A former member of the Sinn Fein leadership has been put behind bars in Maghaberry Prison after being convicted for an IRA action 30 years ago.
Gerry McGeough is the only republican to be jailed for historical crimes since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. On Friday, he was convicted of IRA membership and of attempting to kill a member of the British Army’s Ulster Defence Regiment in 1981.
Mr McGeough, a former Sinn Fein ard comhairle [leadership] member, was arrested in 2007 at the Fermanagh and South Tyrone Assembly election count. He had stood as an independent, reformist republican candidate.
There was a tense atmosphere outside Belfast Crown Court on Friday as heavily armed PSNI riot police gathered in an adjacent room awaiting the judgement. McGeough’s supporters packed the public gallery.
Prominent Tyrone republican Brian Arthurs, Danny McBrearty of the Republican Network for Unity, John McDonagh of the US-based Irish Freedom Committee, and former Sinn Fein politicians, councillor Barry Monteith and Assembly member Gerry McHugh, were present.
Sitting without a jury, Justice Stephens cited a 1983 application for political asylum made in Sweden in which Mr McGeough was alleged by Swedish officials as having described himself as having shot a British soldier.
“Long live the Irish nation!” McGeough shouted as he was led from court in handcuffs. He will be sentenced next month. His co-accused, Vincent McAnespie, whose wife Brenda was a Sinn Féin councillor, was acquitted of all charges.
it is widely understood that McGeough is being jailed for his opposition to the political status quo in the Six Counties. He has supported the peace process but opposed the 1998 Good Friday and 2006 St Andrew’s Agreements as “a bad deal for nationalists”.
Speaking to journalists before the court hearing, he pointed to sharp contradictions in his treatment.
“Either the Troubles are over, and a line should be drawn in the sand, or they aren’t. If they aren’t, let everybody be brought before the courts.
“Why is Martin McGuinness not on trial for past IRA membership which he has admitted? Why have the Bloody Sunday soldiers who killed civilians not been charged?”
McGeough said he wasn’t a “dissident” but when asked if he had any remorse for his actions as an IRA Volunteers, he said: “None whatsoever. It’s every person’s patriotic duty to fight for their country.
“I’ve no apologies to make. It’s as a badge of honour to be jailed by the British.”
He also claimed that Sinn Féin held secret talks with him in which it pledged to use its influence to prevent his imprisonment if he supported the peace process. The Tyrone man said Sinn Féin MP Pat Doherty made an offer last autumn during a visit to his home.
“Sinn Féin promised to use its influence to stop me being jailed if I stopped publicly attacking the party. But I believe I will be convicted and imprisoned as Sinn Féin are bit players with no influence.”
Mr McGeough thanked a prominent loyalist and former UVF prisoner William ‘Plum’ Smith who gave evidence at his trial about a ‘secret’ deal to pardon on-the-runs.
“I admire what he did. We were combatants on different sides during the war. But the war is over,” Mr McGeough said.
His lawyer Peter Corrigan last night wrote to the British government’s Northern Ireland Office (NIO) requesting a pardon for his client. As Smith pointed out during the trial, pardons have been discreetly granted to some on-the-run IRA members, allowing them to return home and not face prosecution.
Mr Corrigan said: “The law must be applied consistently. Under the Good Friday Agreement, my client is entitled to the same treatment as others. We will give the NIO a week to grant a pardon.
“If they refuse, we will seek a judicial review on the basis that Mr McGeough hasn’t been treated equally.”