Dublin City Council this week passed a motion calling for the release of Brendan McConville and John Paul Wootton, victims of a miscarriage of justice in March 2009.
“This is a human rights issue and not one of political ideology,” it said. “The continued imprisonment of these two men cast a shadow over the judicial system in the six counties.”
Gavin O’Reilly takes a fresh look at the case.
Brendan McConville and John Paul Wootton have spent 8 years as political prisoners in the North of Ireland. Both men are currently serving life sentences for the killing of PSNI Officer Stephen Carroll in March 2009, having been convicted by a non-Jury ‘Diplock’ court in a trial based purely on circumstantial evidence, namely that of ‘Witness M’; who’s eyewitness account of Brendan McConville on the night would have been medically impossible, and who has been discredited as a ‘Walter Mitty’ type character by his own father of all people!
Following their conviction in May 2012 (after a three year period on remand), a campaign was launched to raise awareness of what was quite clearly a miscarriage of justice. The ‘Justice for the Craigavon Two’ committee was headed by none other than Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four, who remained active on the case until his death in June 2014. Michael Mansfield QC, the distinguished English solicitor who represented the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six, has also spoken publicly of his belief that both men are victims of a miscarriage of justice.
With the backing of such high-profile personalities, and the obvious comparisons with the case of the Guildford Four (especially in regards to evidence-tampering by the security services, which I will get to later on), one would naturally assume that the case of the Craigavon 2 would have garnered media attention not just in Ireland and Britain, but across the world.
This has not been the case however, and rather than being down to apathy from the general public, there has instead been a deliberate attempt by both the British establishment and complicit politicians to prevent any awareness of this blatant miscarriage of justice. This has been done for a variety of reasons, all of which could ultimately affect the so-called ‘peace process’.
Maintaining the status quo
To gain an understanding on why the silence has been so deafening in this case, one simply has to look at the attack on Stephen Carroll in a wider context.
Two nights prior to his killing, the Real IRA gunned down two British soldiers at Massereene Barracks in Antrim. Along with Stephen Carroll, these were the first members of the Crown Forces to be executed by Republicans since 1997. As a result, Britain’s attempts to normalise their continued occupation of Ireland (as part of the aforementioned ‘peace process’) were thrown into disarray. To the outside world, it appeared that the IRA were back, and they meant business. Britain needed a scapegoat, and quick.
This is where Brendan McConville and John Paul Wootton came into the equation. Despite there being no credible evidence to link either to the attack, the mere fact they were two local Republicans made them the perfect Patsy for the security services. This in turn brings me onto the next point, which could be the most sinister part of the case altogether.
Britain’s dirty war
During the trial of the Craigavon Two, it emerged that a tracking device had been placed on John Paul Wootton’s car. It had been placed there by the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, a clandestine unit of the British Army, deployed to the North of Ireland to carry out surveillance on known Republicans.
This went against the narrative that ‘peace’ had returned to the North, as the use of secretive military units harked back to the days of collusion with Loyalist death squads. In a disturbing turn of events it was also divulged that key information had been deleted from the device, despite the fact it was held in a secure military facility. This again was an example of Britain’s ‘dirty war’ in Ireland.
As well as the British government and the intelligence services, Sinn Fein (the largest nationalist party in the North), also have to shoulder some of the blame for the media whitewash of the case.
As a party of considerable influence (Sinn Fein MLAs held 5 ministerial positions in Stormont prior to its recent collapse), they have had ample opportunity over the past 8 years to demand an immediate and thorough investigation into the facts surrounding the Craigavon 2 case. This has not been forthcoming.
Key to this is the fact that they have only gained such influence and popular support through slowly abandoning their Republican principles over the course of the past two decades. To be seen to getting involved in a case of this nature, involving a Republican attack on Crown Forces, could be detrimental to any further electoral success they aspire to, hence their silence on the issue.
The future for the Craigavon 2
As Brendan McConville and John Paul Wootton face their eighth year of imprisonment, it has been the grassroots activism of the Justice for the Craigavon Two Committee that has had the most success in raising awareness of the case thus far. Events such as information stalls and public meetings are held regularly in both Ireland and Britain, and the campaign has drawn the support of several Independent TDs, who have consistently raised the issue in Leinster House.
Regarding the legal aspect, an appeal to the UK Supreme Court in May 2015 was dismissed without even being heard, although solicitors for both Brendan and John Paul are currently in the process of submitting an application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (a government body established to investigate potential miscarriages of justice). Two separate court rulings in the intervening period, regarding the use of tracking devices and the issue of ‘Joint Enterprise’, may also have an impact on the case.
With these new developments, the diligent work of their legal teams, and the dedicated activism of the Justice Committee, there is every reason to remain optimistic. The media furore from March 2009 has long since died down, and there’s no conceivable benefit at this stage for the British government to still have both men imprisoned.
Should the day come that their convictions are overturned however, questions still remain. Had the mainstream media not maintained its silence over the past eight years, and given this case the full coverage it deserved, would these men have spent so long in prison? Or would they ever even have been sent there in the first place at all?