13 November 1997 Edition
Prison campaigns urged to expand
by Robert McClenaghan and Laura Friel
Despite an IRA cessation and political talks, the reality for families of Irish political prisoners in English jails remains as it has been, according to Caroline McEvoy of the Committee for the Transfer of Irish Prisoners.
Speaking at the annual Gathering of the Clans McEvoy described that reality as: ``children unable to see their parents, relatives unable to make the journey, petty harassment, beatings, strip-searches, repeated moves from jail to jail and 23-hour lock up''.
She acknowledged some positive developments - ``the transfer of Liam McCotter, Danny McNamee and Sean McNulty, the easing of restrictions for those prisoners on temporary transfer and the declassification of some prisoners held in England.'' The saddest event, said McEvoy, to have occurred since last year's Gathering was the untimely death of Paddy Kelly,''murdered by medical neglect''.
The seventh Gathering of the Clans was held on Saturday, 8 November in Derrytresk, East Tyrone. This annual event brings together families, friends and campaigners of Irish POWs in jails in England past and present. Relatives of prisoners on remand can talk to the `veterans' who have been travelling to England for prison visits for over twenty years. The Gathering has also become a significant political focus, where campaign progress and strategy can be evaluated and developed. There are currently 25 Irish political prisoners in jails in England.
Eamon Nolan of the 26 County-based Repatriation Committee, said the Dublin government's ratification of the European Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons had moved the campaign on but ``the committee has spent the last year challenging bureaucratic delays'' impeding transfers to the 26 Counties. ``Hopefully repatriation will become the norm and the Committee can then move onto the next issue- the release of transferred prisoners,'' Nolan said.
Nuala Kelly of the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas (ICPO) said media speculation about ``imminent'' transfers was misleading. The issue was not resolved and campaigners should ``push hard'' if transfers were to be secured. The main obstacle, said Kelly remained the British Home Office and its Home Secretary, Jack Straw.
Relatives of remand prisoners currently being held in the notorious Special Secure Units (SSU) in Belmarsh Prison, highlighted the conditions. Maura Connally and Rita McHugh addressed the conference from the floor. Both women described the ``reign of terror'' being conducted against remand prisoners, by Belmarsh wardens. Sentenced prisoner Pat Martin from Belfast has recently been moved from Long Lartin to an SSU in Belmarsh.
``The lights are left on all night and the doors are banged every hour to deprive the men of any sleep. They are constantly strip searched and often beaten. Brian McHugh has been strip-searched 96 times in the last 8 months,'' said Rita.
Sinn Fein Vice-President Pat Doherty described his party's relationship to the prisoners: ``We are part of them and they are with us all the time.'' Doherty argued that a range of strategies from political lobbying to street protests, properly coordinated was the key to forcing movement from the British Government who lacked the political will to move on the issue of prisoners. Gerry Kelly, ex POW and Sinn Fein negotiator, said his negotiating position was only as strong as the people protesting on the streets. ``We need to fight on every front,'' said Kelly, ``We are not dealing with humanitarians in the British government. I can't say this is going to be the last Gathering of the Clans, I hope so but we may be back next year. We are the people who can make change. We need to work towards that end.''
By Annie Marie Faul
Over 500 people attended a Saoirse picket in Coalisland on Saturday 8 November. The picket was organised in conjunction with the Gathering of the Clans and during the protest a number of relatives chained themselves to a barrier at Coalisland RUC barracks.
Speaking at the protest, local Sinn Fein Councillor Francie Molloy said, ``so long as there are prisoners in jail for their political beliefs then we are all prisoners.'' He asked, ``why should prisoners have to lie in jail whilst the Unionists refuse to negotiate?''
The picket was also addressed by Martin Meehan, Chairperson of Saoirse. He thanked the protesters for remembering the prisoners andurged everyone present to go to Omagh on 7 December for the next major Saoirse rally.