The article below first appeared on May 22 on the site of Socialist Alternative, the largest revolutionary organisation in Australia; here
by Philip Ferguson
The new political dispensation in the north of Ireland, we are told, means an end to the bad old days of discrimination against the catholic and nationalist population in jobs, housing and voting and the armed conflict that resulted from the discrimination. The “peace dividend” has, supposedly, also brought an end to the repression meted out by the British state to republican communities and republican activists. A number of recent cases of imprisonment, including several without charges or trials, suggest the reality is somewhat different.
Take the case of Newry political activist Stephen Murney. Stephen is the local spokesperson for the socialist-republican organisation éirígí. He has been to the fore in opposing, exposing and organising against the heavy policing in this working class, largely nationalist city. This, and the broader activities of eirigi in fighting for workers’ rights and against the continuing British presence and partition of Ireland, made Stephen a target for the cops. (As part of the new-look six counties the much-hated Royal Ulster Constabulary has been transformed into the Police Service of Northern Ireland.)
Stephen was arrested last November. Police raided his home, seizing political literature, uniforms of a republican marching band, and a computer. He was then faced with the kind of catch-all charges which place the burden of proof on the accused rather than the state prosecutors. For instance, he was charged with collecting information that could be of use to “terrorists”. This charge was based on the fact that at an earlier protest in June 2012, Stephen had taken pictures of the armed police who were trying to intimidate those taking part in the protest. At the time, the cops had asked him to stop taking pictures and he had complied; he wasn’t cautioned let alone arrested. Yet those photos are now the basis for the first charge against him!
The second charge against him is that he distributed information that could be of use to “terrorists”. The evidence for this is that he put pictures of the anti-repression protest and the police presence on facebook. The third charge was having items that could be used for “terrorist” purposes – like band uniforms!
Nothing he had in his possession or had done is actually illegal.
When his case went to court the judge questioned the nebulous nature of the charges but then, at the request of the cops, imposed draconian bail conditions. Indeed, he even asked the cops if they would like any further measures imposed!
The bail conditions banned Stephen from living at home with his wife and family. They even banned him from the city of Newry, as well as from attending any meetings or events of a political nature. The judge ordered him to live at least five miles from Newry, report daily to a PSNI barracks a further 12 miles away, accept a daily curfew from 7pm to 10am and wear an electronic tag at all times.
After consulting with his lawyer and family, Stephen decided that he would not accept these conditions of bail. As a result he was remanded to Maghaberry jail, where he remains at present. In effect, Stephen has been interned since late November.
His case is of particular concern because it is very common for political activists to take photos of protests and, where there’s a heavy police presence, it‘s fairly standard (and fairly sensible!) to take pictures of the cops as well, both as protection against police harassment and violence and to be able to identify cops later if there has been such behaviour on their part. As an éirígí leaflet notes,
When political activists in Syria, Libya and elsewhere use social media to highlight malpractice and human rights abuses by state police they are applauded by the political establishment and media. When political activists do the same thing in Ireland they are now deemed to be “terrorists”.
One of the most concerning developments in the past couple of years in terms of state harassment and repression in the six counties has been the use of “secret evidence”. This has been highlighted in a number of cases, such as the situation of Martin Corey.
Martin is a former IRA member who served 19 years in prison, 1973-1992, for his involvement in the armed struggle. After his release, he restarted his life in the town of Lurgan. In April 2010 he was rearrested and has now been in Maghaberry prison for over three years without any charges being brought against him. Martin has never even been questioned by police about any incidents. He was merely told that he had broken the terms of his Life Licence Release – republican prisoners released “On Licence” can be re-imprisoned if they are found guilty on any future charges. However, the cops would not explain to Martin or his lawyer what he had supposedly done. The cops said it was a matter of ‘national security’ and subject to closed file information. In July 2010 his release was ordered by a judge in the high court. However, just as he was being released from Maghaberry, Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland at the time, Owen Patterson, over-ruled the high court judge and blocked the release. Martin had arrived at the reception area and just gotten out of the prison van to meet up with his family to go home, when he had to re-enter the van and be returned to his cell.
He has also had problems with the Parole Board. Every hearing for him in 2012 was cancelled by the board and, while prisoners are supposed to have parole hearings every 12 months, he hasn’t been granted one in about 20 months, something deemed illegal by even the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Martin has appeared in the high court in Belfast several times in the past three years, all without being charged with any criminal offence.
Another particularly concerning case is that of Marian Price, long a symbol of left-wing republican resistance to British interference in Ireland. Marian was captured in Britain in 1973, after having, with her sister Dolours, been part of an IRA unit which blew up the Old Bailey. The Price sisters went on hunger strike to get repatriated to a prison in the north of Ireland. The British prison authorities responded with a long regime of force-feeding. Of the 200 days of hunger strike, Marian was force-fed on 167! During the force-feeding, Marian contracted tuberculosis and subsequently suffered anorexia, but the Price sisters won transfer to a prison in the six counties. In April 1980, Marian, weighing a mere five stone, was released, having been granted a Royal Prerogative of Mercy on the basis of her health.
It would have been easy for Marian to say she’d done her bit and retire. However, she continued to be a socialist and a republican and opposed what she saw as the betrayal of the struggle by the Adams-McGuinness leadership of the IRA and Sinn Fein. She became a prominent figure within the 32-County Sovereignty Movement, which continued to stand for complete British withdrawal from Ireland, an end to partition and the creation of a new, more equitable society.
In November 2009, she was arrested in connection with an attack on a British army barracks in the six counties during which two of the occupation army were shot dead. In May 2011 she was further charged with encouraging support for a ‘terrorist’ organisation when at a Derry commemoration for the 1916 Easter Rebellion she held the speech which was read out by a representative of the Real IRA, an armed organisation which continues to used armed actions against the British state in the six counties.
However, in May 2012 the court threw out the charges against her and three others. While the other three were released, she remained in jail where she had been detained since May 2011. She wasn’t imprisoned by the court while facing charges – in fact, a judge had released her on bail in May 2011. However, the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland intervened and had her returned to prison.
In September 2012 the British authorities tried to re-charge her in relation to the Masserence Barracks attack.
She has been detained in several different prisons, often in effective solitary confinement. Her health has deteriorated substantially during this time. She has contracted e-coli, been in intensive care, been in and out of hospital for care and surgery and during invasive surgery at Musgrave Park hospital in Belfast she remained handcuffed.
As the human rights organisation British Irish Rights Watch has noted, “She remains technically on bail in prison”.
The British authorities are claiming that she is in jail because she was released “Under Licence”, with the same conditions as applying to republican (and loyalist) prisoners released under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. They claim to have lost her royal pardon from 1980. But, of course, she was released long before the “Under Licence” category was even created. This is simply a ploy to keep her locked up.
Earlier this year the body of Dolours Price was found in her Dublin home. In recent years Dolours, who also remained committed to Irish national liberation and socialism, had had a particularly difficult time with personal and health problems, stemming back to her time in prison in Britain, the hunger strike and the force-feeding.
The Price sisters have long embodied the spirit of resistance in Ireland. They were connected with the People’s Democracy group, the left-wing of the mass civil rights movement that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s and took part in the historic Belfast to Derry march in January 1969. They subsequently joined the IRA and took part in military actions aimed at forcing the British state out of Ireland. When the British drew the dominant leaders of the IRA and Sinn Fein into abandoning the struggle and simply being junior partners in the continuing administration of Britain’s writ in Ireland, the Price sisters refused to go along with betrayal. They have paid a heavy price for daring to challenge the power of the British state in and over Ireland.
Marian Price’s health is in a desperate situation. She must not be allowed to, in effect, be tortured, potentially to death, by imprisonment at the hands of a vengeful British state apparatus.
Moreover, these three cases, and those of other prisoners in Maghaberry, have important repercussions for everyone in Ireland and Britain itself who seek fundamental social change. As the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) has noted, Closed Material Procedures (ie secret evidence, which defendants legal teams can be denied access to) is one of the measures taken by the British state to prevent cases being taken against it by people subjected to “extraordinary rendition” (their kidnapping, torturing and unlawful imprisonment) as a result of the “War on Terror”. The CAJ reports,
The government argues it needs CMPs in order to allow secret trials to protect “national security”. They also conveniently reduce the potential to hold the Security Services accountable for malpractice or human rights abuses in which they are implicated.In Australia and New Zealand, we have no cause to be complacent about the role of the “security state”, as the operations of ASIO in Australia and the SIS and GCSB in New Zealand make clear. Solidarity with Marian Price, Martin Corey, Stephen Murney and other prisoners of the British state in Ireland can help build awareness not only of the necessarily repressive nature of British rule in Ireland but of the kind of measures any capitalist ‘democracy’ can and will resort to when the “normal” rule of law isn’t enough to maintain stability for them.
A good place to start would be spreading the word about these cases and organising public protests, particularly outside British consulates, in both countries.
[Philip Ferguson administers a blog on Ireland at: theirishrevolution.wordpress.com]