Say Cheese: But don't smile

Jarlath Kearney examines the ongoing controversy over the
photograph of IRA prisoners with a party of Sinn Féin TDs

Last month a delegation of TDs visited a prison in Roscommon and met with four prisoners to formally discuss the treatment of their case and wider political developments.

In most western democracies such meetings are common practice – especially when the prisoners concerned have an organised campaign to raise complaints about their treatment by the courts system, the prisons service or the government.

But, of course, this is Ireland.
And in this case, the delegation happened to consist of Sinn Féin TDs, the prisoners happened to be IRA volunteers, and the men’s case happens to be a political hot potato.

Seven years ago, on June 7, 1996, a Special Branch squad car was fired upon during a botched armed robbery in the village of Adare, Co Limerick.

Garda detectives Jerry McCabe and Ben O’Sullivan were both hit by automatic gunfire – with Garda McCabe being killed at the scene.
The group of men involved in the attack carried automatic assault rifles; they operated to a chain of command; and – all are agreed – the attempted robbery was not conducted for personal profit.

The Gardaí immediately attributed the killing to the IRA. It subsequently emerged that one of the weapons recovered had been used in previous robberies in the area. Three of those charged in relation to the incident had previous convictions – one was well known for having broken out of Brixton prison in 1991.

The incident occurred during the course of the IRA’s resumed campaign in 1996-97 and all those charged were admitted to the IRA wing in Portlaoise prison.

Despite the widespread outrage being expressed throughout Irish society about the killing, this was not, by any standards, a ‘normal’ crime carried out by ‘normal’ criminals.

Those men involved in the incident, senior republican figures and, indeed, the IRA leadership, all subsequently expressed regret about Garda McCabe’s tragic killing – not least because it breached IRA General Orders that prohibit attacks on An Garda Siochana.
In 1999 four men were convicted of the manslaughter of Garda McCabe.

After it emerged that the Irish government was exempting the cases from the Good Friday Agreement early release programme that applied to political prisoners, the four were moved along with other IRA prisoners to Castlerea Prison in Co Roscommon.

In the period since then, minor public outbursts have greeted the temporary and compassionate releases of the men, for events like weddings or family bereavement.
But without doubt the biggest furore so far relates to the visit to Castlerea by the Sinn Féin delegation last month.

One of those groups principally responsible for highlighting the case of the Castlerea prisoners has been Coiste na n-Iarchimi – the republican ex-prisoners’ group.

In its recent annual report, the group referred to the Irish government’s failure to release these men under the Good Friday Agreement as “a final indicator of the low priority status of ex-prisoners on the political agenda”.

Coiste believes the general facts of the case – and the specific reaction to the Sinn Féin meeting – are symptomatic of widespread institutional inequality towards political prisoners.

“A recent court hearing confirmed that these prisoners are indeed qualifying prisoners for release under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Despite this, the judge said that the government was entitled to deny release.

The government should follow the logic of the judge’s ruling that these prisoners meet the criteria for release,” Coiste’s Director, Mike Ritchie, said.

Mr Ritchie highlighted the treatment of the Castlerea prisoners alongside other issues of discrimination against political ex-prisoners – for example, being banned from certain employment.

“In response to the discrimination and barriers facing our constituency – which also affect loyalist ex-prisoners – we have developed a straightforward policy platform: discrimination against political ex-prisoners should be made illegal; ‘criminal’ convictions attached to political ex-prisoners should be expunged; and a policy initiative should take place in both jurisdictions on the island to implement the commitment with regard to ex-prisoners contained in the Good Friday Agreement,” added Mr Ritchie.

Much of the controversy about the Sinn Féin delegation’s visit has been anchored around the party’s decision to publish a group photograph and news report in An Phoblacht.

The Progressive Democrat senator, John Minihan, called the publication of the photograph “another example of the a la carte version of democracy that Sinn Féin portrays to the Irish people.”

He went on: “The reality of the situation is that these people were convicted of the killing of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe.

“For members of the Oireachtas to be touting themselves as supporters and sympathisers of convicted killers to me is an affront to the majority of the Irish people and to our democratic system.”

Mr Minihan said that although the TDs had a right to visit the prisoners, it was wrong to turn the trip into “a propaganda coup”.

Defending the Sinn Féin delegation, Kerry North TD, Martin Ferris expressed “utmost sympathy” for Garda McCabe’s family, but said that the purpose of the visit was “to update the prisoners on the peace process, particularly in relation to where the talks situation is at this point in time”.

“As for the photograph, it appeared in An Phoblacht over two weeks ago, along with a report about the meeting and so forth.

“An Phoblacht is a republican newspaper bought and read by republicans and that was the purpose of the photograph appearing there. I think practically everybody that visits prisoners – loved ones, family members and so forth – have their photographs taken,” said Mr Ferris.

Speaking yesterday Coiste spokesperson Laurence McKeown expressed dismay at the reaction to Sinn Féin’s meeting with the prisoners.

“The Castlerea prisoners should have been released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, which gave recognition to the concept of early release. If this is a post-conflict situation then that must have implications for people who have, at some point, found themselves imprisoned due to the conflict,” he said.

“It should also be remembered that a large number of elected representatives on the island are ex-prisoners, and issues such as this controversy over the Sinn Féin delegation and subsequent publication of a photograph lead one to question the consistency of many commentators in this instance.

“One is also bound to question whether such controversies are genuine or whether they are manufactured for ulterior motives.

“The fact is that ongoing attempts to criminalise republican prisoners and ex-prisoners – as in this case – are continuing in a society where you can be an ex-prisoner and a Minister in the Assembly, an elected Member of Parliament in Westminster or Teachta Dala in Leinster House.

“It is disappointing to witness the undignified rush to condemn republicans in relation to a routine meeting that occurred over a fortnight ago, while at the same time issues such as the basic rights of the prisoners, and institutionalised inequality against ex-prisoners, are virtually ignored.”

Journalist: Jarlath Kearney

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