By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)
Christmas 1975 was the last time Pol Brennan was in the company of his family for the festive season.
In the intervening 33 years, Pol, born in Belfast’s Ballymurphy, has lived the precarious and unpredictable life of a political exile unable to return to his native city and country.
Born in the mid-1950s Pol came of age when Ballymurphy was at the centre of a bloody war with civilians, IRA members and crown force personnel being shot dead on the streets; a time when internment without trial was at its height and the British Paras and loyalists were involved in three separate massacres of local people in a failed attempt to quell republican resistance.
Pol’s first spell as a political prisoner was as an internee in the early ‘70s; his second spell was in the H-Blocks where he spent several years on the blanket protest for political status before escaping in the great escape of 1983; his third spell was in the early ‘90s when he was detained in a US jail for several years fighting successfully against an attempt to deport him back to Ireland and his fourth period of imprisonment is right now, with him back in a US prison again opposing another attempt to deport him back to Ireland.
The four terms of imprisonment mean that Pol has been to jail in the ‘70s,’ 80s, ‘90s and the new millennium.
The last time Pol saw his father and mother was 10 years ago. Since then his mother Sarah has passed away and his elderly father Joe, now in his late eighties, is in frail health.
Among many hardships facing a political exile, coming to terms with a relative’s death from a long distance is by far one of the worst. Pol had to grieve for his mother several thousand miles away from the comfort and support of his immediate family, six sisters and two brothers, one his twin.
Exile also means missing more joyful family occasions like weddings, births and christenings and missing out as the extended family grows into nieces and nephews and beyond.
Personal and political dislocation can often instil a sense of alienation and rootlessness in a person living in exile but Pol’s Belfast-based family visited him regularly before he went to prison in the US and while he has been in prison.
This gesture of solidarity has ensured that the anchors of family and country are never too far away from Pol’s thoughts.
Pol, his family and legal team in the US are at a loss to understand why the prosecuting authorities are insisting on his deportation and why they have refused him bail.
In 2000, after several years in a US jail, the British government withdrew an extradition case against him and the US authorities gave him permission to work in San Francisco.
Pol Brennan is not a threat to anyone. Since his arrival in the US in 1984 he has lived openly. He married a US citizen in 1989, set up home and is legally registered with all the relevant authorities.
His arrest in January this year arose out of a short lapse in time on his work permit - a minor oversight on his part.
The last year has been particularly difficult for his wife Joanna who has had to travel thousands of miles to several different prisons to visit him.
A high-level campaign in support of Pol to be bailed and remain in the US has drawn support across Irish America with three Congressmen - Republicans Peter King and Jim Walsh and Democrat Richard Neal - supporting his demands.
Ex-political prisoners Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly have frequented the White House and met US presidents.
The Ireland Pol Brennan left behind in 1983 has been transformed by the peace process.
Those who escaped with Pol now live normal lives here in Ireland.
It is time for a new chapter to be written in Pol Brennan’s life; it is time for the exile to be allowed to return home a free man to himself, his wife, his family, his country and adopted country - the US.
Let Christmas 2008 be the last Pol Brennan ever spends behind bars.