Long memories at Leinster House
Long memories at Leinster House

A civil-war era spat broke out in the Dail this week when Kerry North-Limerick West Sinn Fein TD Martin Ferris sought to remove restrictions on prisoners released under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The exchange took place when Minister Leo Varadkar rejected Sinn Fein’s amendment to the Road Transport Bill to give former political prisoners the right to take out commercial licences and carry out work they are currently debarred from, due to their convictions.

Mr Varadkar said the principle established to date was that “members of paramilitary organisations convicted of offences, and whose campaign was at an end” could be put on early release.

“They are put on early release under licence, there is no amnesty, convictions are not expunged and they are still convicted criminals,” he said.

Referring to two of the most controversial actions of the Provisional IRA in the recent conflict, Mr Varadkar said Sinn Fein TDs needed to be able to say that “Jean McConville was murdered and that the bombing of Enniskillen was an atrocity”.

He added that if Sinn Fein TDs said that, he would accept their amendment.

But accusing the Minister of making a “disgraceful statement”, Mr Ferris said: “If he thinks he can blackmail me to say what he wants, he has another think coming.”

Mr Ferris accused Mr Varadkar of making a revisionist presentation of Irish history. He said he could take Mr Varadkar “to my county, to Ballyseedy or Beathacha, Caherciveen, or to Countess Bridget in Killarney, where 17 prisoners were taken out in one week by the Minister’s predecessors, tied to a mine and blown to bits in the name of this State, but I will not go down that road”.

In the 1918-1923 period, there was a war in the State, Mr Ferris added.

“People were involved in that war on the island of Ireland.

“The partition of Ireland was agreed by the Minister’s predecessors.”

Mr Varadkar said one had to come to terms with one’s past and history, adding he had visited the monument at Ballyseedy, near Tralee, where eight republican prisoners were killed by ‘Free State’ 26 County soldiers.

“I can say, in clear conscience and without any doubt in my mind, that the events of Ballyseedy constituted an atrocity,” the Minister added.

“I can also say that people who were murdered, or executed, without trial by the Cumann na nGaedheal [precursor of Fine Gael] government were murdered.”

Dessie Ellis of Sinn Fein said that many things had happened during the conflict on the island.

“Not all of us are happy, and are finding it very difficult to stand by many of the things that happened, but they happened.

“It was a very prolonged campaign and as a movement, as a party, we are in favour of a truth commission.”

Mr Ellis said previous governments had stood by and allowed many things to happen.

He called on the present government to live up to the 26 County state’s commitments under the Good Friday Agreement to support the reintegration of former political prisoners and their pursuit of gainful employment.

“Too many times legislation has been implemented since the agreement which has discriminated against former political prisoners,” he said.

“These people are in most cases pillars of their community and are well respected and regarded. Despite all this, in many cases former political prisoners cannot obtain licences for certain types of business and an example is found in this bill in relation to Road Transport Operator licences.

“Political prisoners took the risks to bring the peace process to where it is today they should not be penalised for this.”

The amendment was defeated by 93 votes to 31.

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© 2011 Irish Republican News