The prisoners who matter

Jailed IRA men must form part of the peace equation, says Jack O'Sullivan
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The Independent Online
When the IRA declared its ceasefire in September 1994, the families of republican prisoners thought better times were ahead. Here, they thought, was a chance for leniency or, at the very least, a more humanitarian regime.

Those with men jailed in England, where treatment is considered the harshest, hoped for their transfer closer to home, to prisons either in Northern Ireland or the Republic. Since those in prison have considerable influence on the IRA, it seemed sensible for both the British and Irish governments to adopt the "generous and imaginative" approach John Major promised when the shooting stopped.

Yet two years on, conditions have been deteriorating for some time, demonstrating how, as on other issues, the peace process worked too slowly. In Belmarsh Prison in Thames Mead, 17 republican prisoners have refused for months to accept visits because glass screens separate them from relatives. Lengthy periods in solitary confinement are common. One inmate, Paul Magee, is on a "dirty protest", fouling his cell. His wife, Maria, and their six children, the youngest aged five, live in Belfast and have not seen him for two years. They speak once a week for a few minutes until the pounds 2.50 weekly phone card he is permitted expires. Yesterday, Sinn Fein accused the Government of maintaining "a worsening regime that is damaging physically and psychologically".

Anger comes from unexpected quarters. Charles Flanagan, member of the Irish Parliament for the notoriously anti-republican, governing party, Fine Gael, has visited British jails. "It is extraordinary," he said, "that conditions are more secure, more intolerant and less humane now than they were when there was full-scale violence ... When I visited in January, during the ceasefire, I found examples of sleep deprivation, barely adequate food, broken-down heating. The prisoner issue was not central to the peace process and I regret that. It was damaging and destabilising."

The Dublin government wanted speedy repatriation of prisoners to jails in the Republic under a 1995 international convention. The expected movement did not take place, apart from in a couple of cases. Mr Flanagan said: "Patrick Kelly was moved because he was seriously ill. The treatment that was meted out to him in Britain was both cruel and inhumane."

This failure by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, to move more quickly means that there are still men from the Republic who have been in English jails for more than 20 years. There are the four members of the Balcombe St gang, captured in 1975 after a six-day siege in a London flat and a succession of bombings and shootings. Their continued incarceration here means that their parents in the west of Ireland, those that are still alive, are now too old to visit.

These men have little to commend them. The gang's reign of terror included bombing the house of the former Prime Minister, Edward Heath and the killing of Ross McWhirter and Professor Gordon Hamilton-Fairley. Several members confessed to the Guildford pub bombings.

Paul Magee is an extraordinary desperado. He was jailed for killing an SAS man. After escaping, he shot a special constable in Yorkshire. He then escaped from Whitemoor prison during the IRA break-out in 1994, when a prison officer was shot.

Nevertheless, these individuals matter in republican quarters. Hugh Doherty, for example, one of the Balcombe St gang, is brother of Pat Doherty, Sinn Fein's vice-president. Paul Magee is brother of Stephen Magee, jailed in Northern Ireland for 20 years for possessing explosives. Their treatment effects attitudes within the IRA.

Next month, Sister Sarah Clarke, a 77-year-old Catholic nun, publishes her account, No Faith In The System (Mercier Press), of 20 years helping republican and loyalist prisoners in England. "Something positive has to be done about them," she says, "or we can give up on the peace process. There is a whole community around each prisoner."A beginning was made soon after the ceasefire. Within days, four republicans, including Patrick Magee, the Brighton bomber, were moved to Northern Ireland. Others followed. All loyalists have been transferred.

Two events undermined the process: the IRA escape from Whitemoor in September 1994 which so embarrassed Michael Howard, and the Docklands bombing in February. But neither fully explain the Government's failure to act with speed.

"Whitemoor," says Charles Flanagan, "gave Michael Howard the excuse to introduce a tougher regime. It was a godsend. He stands culpable of using republican prisoners to further his own right-wing agenda. It was all part of the British government's failure to broker the ceasefire properly right from the beginning."