By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
As you drive along the Westlink in Belfast towards the M2 you can’t miss the 13-storey tower block with the Irish tricolour flying. For years now the plinth at the top has been used as a noticeboard for republican grievances.
The slogan says ’Free Marion Price’. Tens of thousands of motorists see it every day. It’s doubtful if any of them pay any attention. They should.
In May Marion Price was arrested a couple of weeks after an Easter Sunday commemoration the 32-County Sovereignty Movement had organised in the cemetery in Derry. The cemetery is on a windy slope and Price leaned over to hold steady the paper from which a masked man was reading the Real IRA’s Easter message.
On May 13 she appeared in court charged with encouraging support for an illegal organisation. Price applied for bail on the charge and bail was granted. As she came on to the steps of the courthouse she was rearrested.
It turned out the previous night our proconsul for the time being, the man with the easiest job in the British cabinet, had signed an order revoking what he believed was the licence granted to Marion Price in 1980 to be free despite the life sentence she had received for her part in the Old Bailey bombing in 1973.
What the proconsul’s advisers had apparently not been aware of was that weeks after being released on licence, Price had subsequently been granted a royal pardon and was actually not on licence at all so the proconsul had no power to revoke a licence that had been rendered redundant by the pardon.
Needless to say, Price’s solicitor has taken this point to court -- three times. But guess what, the British government can’t find the pardon, a pardon that no-one disputes was granted.
They say it has been lost or maybe shredded. If you believe that you believe anything. Sounds like a lame attempt to limp around the embarrassment.
What has the proconsul to say on all this? As you would expect, nothing.
Remember, this is perhaps the most insignificant politician inflicted on this place since Paul Murphy.
He has no votes here and couldn’t get ejected here but has ridden roughshod over the legal system here. Remember, he signed the order the night before the bail hearing in case Marion Price got bail.
In other words our proconsul treated the bail hearing with complete contempt.
He had already arranged for police to set its decision aside if the magistrate released Price.
Price’s supporters have been taking the wrong line on the whole issue.
They claim it’s a matter of free speech. It isn’t. Free speech does not include a masked man threatening to kill people.
Supporters emphasise that 57-year-old Price is in effect in solitary confinement in an all-male jail, is not in good health and is a threat to no-one. Fair enough but none of that is the real issue.
The real issue is abuse of power and contempt for the rights of all citizens by a politician and an English politician to boot, devoid of any mandate here.
It is true that Marion Price’s opinions are repugnant to all but a tiny minority on this island but that does not give the proconsul the right to interfere with the legal process and send her to jail without trial on his own questionable authority.
In effect he has interned her in what looks like an act of political vindictiveness.
The alleged inability to find her pardon is as preposterous as that other example of bad faith from the same source - the shameful failure to fulfil the commitment to hold an inquiry into the killing of Pat Finucane.
Today Marion Price goes before the life-sentence review commission in Maghaberry prison.
She should not be there. She was granted a pardon under the royal prerogative 30 years ago and should not be in jail at the whim of an insignificant proconsul.
She has the right to a trial like everyone else.