Castlerea Prison is a forbidding sight from the long avenue that is its approach. The high wall and large steel gates suggest a different image to that being portrayed by some media at the moment. An Phoblacht accompanied the Head of Sinn Féin's POW Dept in Dublin, Ann O'Sullivan, to the prison to meet with the republican prisoners who remain incarcerated there after more than two years of the Good Friday Agreement.
The six republican prisoners in Castlerea include five men convicted in relation to the killing of detective garda Jerry McCabe in Adare, County Limerick, in 1996. Kevin Walsh, the OC of the republican prisoners in Castlerea, is from Patrickswell in Limerick and is no stranger to prison struggle. In 1977, Kevin, along with other comrades, spent 47 days on hunger strike for political status in Portlaoise prison. Twenty three years later, he is in Castlerea prison, fighting attempts by the media to demonise him and his comrades.
``For the last four years there has been a media free-for-all surrounding our case,'' says Walsh. ``Constantly we read about things that are supposed to have happened to us which are completely untrue.'' Walsh points to the recent publicity surrounding the compassionate paroles of Jerry Sheehy and Pearse McCauley. In both cases, the paroles were to visit elderly parents who are too ill to travel to the prison. This type of compassionate parole has always been available to republican prisoners and republican prisoners have always honoured compassionate parole. However, following an inaccurate Garda Representative Association (GRA) statement, the media ran stories that vilified the men. ``Jerry Sheehy wasn't in any hotel, and Pearse wasn't found in any pub after hours,'' Walsh avows.
As Sinn Féin spokesperson Gerry Kelly said last week, ``the GRA is misrepresenting the facts in an attempt to attack Sinn Féin's irrefutable case that the republican prisoners held in Castlerea are entitled to release under the terms of the Goood Friday Agreement. Any attempt to check out this story quickly shows how much of it is factually incorrect. These prisoners should have been released by now and Sinn Féin will continue to campaign for their immediate release.''
Says Kevin Walsh: ``The process we are involved in is trying to ensure that we can sort out our political difficulties so that no more families suffer the loss of a loved one, or have to spend years visiting prisons. None of this lessens the grief of any family who has lost a loved one as a result of the conflict, but we cannot have a hierarchy of victims.''
Walsh and the other prisoners all stress that the main focus of their anger is the Dublin government. In April 1998, they signed up for the Good Friday Agreement. That agreement was an attempt to put in place structures to move us beyond conflict. This included the release of prisoners. Kevin Walsh and the other Adare men are obviously qualifying prisoners under the Agreement. They should have been released last July. ``The Dublin government agreed to the Good Friday Agreement, and by doing so they agreed to the release of all prisoners. That includes us,'' says Walsh.
All of the men expressed anger at how their case has been singled out by the media. ``The conflict has created many victims,'' one of the men says. ``It is not right to single out one case.'' Walsh pointed out that they frequently incorrectly read in the press that the five were convicted of the murder of Jerry McCabe.
He expressed strong views on the legality of the Agreement: ``The Good Friday Agreement is an international treaty and the Dublin Government has reneged on it by not freeing the Castlerea Five. How can it be legal in an international agreement that we as qualifying prisoners are not released when all qualifying prisoners in the North have been released?''
All of the men asked that An Phoblacht express their thanks to all those who have supported their case. ``We have no doubt that as qualifying prisoners we will be released, but we need people to work for that,'' says Walsh. ``The politicians will only act if we make them act. We know that people are working hard on our case, but the state is trying to criminalise us. That has never been acceptable to republicans.''
Some of the men are beginning their fifth year of imprisonment. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, they should have been released last July. Ann O'Sullivan of the POW Department feels strongly that republicans need to be proactive on the Castlerea case. ``As long as there is one republican prisoner it is the duty of republicans to acquaint themselves with the situation of the prisoners and to work for their release,'' she told An Phoblacht, ``We need to ensure that this Christmas is their last spent in prison.''