Office communique, "Some prisoners are by their own actions deliberately trying to lower these high standards" (of the 'H' Blocks).

The issue is simple. All men convicted of terrorist-type crimes committed before March 1976 are no longer eligible for the special category status won for politicos by Billiy McKee's hunger strike in 1972. They must wear prison clothes, live in cells, do prison work, and accept the authority of the prison, whom they must call "Sir". Officially, convicted terrorists are simply criminals who differ,in no respect from your pick pocket, burglar or rapist.

The Provisionals resent that sort of comparison, particularly since they traditionally come down pretty hard on pick pockets, burglars or rapists. They believe they are soldiers of Ireland fighting a war for a political aim. Very well, if the British usurpers of lawful government in Ireland throw them in jail for their activities, they must live with that. But they will not live with being called criminals.

To prove that point in the past, they have killed the occasional prison warder. Now they are using the weapon of extreme passive resistance in the prison itself, to make the prison system unworkable. Two deaths in English jails have shown that the ultimate in passive resistance, the hunger strike, does not work.

The campaign started with a refusal by Republican prisoners to wear prison clothes or do prison work. That meant they were oblige to spend all day in their cells, without their mattresses, which had been removed by the warders. They generally refused visits, although for purposes of communication, some prisoners were allowed to see relatives. They got no exercise, were allowed no reading material, received no handicraft equipment. They were denied education and food parcels and cigarettes. And if that wasn't enough, they lost a day's remission for each day of their protest. That effectively means their sentences were, and are, doubled.

Up until two months ago, a steadily increasing number of Republicans (mostly Provisionals, but also some IRSP prisoners) had to endure these conditions. One particularly irksome feature was that whereas they were meant to be allowed to empty their chamber pots twice daily (and if you timed your movement wrongly, that can be an awfully long time), frequently they would have to wait days. The warders would not bring the slop buckets around. As feelings in the two blocks of protesters grew, sombody, somewhere came up with an idea which perhaps only the Provisionals could dream of, never mind put into practice.