Hundreds of riot police were called in to help run Northern Ireland's prisons yesterday after the officers failed to turn up for work in an apparent deepening of a dispute over threats from loyalist paramilitaries.
Specialist units trained to deal with sectarian street disorder helped to keep the lid on tension at the three main prisons, including Maghaberry, 25 miles south-west of Belfast, where paramilitary inmates are housed.
One security source said: "We may have to force these people back into their cells so we definitely need public order. This has the potential to tie up hundreds of police officers."
Prison staff in the province have been demanding money to upgrade security at their homes after several were the target of pipe bomb attacks during the summer that were blamed on Protestants.
The Northern Ireland prisons chief, Peter Russell, said: "I regard this as unofficial industrial action. This action is reprehensible. It increases the potential for disruption in the prisons where there is already a volatile atmosphere."
The Prison Service said some warders were still working yesterday, but was unable to say immediately what proportion of its staff, who are barred by law from going on strike, was involved.
Prison officers have frequently been a target by paramilitary groups on both sides of the sectarian divide during the province's decades-long conflict between Protestants and Catholics.
In September, the Government bowed to demands to separate Protestant "loyalist" and Catholic "republican" factions after a several violent clashes at Maghaberry, which also houses "ordinary" criminals and asylum-seekers. Although the main paramilitary groups on both sides are now observing ceasefires, some smaller dissident groups remain active, and prison staff representatives insist they need greater protection.
Mr Russell criticised the Prison Officers' Association, claiming union representatives were involved in the walkout. "It is simply not credible for the POA to suggest this is unilateral action taken by prison officers without their approval," he said.
"Staff were warned this morning of the consequences of leaving their posts. It is a breach of their terms and conditions of service and as such they will not be entitled to pay."
Mr Russell added: "Modern industrial relations should be based on dialogue, and co-operation is the way these matters will be resolved. Nothing will be achieved by coercion."
Finlay Spratt, the chairman of the Prison Officers' Association, insisted he knew nothing in advance about the action.
But he said: "I fully support any decision they have made. If they are stressed out and sick, they have my utmost sympathy. This was to show Government and management that they had had enough."
Prison sources claimed at least 60 per cent of officers who were on duty at Maghaberry, Magilligan and the Hydebank Young Offenders Centre near Bangor, Co Down, had walked out. "They left for their lunch break and didn't bother coming back," one said.
* Loyalist paramilitaries were suspected last night of battering a man to death. Detectives launched a murder hunt after James McMahon, 21, died in hospital. He had been chased and beaten with bats by a gang of three masked men, close to the river Lagan in Lisburn, Co Antrim.Reuse content