In July 1972, William Whitelaw, the British government's Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, granted Special Category Status to all prisoners convicted of scheduled terrorist crimes. This had been one of the conditions set by the Provisional IRA when they negotiated a meeting with the British Government to discuss a truce, another being the release of Gerry Adams from internment.
Special category or political status was de facto prisoner of war status, providing them with some of the ‘privileges’ of POWs such as those specified in the Geneva Convention. This meant prisoners did not have to wear prison uniforms or do prison work, were housed within their paramilitary factions, and were allowed extra visits and food parcels.
In 1974, continuing confrontation culminated in the burning of the Maze Compound Prison (then known as Long Kesh) and damage to other establishments.
In January 1975 the Gardiner Committee, which looked at how the British Government should deal with terrorism in Northern Ireland in the 'context of civil liberties and human rights', recommended the ending of special category status. It argued that special category status undermined the role of the prison authorities in maintaining discipline. The republican response to this was violent, and six prison staff were killed in the period 1976-77.
The Government accepted the recommendation and on 1 March 1976, the new Labour Secretary of State Merlyn Rees announced the phasing out of special category status. Anyone convicted of a scheduled terrorist related offence after March 1976 would be treated as an ordinary criminal and would have to wear a prison uniform, do prison work and serve their sentence in the new Maze Prison in what became known as the H-Blocks.
By late 1976, the new cellular prison accommodation recommended by Gardiner was ready to receive its first prisoners. In the week that Roy Mason took over from Merlyn Rees as Secretary of State, Kieran Nugent, the first prisoner sentenced under the new policy, arrived at the Maze Prison and was ordered to wear a prison uniform.
Nugent refused the uniform saying he was not a criminal but a political prisoner. He was locked in his cell where he wrapped himself in the blanket that was on the bed rather than remain naked. This was the same action taken by old IRA prisioners in the south in the 1940s. The blanket protest was reborn and soon other prisoners followed his example. By 1978 nearly 300 republican prisoners were refusing to wear prison uniforms.
The protest culminated in the 1981 hunger strike when ten republican prisoners died.