ONE OF the few clues that Maggie Lynch is not just a friendly woman who works in a bank is the little dog that cavorts around her apartment in San Francisco. Little else among the potted plants, sofas and ornamental rabbits suggests that her husband is wanted in Britain for IRA terrorist offences. But you can't miss the dog. It is called Bobby Sands.
Mrs Lynch gave the dog the name of the late hunger striker soon after she found out the truth about her husband. Until then, she was a happy-go-lucky Californian, married to a painter and decorator called Jimmy.
Now she knows better. The Irishman she married is not 'Jimmy Lynch' but James Smyth, one of 38 republicans who escaped from the Maze prison 10 years ago in Northern Ireland's biggest breach of prison security. He was serving 20 years for the attempted murder of a prison officer.
The effect on Mrs Lynch was unusual. She says she had no idea that her husband was on the run until the FBI told her. Far from being angry, however, she has immersed herself in the complex, murky politics of the Irish question: 'I have concluded that this man has spent enough of his life without his freedom, and that the way he has been treated is wrong.'
Smyth, 38, was arrested in June as he set off to begin a day's work in San Francisco. The FBI had found out that he had applied for a US passport under a false name, and had identified him as a Maze fugitive. On the same day, they picked up his friend Kevin Artt, 34, another Maze escaper with a false identity working as a car salesman in San Diego.
Ten days ago the number of Irish fugitives in custody in California rose to three, when Paul Brennan, 39, was discovered in Berkeley, near San Francisco. He was also a Maze escaper, convicted of explosives offences, who fled to the West Coast and a job in the construction trade.
Maggie Lynch's enthusiasm for her husband's case could be seen as exceptional, were it not for the many others who support her. All three cases could become a cause celebre in the United States, and an embarrassment to Britain as it attempts to extradite them.
Thousands of dollars have been raised for Smyth and Artt in San Francisco, a city with at least 10,000 Irish-born residents and a large Irish-American community dating from the 1840s Gold Rush and the Irish famine.
Smyth has given numerous interviews on local television and radio stations. Dozens of supporters have packed the courtroom for his appearances. Sympathetic articles, including some by Smyth and Artt themselves, have appeared in The Gael, a local Irish monthly newspaper, as has a picture of Smyth shaking hands with the popular mayor of Boston, Ray Flynn, a key figure in President Bill Clinton's election campaign.
The prisoners' lawyers and US prosecutors believe the cases will be test an untried clause in the US-UK extradition treaty, which was amended in 1986, after considerable pressure from the Thatcher government, with the intention that it no longer offered political protection to terrorists.
But another clause, Article 3(a), states that a defendant will not be extradited if he is likely to be 'punished, detained or restricted . . . by reason of his race, religion, nationality or political opinions'. This is a key part of Smyth's and Artt's cases.
The British government could be facing a repeat of their problems over Joe Doherty, the IRA man who killed an SAS soldier and later fled to the US. Doherty spent years in New York jails before being deported back to Britain, amid a huge outcry in the US.
By the time he left, he was nationally known. The top-rated 60 Minutes programme made him the subject of a two-part documentary. The New York Times wrote a five-part series on his life. He was described by one commentator as the best ambassador the IRA had ever had in the US.
Smyth's extradition hearing is due to begin on 22 March. His lawyer will quote Article 3(a). But this may not matter. Few people remember that Doherty also won his extradition case, only to be deported as an illegal alien.
This time, the political landscape is different. Mr Clinton knows he will need the support of the US's 40 million Irish-Americans in 1996. Yet it is too soon to say whether he will stick by his election promises. The US government may yet find it expedient to repeat its Doherty strategy.
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