A group of former IRA prisoners living in the US has launched a campaign to secure their legal status there.
The organisation, Thar Saile (Irish for “overseas”), is made up of former prisoners, many of whom have faced deportation while living, working and raising families in the U.S. for decades. Many are married to American wives and are the fathers of American-born children.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton announced that deportation proceedings against the former IRA prisoners would be halted and they would move into “deferred action” status. Although the action was hailed at the time as tangible result of the peace process in Ireland, the men’s legal status in the US has yet to be finally resolved.
Currently the former prisoners cannot travel to Ireland to visit family. They must also constantly renew their work permits over a period of months on an ongoing basis, frequently jeopardizing their employment in the process.
Irish American Unity Conference (IAUC) president Kate McCabe said, “The position of our organization is that the US government’s position toward this group of people is out of step with its entire policy toward the Irish peace process. Martin McGuinness has been to the White House on a number of occasions to meet with President Bush, so it doesn’t make sense that they’re targeting this group of men.”
Last week the IAUC released a document entitled “Prisoners of Peace,” making the case that the reintegration of former prisoners is a first and critical step in any peace process. In the North of Ireland, they point out, former prisoners are holding elected office and working together to build a new society. Only in the US is their status still unresolved.
“It’s anachronistic that these men are being targeted. Although no formal deportation orders have been filed against them -- with the exception of Pol Brennan who is currently jailed in Texas -- most of these men have to renew their work permits every 60 to 90 days, which then takes a further month to process,” McCabe said.
“Trying to keep a secure job is made difficult when you know you have to renew your work permit constantly like this. We feel it’s harassment.”
The objective of ‘Thar Saile’ is to end the uncertainty for the former IRA prisoners and their families by providing them with a permanent legal status and the right to live, work and travel here and abroad unencumbered.
This week ‘Thar Saile’ has promised to launch a broad-based education and communication campaign around this issue, working with their supporters around the U.S. to bring this issue to the attention of all major political candidates.
Joe Doherty, the IRA volunteer who became famous when fighting British efforts to extradite him from the U.S. in the 1980s, is appealing for people to sign an internet petition calling for Pol Brennan’s immediate release from a Texas jail and an end to US deportation proceedings against him.
Brennan has been in jail since being detained at a US immigration checkpoint on January 27 for having a lapsed work permit.
He was one of those who escaped in the famous Long Kesh mass breakout in 1983, and had been working openly as a carpenter in California since Britain dropped its efforts to extradite him.
Last month an immigration judge in Texas denied him bail on the grounds that he is a flight risk and a danger to US society.
“I’m asking people to go to the website ( https://www.polbrennan.com ) and show their support,” said Doherty, who is living in Belfast.
“Pol Brennan is no danger to the United States. He should be freed and allowed to live his life in peace,” Doherty said.
Doherty, who spent nine years in US jails before being extradited to Northern Ireland in 1992, said that Brennan’s case flies in the face of all that has occurred in Ireland in recent years.
“The war is over here. People that (Brennan) was fighting alongside back in the 70s, people in the (republican) movement, are actually in government here now,” said Doherty, who works with Coiste na n-Iarchimi, a support group for former republican prisoners.
“Martin McGuinness was a former prisoner. He stated himself that he was a member of the IRA and was involved in the struggle. And he’s now the deputy first minister who has been invited over to the White House by George Bush,” he added.
Doherty said he knows well the frustration that Brennan must be feeling.
“I was in Pol’s position back in 1983, up until 1992 when I was extradited back. I was held in New York prisons for nine years without charge. I wasn’t permitted to get bail, although I was never charged with an offense. I was no threat to the United States.”
Republicans were “shoring up the peace” process, Doherty said.
“And here’s Pol Brennan, who’s already five or six years in U.S. jails, back in prison, even though the British government sent a letter to the U.S. government saying that they didn’t want to extradite him anymore back in 2000. He should be released immediately,” Doherty said.