5 November 1998 Edition
Saoirse debates its strategy
By Fern Lane
At the second annual Saoirse Conference, held in the Felons' Club in West Belfast last Sunday to decide its strategy over the next year, activists were reminded that, despite the campaign's success in mobilising families, raising the profile of the prisoner issue and its major role in achieving releases thus far, the struggle on behalf of POWs is not yet over.
There are currently 90 men and four women in prison in the six counties, although this is expected to be down to a total of around 20 by Christmas.
There is serious concern at what the National Chairperson Eoghan MacCormaic called the `stagnation' in the transfers of the five remaining POWs in English Jails, Nick Mullen, Jan Taylor, Patrick Kelly, Jimmy Murphy and Michael Gallagher, all of whom are being used by the British government as hostages in an attempt to exert control of the Irish government's own release programme.
Edele Kelly, wife of Patrick Kelly, in outlining the state of play on each of the prisoners' applications for transfer, explained to delegates that the Irish government has been told that if they release transferred prisoners early those five still in England will not be transferred. As a result of this pressure, the Balcombe Street men, who were transferred earlier this year and have now served 24 years in prison, are still in jail and transfers have come to a standstill.
Saoirse's northern chairman, Martin Meehan, called for the immediate unconditional transfer of republican prisoners in English jails. He also spoke about the success of the Saoirse campaign over the past year saying that it was perhaps the most successful campaign group in both the six and twenty six counties in terms of having achieved many, if not all, of its objectives and that this success should be taken forward into the wider struggle.
The most visible evidence of the success of the campaign was the presence on the conference platform of former POWs released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Harry Maguire, Rosena Brown and Vincent Woods each spoke about the importance of prisoner campaign and support groups both to them and their families during their time in prison. But, said Harry Maguire; ``For us the peace process has not been about releases; it is about the struggle. We remain committed to the struggle and we are unapologetic about what we did during the struggle.''
Sinn Fein chairman Mitchel McLaughlin offered the conference his party's continued support for the Saoirse campaign and said that, even once the last prisoner was out of jail, there were new territories of struggle into which the campaign could move such as the issue of those on the run, policing and the justice system, including the behaviour of the Irish justice department.
Fuaiscailt lobbies embassy
A delegation from Fuascailt, the London branch of Saoirse, went to the Irish Embassy on Tuesday 3 November to lobby for the transfer of the five POWs remaining in English prisons.
Maurice Quinlivan, Pegeen O'Sullivan and Jessica Mullen - 17-year-old daughter of POW Nick Mullen - met with Philip MacDonagh, First Secretary at the Embassy with special responsibility for the peace process, to urge a resolution to the impasse created by the British government's insistence on the Irish government upholding the sentences of transferred prisoners. To ensure compliance with this demand, the British authorities are refusing to agree to further transfers. The release of POWs in Portlaoise has also come to a standstill as a result of this interference.
Mr MacDonagh told the delegation that to date the Irish government has not responded to the British demands for this level of control over Irish policy but that he is hopeful the matter will move towards some kind of resolution at a ministerial meeting between the two governments due to be held in Brussels on 11 November.
Kelly meets with US POW
Gerry Kelly, Assembly member for North Belfast, visited Richard Johnson at Allenwood Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania on Monday. He also met with the H-Block Three; Pól Brennan, Terry Kirby and Kevin Barry Artt as well as their lawyers during a visit to San Francisco on Tuesday.
Kelly said: ``We welcome the return of Pól, Terry and Kevin to their families. On the issue of their extradition; Sinn Féin believes they should never have been arrested. The latest court decision, in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process, needs to stand.
``Richard Johnson, who has served the majority of his sentence, deserves serious consideration for early release. Once again, it is the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process which needs to be applied in his case. Clemency is the least that should be expected in the case of Mr. Johnson.''