Sinn Féin Assembly member Gerry Kelly has said he remains proud of his involvement in the 1983 mass breakout from Long Kesh prison despite British Direct Ruler Brandon Lewis describing his memories of the event “disgraceful”.
There was a strong reaction among unionists in Ireland and Britain after the North Belfast representative marked the 37th anniversary of the IRA escape, and the late IRA leader Bobby Storey, who masterminded the famous escape from the high security jail, with an internet post.
Involving 38 PoWs, the Colditz-style breakout remains the largest in British prison history. Mr Kelly wrote: “One of Big Bob’s best ops! I had the privilege of the front passenger seat. Well someone had to check we were taking the right route out!!”
Lewis described it was “shameful and gratuitous incitement” which he said “makes it harder for all communities in Northern Ireland to move forward. It is right to expect so much more from elected representatives.”
A statement subsequently issued by Sinn Féin noted Lewis’s recent announcement of his government’s decision to break international law in a ‘specific and limited way’, and said they would not be lectured by him.
It said: “Brandon Lewis should be focussed on implementing another international agreement the British government has reneged on, the Stormont House Agreement which agreed mechanisms to tackle the legacy of the past.
“Instead the British government is attempting to put British state forces who murdered Irish citizens above the law, while continuing to deny the families of victims of the conflict from getting the truth through cover-ups and stalling.”
The furore came as British and Irish officials sought to play down a two-week hunger strike protest, by republican prisoners at Maghaberry, Hydebank and Portlaoise jails, which concluded successfully this week.
But Lewis’s comments appeared in support of the 26 County Taoiseach Micheal Martin and Tanaiste Leo Varadkar, who have both attacked Sinn Féin as the party continues to climb in the polls.
In a rare display of unity, the leaders of both coalition parties claimed Irish reunification was being delayed by Sinn Féin’s campaigns and commemorations arising from the conflict, which they described as a “narrative of violence”.
The claim was initially made in a tirade in the Dáil by Taoiseach Micheal Martin and directed at a bewildered Sinn Féin TD for Mayo, Rose Conway-Walsh.
“Fianna Fail enabled your party to give up the gun,” he declared, in an apparent reference to the peace process. “You endorse violence as a way to unify Ireland and what you did was you did more damage than anybody in relation to a united Ireland and you continue to endorse that narrative, not understanding that every time you endorse the narrative of violence, you make it more difficult ever to get a United Ireland.’
“Yes, when your colleague Gerry Kelly celebrates the prison escape which resulted in the murder of a prison officer, is that okay? Do you think that advances the cause of Irish unity? Of course it doesn’t.”
Speaking in Belfast, Sinn Féin chairman Declan Kearney defended Mr Kelly. He said “we all have narratives around our past... which are in conflict with each other. We will not agree on the past but we can do our level best collectively, inclusively to try and build a united future for everyone in this society.”