Vengeful, vindictive, violent
By Anthony McIntyre (for the Pensive Quill)
When we left Drogheda’s Bridge of Peace on Wednesday evening, another vigil for Brendan Lillis completed, agreeing to meet at the same spot the following week, none of us felt that Brendan’s release was imminent, the following day in fact.
He had previously been moved from Maghaberry Prison to Belfast City Hospital where treatment for his condition, ankylosing spondylitis, could be administered by a health professional who sees in front of him a patient rather than a prisoner. So it was clear that the campaign was having an effect.
Without street pressure and political lobbying the Justice Ministry would have kept Brendan Lillis hidden deep within the bowels of the British penal establishment, a statistic whose inevitable death would have meant nothing more than one less inmate on the day’s closing headcount.
Paul Maskey, the ill man’s MP, summed up his dilemma succinctly:
The treatment that Brendan Lillis needed in hospital was not there for him in jail ... He never refused any treatment. He accepted whatever treatment was given. The hospital in the jail could not even administer a drip when he became dehydrated. He had to be moved to an outside hospital for that. This is on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Had you visited him in jail you would have soon realised this is a sick man. This is a man who needs treatment in the outside world because it cannot be administered inside the jail.
It was a rewarding outcome. It is notoriously difficult for prisoners’ rights advocates to make progress so the sweet taste of success is to be savoured. Brendan Lillis said that ‘on top of my illness I feel elated.’ Something shared by those who backed him including Duleek Independent Republicans who organised the Bridge of Peace vigil every week without fail. Meanwhile, the long campaigning partner of Brendan Lillis, Roisin Lynch, has said she feels vindicated. And so she should. Vindication in the face of vindictiveness is a worthy emotion.
Stung by his failure to maintain the ‘until death do us part’ attitude that had characterised his stance throughout the Lillis saga, David Ford has threatened to have Brendan Lillis stand trial if his condition improves. On the face of it this sounds a spiteful stance, the angry roar of a wounded beast. Yet the temptation to bugle triumphantly and rub his nose in it should be resisted. There remains an outside chance that he might just learn something about the unreformed Northern Ireland Prison Service and move to shake it down in a way that has not previously happened in the North. While much else has been changed the prison service stands pretty much as it did throughout the decades of political turmoil, vengeful, vindictive, violent.
Although the Brendan Lillis standoff has been resolved in favour of compassion over intransigence there remain many other issues pertaining to the British penal establishments in the North that continue to go unaddressed. The ongoing political detention of Marian Price and Martin Corey must not be allowed to slip quietly into the night. The continued encroachment on prisoners’ rights, the physical assaults and the general erosion of individual dignity, components of the agenda constantly pursued by the prison administration, are certain to create the need for prisoner support bodies which will serve a vital democratic function by protecting prisoners from the violence, institutionalised and otherwise, of prison staff. The energy unleashed in the campaign to free Brendan Lillis should not be allowed to dissipate It should be rechanneled into the areas where it is most needed.
There are many reactionary elements in Northern society whose noses have been put out of joint by the decision to release Brendan Lillis. The DUP, Sinn Fein’s senior partner in the executive, is upset that the nails it has to spit cannot be rammed into the hands and feet of republican prisoners. They will be at the forefront of any future campaigns built around prison issues. Behind the sanguine smile lies the sectarian snarl. Some things never change.