They met as teenagers in Belfast. For 20 years she has visited him in an English prison. Now, she tells Maire Nic Suibhne, she wants him freed

It is 4pm on a sunny afternoon. The streets off the Falls Road in west Belfast echo to the shrieks and laughter of schoolchildren. The doors of neat red-brick houses stand open as neighbours come and go. But inside one home the atmosphere is tense. Briege Norney, 35, is preparing to set out on the journey to England to visit her husband, Paul, one of Britain's longest-serving republican prisoners. In spite of the ceasefire that has brought peace to these volatile streets, life for Briege, has not changed. For her the political map is frozen.

While Mary, her mother, makes tea and sandwiches, her father, James, talks about the intricate carving work that fills the days since his retirement. But it's clear their minds are preoccupied with their daughter's trip. For this family, Britain is a foreign country.

"Three things I must get before I set out. Tickets, money and Visiting Orders"- a white docket issued by the prison, with the name of the prisoner and the visitor and, in this case, marked with a large letter A, denoting his category. Briege had to apply for her visit four weeks in advance. No doubt this application has wended its way through the Northern Ireland Office and possibly MI5.

Paul and Briege's marriage has never been consummated. Their wedding took place in Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight on 28 September 1987. They were allowed eight guests and only two photographs. In an unexpected gesture of kindness, the prison wardens gave her a bouquet of flowers.

"The first time I saw him it was at his Granny's house," says Briege. "I looked at him and I just knew this was it. I was 13 and had no interest in boys. He was 15. To tell you the truth, it's hard to put it in words.

"Yes, he is attractive, tall with dark blue eyes. Over the years I went with others, one better looking, but there's never been anyone else for me but Paul. There's something about him that is very strong, very genuine."

At Aldegrove airport she is nervy and tense. "Will I be searched? Will I be stopped? Will they have moved him to another prison by the time I get there and I'll have to come back without seeing him? This has happened in the past, lots of times to his sick mother, even though they know the date of her visit two to three weeks ahead."

Paul has already spent more than half his life in prison. On 1 July, he will have passed 20 years inside jail in England, sentenced to life imprisonment for the attempted murder of a Manchester policeman.

His family says Paul was never a hard-core IRA member, just a 17-year- old youth from West Belfast who, like hundreds of others at the time, was caught up in the political fever of the early Seventies after the breakdown of the first republican ceasefire.

His wife says he has changed a lot. "He was an angry young man in those days. Like all the boys around the Falls and West Belfast, he was hassled all the time by the RUC. Even going to and from school they'd be stopped and questioned.

"He was on the run from the age of 15. He was arrested for an attack on a factory in which three soldiers were killed, and held in a juvenile detention centre. He absconded. All charges against him were dropped, but at the time he didn't expect a fair hearing. It's a great pity he ever ran away because all the things that happened since would never have happened to him."

Briege has changed, too. She served a sentence in Northern Ireland for membership of the IRA, but since last year's ceasefire, she looks towards the future . "I think we should work together for all the political prisoners. It stands to reason if both republicans and loyalists worked together, they would make a strong argument. They should be repatriated and straight away all should be released. The war is over.

"I hate all this: talking to the press, trying to get people to understand. Travelling to strange towns. All I want to be doing is cooking the dinner for a family and thinking about children coming home from school. We never thought it would be so long. I'm 35 now. Time is not just moving on for me. It's racing away. If we can still have one or two children, we'd be happy. If we can't, we might be devastated."

Last Thursday, she handed in a petition at Downing Street. Half an hour later, John Major resigned as leader of the Conservative Party. That evening, she spoke at a meeting in Islington library attended by a half-empty room of the faithful. Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington, is the only public figure they could persuade to share the platform. He gives a tedious and misinformed speech. It is difficult to see what her efforts are achieving. The plight of Irish prisoners is not big news here. Yet the issue of political prisoners is one of the main impediments to lasting peace in Northern Ireland.

On Friday afternoon, we arrive at Frankland Prison, Durham. Briege is exhausted but radiant.

"I know it seems strange to other people to get married to someone in prison, to have a marriage of nearly eight years that has never been consummated. But we have grown together rather than apart. He's my best friend. It doesn't make us any less together, we're just on a different level. We have learnt to communicate and to understand each other in a way we might never have done in ordinary circumstances."

Briege emerges two hours later tearful but happy. "The circumstances are horrible, but it's just great to see him. We embraced. Then we had to sit across a table on chairs fixed wide apart. You'd need very long arms to be able to hold hands. It's hard sitting there with everyone around you. You're trying not to hear the private details of other people's conversations. It's difficult to say anything intimate.

"But Paul is in good spirits. He's a different person from what he was. There was a lot of anti-Irish feeling in the Seventies and early Eighties. The wardens used to wind up the other prisoners to attack them. He was badly beaten. He had to learn how to handle a lot of trouble to survive. The Irish prisoners had to learn their place. Now it's a different story; making education available was a great change."

Paul now has an BA honours in social science from the Open University. "Doing the degree he became more outward-looking. He agrees with the ceasefire. He thinks things should improve for the Protestants as well. Working-class Protestants have suffered just as much as Catholics."

As Briege sets out on her journey home, she leaves behind a husband sentenced to life imprisonment at the age of 18. Unlike Private Clegg, who looks forward to an early release after serving just over two years of a life sentence, there are no signs that Paul will be freed. This despite a statement from the Lord Chief Justice, Peter Taylor, in February that there was no reason to hold him in prison any longer. And unlike Clegg, who was almost immediately moved to an English prison near his family, Paul remains far from his own.

"It never gets any easier leaving," says Briege. "I hope I can get over for our wedding anniversary in September, but the money is the problem. If they would let him move to Magabhery, it's only 15 minutes up the road. It's the families who are being punished by keeping them so far away. Over the years visits have cost the family something like pounds 16,000. I couldn't do it without the help of my sisters and my parents."

Paul's mother died from cancer in 1981. She had not been able to visit him for three years. He asked for compassionate leave to visit her in hospital, but all he was allowed was a five-minute telephone call before she died.

"Paul was sentenced. I'm not belittling what he did, or the situation behind it," says Briege. "But it has to be asked now, 20 years later, are they asking for justice or revenge? People like the Shankill Butchers have been released and are walking the streets of Belfast. There should be equality of treatment."

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