By Anthony McIntyre (for the Pensive Quill)
Brendan Lillis is a former republican political prisoner who served a life sentence as a result of his involvement in the North’s violent political conflict. He served around 16 years for possession of explosives and firearms. In 1992 BL, as he was known to his friends and comrades, was released on license. While in prison he took part in the many protests against the British government’s criminalisation policy.
Today he is being held in Maghaberry Prison as a result of a completely unrelated charge which we now know is no longer to be proceeded with. Nevertheless the life sentence that he received in 1977 has been reactivated which means he is once again a lifer serving time only for actions carried out in the 1970s and for nothing else. For the first 10 weeks he had no visits because he couldn’t get into a wheelchair and they wouldn’t let me into the jail ... He couldn’t make phone calls as his condition was so bad he could not physically lift the phone. During that time I could not get a hold of a prison doctor to find out how Brendan was - one day I rang 37 times and no-one was available to talk to me ... After a lot of debates with the jail I was eventually allowed to visit him in his cell which I have done since .... He was finally moved to the hospital wing ... Brendan is now in a precarious situation and if he doesn’t get released from jail I am in no doubts he will die soon.
By the time Roisin eventually did get to see her partner she was shocked at his condition. ‘He just looked like he was dying and he still does.’ She later said ‘he’s been on the hospital wing for the past 14 months and he’s supposed to have physiotherapy every day to stop inflammation, but he’s lucky if he gets one session a week.’
There are reports that he lay on the cell floor for a number of days before prison staff would move him to the prison hospital. During his arraignment Brendan Lillis was unable to leave his bed.
The recently appointed West Belfast Sinn Fein MLA, Pat Sheehan, has called for the immediate release of his former blanket comrade. Sheehan, a former IRA hunger striker, said ‘given the urgency of Brendan Lillis’ medical condition he should not be in prison.’ Sheehan also hit out at the British government’s policy whereby former political prisoners can be held in prison by the revoking of their license. He added, ‘now that the charges against Brendan Lillis are not being brought forward he should be released immediately.’ He called on the Owen Patterson, the British Secretary of State, and the Life Sentence Review Commission ‘to deal with this case without delay.’
Another Sinn Fein MLA and former blanket man Paul Butler added his voice to the calls for British authorities to release Brendan Lillis: ‘I have tabled a question to the Minister for Justice about Brendan and I will do my best to see that he gets released as soon as possible.’
Sinn Fein has been joined in its opposition to the ongoing detention of Lillis by the IRSP and the RNU, both of whom have members who were prison comrades of the imprisoned man.
Also backing the bed ridden man is The Friends of Brendan Lillis, a support group which has campaigned on his behalf on the internet and other outlets. Its primary aim: is to have Brendy immediately released to ensure he receives the proper medical attention he deserves. His continued imprisonment is wrong and we call for his release on humanitarian grounds.
In typical time honoured fashion those tasked with managing the North’s jails seem intent on prolonging the misery. In a piece of blather the Life Sentence Unit on behalf of the North’s British Micro Minister for Justice, David Ford, said, ‘the Minister of Justice does not consider that exceptional grounds exist which would justify the release of Mr Lillis on compassionate grounds.’ Too ill to stand trial, not ill enough to go home. Any excuse to continue with his detention.
The Life Sentence Review Board is said to consider the case of Brendan Lillis on the 22nd of March. If it fails to act humanely and release him the West Belfast man may well end his days in prison. We have experience of this punitive and vindictive trait in the British state character. In 1994 they allowed Derry republican Pol Kinsella to die in prison rather than release him into the care of his family. His father later pointed out that his son ‘died after suffering an illness, barbaric treatment and neglect in Long Kesh.’
That callous practice should have no place in any prison regime that claims to be modern and enlightened. Brendan Lillis should not be in Maghaberry but at home where he can be tended to in a humane and loving environment where medics are health professionals and not screws in white coats.