By Martin Galvin
Some years ago, as an Irish Northern Aid observer, this writer attended a large Sinn Fein internal conference held in Dublin to discuss the policy of abstentionism, which was to be overturned within a few years. Two of the early speakers set the parameters of the debate. One argued that elected Sinn Fein TDs would secure the abolition of the Special Criminal Court, denounce British injustices from the floor of Leinster House and so rally support for Republican political prisoners. The second speaker contended that the party would inevitably become tied into the twenty-six county establishment, with its ability to support Republican political prisoners undermined and compromised. Ironically both men would later be killed in County Donegal. The latter speaker, Eddie Fullerton, will be remembered as a murdered Irish patriot, while the former was informer Denis Donaldson, an admitted paid servant of the British crown.
The arguments presented in that conference should be revisited in light of an August 24th Irish News column by Jim Gibney entitled “Injustice Must Always Be Opposed and Exposed”. Will, indeed can, Sinn Fein expose and oppose injustices inflicted upon Republican political prisoners from within the constraints of the Stormont Deal? Ironically, the question can only be answered by Sinn Fein.
The positions articulated by Jim Gibney, should of course be welcomed and commended, even by Republicans like this writer who fundamentally disagree with him on the Stormont Deal strategy.
However, much like Sinn Fein leaders study public positions espoused by the British government, SDLP, or Fianna Fail etc to determine whether such pronouncements bespeak serious policy commitments, or mere lip-service, pitched to the grassroots, Republicans allied with these political prisoners are studying and debating the true import of this column.
Gibney begins by calling upon the British government to resolve the battle in Maghaberry, where Republican political prisoners are fighting still another British attempt at criminalization by breaking them into abandoning a segregated wing for political prisoners and accepting cells with and among criminals.
He supports the demand of Republican political prisoners held in English prisons to be repatriated, and specifically criticizes Dublin minister Michael Mc Dowell for delaying the transfer and crucial medical treatment for Aiden Hulme.
Thirdly he condemns the miscarriage of justice in the case of Michael Mc Kevitt, who was sentenced solely on the word of a British agent, four time bankrupt, criminal and tax cheat, whose testimony was not only bought and scripted but even contradicted by garda surveillance witnesses, yet credited by the Special Criminal Court in a verdict which did indeed put justice on trial.
These positions, which all Republicans should commend and welcome, are expressed by someone who is himself a former Republican prisoner, and many believe the victim of a miscarriage of justice. He is a leading strategist within Sinn Fein, whose views influence and are believed to reflect those of party leaders. He cites these as party positions held and he claims advanced in negotiations. Clearly if Sinn Fein, a highly coordinated party whose positions are communicated and followed throughout all party levels, advocates support for Irish Republican prisoners, such would be a welcome advance for these prisoners and their families.
Many Republicans are skeptical and argue that as part of the negotiations for a return to a DUP headed Stormont, Sinn Fein will be obliged to accept not only policing boards but the British constabulary, which hauls Republicans before crown courts, and enforces British laws. They cite a number of events as proof that the party cannot, within the confines of the Stormont Deal, expose and fight the injustices inflicted upon Irish Republican prisoners. These skeptical Republicans contend that occasional sympathetic statements about Irish Republican prisoners are issued only to placate growing discontent and disquiet amidst the Republican community, to be trotted out to back claims that of course we support these prisoners while in reality informing the British that such rhetoric is mere public relations and not to be taken seriously.
It is said that no prominent Sinn Fein member has ever joined or encouraged participation in any white line picket for Maghaberry. Indeed it is said that some prominent Sinn Fein members have ridiculed and jeered those who did march. Last week a rally was held at Casement Park to honor the memory of the hunger strikers of 1981. Republican political prisoners in Maghaberry are resisting the very same policy of criminalization which the British tried to impose upon the blanket-men only to be beaten back by the hunger strike martyrs. It is claimed that a request to have a mother of one of these prisoners read a short statement, as a show of solidarity, was denied. It is claimed that a promise to have one of the platform members read the statement was broken. Clearly the main speech of the rally was directed at agreement with the DUP on a new Stormont administration, not justice for political prisoners held by that administration. If Sinn Fein were truly fighting the injustices inflicted by the crown upon political prisoners at Maghaberry, would not a simple statement read on behalf of these prisoners have demonstrated to the British that this issue is one which Sinn Fein will not ignore or defuse or relegate to an occasional newspaper article?
The latest manipulation of the Diplock Courts seems to be the attempt to sentence Republicans on the basis of fabricated DNA evidence. DNA evidence is easily planted. It can be gathered in any house raid. It leaves no telltale signs like visible injuries. It has the advantage that most people will not understand or question ostensibly irrefutable scientific data, in the way that a confession under torture is immediately understood.
This British legal manipulation came to light in the case of Mark Carroll and Martin Brogan, and then later in the related case of Seamus Doherty. In scenes that seemed plagiarized from the script of “In the Name of the Father”, one of the members of the legal team, Aidan Carlin found written notes detailing that items had been unsealed and taken away to allow for fabricated DNA to be planted. The test conductors were requested to change their findings to make a case. These charges were dismissed and the case investigated by UTV. A Sinn Fein Councilor Martin Cunningham is now an ex-Sinn Fein Councilor because he sought to highlight this case which concerned Republicans living within his Council district, and was censured for doing so. Much later, the case would be noted in a Sinn Fein pamphlet as an example of an injustice highlighted by the party.
No member of the crown forces has been demoted or disciplined, much less prosecuted for this blatant attempt to frame innocent Irishmen. A clear signal was sent by the crown. You may fabricate evidence against selected Republicans with impunity.
Next month the crown prosecution of Sean Hoey will commence based upon evidence that his solicitor Peter Corrigan and many human rights campaigners believe will make that trial the next miscarriage of justice, based on similarly gathered and planted DNA. Can and will Sinn Fein join in exposing and fighting this injustice?
The timing is also not overlooked. The fight for justice of Michael Mc Kevitt like the repatriation battle of Aidan Hulme and other Republicans held in England has been ongoing for years. The silence of Sinn Fein until now has been deafening. The Mc Kevitt case involved a myriad of issues such as the involvement of a British MI5 agent in the south, scripted and bought perjury, the refusal to disclose exculpatory evidence, the right of silence, trial by media. A campaign for justice has gathered momentum and enlisted the support of prominent and respected human rights workers. Will Sinn Fein endorse the campaign and raise the issue as a matter of justice on the floor of Leinster House? Will it publicly raise the delays or denial of repatriation to Irish political prisoners, in a manner which shows that such commitment is genuine and not a public relations gesture?
This debate and these questions can only be answered by Sinn Fein. Much like the support which Republican prisoners received in the past from Church, political and human rights leaders who did not endorse the campaigns of the IRA or INLA, but supported them as a matter of justice, Sinn Fein can support Republican political prisoners with whom there is a fundamental disagreement on the Stormont Deal. Real support on such terms would be witnessed and welcomed. However, if the party can no longer expose and fight injustice because it is trapped within the constraints of the Stormont Deal, that too will be witnessed and understood within the Republican grass-roots.