By Anthony McIntyre (for the Pensive Quill)
Earlier this evening I attended a vigil on the Bridge of Peace in Drogheda aimed at highlighting the plight of Brendan Lillis currently detained in Maghaberry Prison despite being seriously ill. In recent days, largely as a result of the persistence of his indefatigable partner Roisin, the case of Brendan Lillis has at last managed to break into the mainstream media. There are signs of awareness in media circles that republican prisoners hold a combination lock which, if the right numbers click, can unleash an emotive reservoir within nationalist communities across the North. As a British official wistfully commented during the 1981 hunger strikes, many nationalists were being pulled by their umbilical cords to the cause of the prisoners.
This evening’s vigil was organised by the Duleek Independent Republican group which has done some great work both on behalf of republican prisoners and in the field of commemorative culture. About 25 people turned up including activists from the Republican Network for Unity and the 32 County Sovereignty Movement. All were welcome.
Not so welcome were those members of Garda Special Branch who monitored the vigil from start to finish, took names and addresses, and generally engaged in low level political harassment. While they were polite and non abusive, it did little to help me forget having to go through the same hassle while trying to enter the AP/RN office in Dublin in the 1990s when Sinn Fein was still considered a radical party.
On my way back from the vigil I made a point of looking at a couple of churches where the Garda would have every reason for suspecting that some real culprits hang out. Not a sign of a guard about the place, no flashing blue lights or plain clothes cops walking up and down with notebooks taking details. In spite of the threat posed by priests, in Drogheda all Garda attention was focussed on a peaceful protest.
Despite having no wish to be known to the Garda, the manner of expression they use when speaking to the press about people they are less than endeared to, I was not going to be deterred by their invasiveness from expressing solidarity with Brendan Lillis who was both a jail comrade and friend of mine. He was one of the Blanket protesters and the thought has crossed my mind if that goes some way toward explaining the vindictive behaviour being meted out to him.
On the bridge where we stood with the wind sweeping off the Boyne and onto our backs I met an old comrade from the cages of Long Kesh who I hadn’t seen in over thirty years. We had been talking to each other for about five minutes before the penny dropped. Always reassuring to know that old comrades from the past will be drawn together to help one of their number in a crisis.
One of the objectives of the vigil organisers was to hand out 1000 leaflets to passing motorists. It was obvious from the posters on display what the vigil was about and that the leaflets were dispensed with so quickly was an indication of a fair measure of public sympathy. I was surprised at the amount of motorists who tooted their horns as they passed.
It struck me that he Bridge of Peace was a highly symbolic site for us to be drawing attention to the institutionalised violence of the British state against republican prisoners in its custody. Over the years the same state has sought to, unsuccessfully, violently suppress peaceful protest.
As luck would have it, although I went with a camera, the memory card somehow got corrupted and my still shot recordings of the evening were lost forever. Not that the story of photography will be affected by that one way or the other. A camera would not be something that I have ever mastered with any degree of dexterity.
Whatever our views today on the nature of political conflict and the use of political violence it ill becomes any of us who experienced the brutality of the British prison regime to ignore the plight of those still in its clutches. If Brendan Lillis is to make it through his ordeal it will not be down to goodwill on the part of the British but rather the firm will of those people determined to put it up to the British in defence of prisoners’ rights.