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30 January 1997 Edition

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I'm not paranoid but they are out to get me

Well, it's been a week for conspiracy theorists. First off we had the collapse of the Whitemoor trial on Thursday 23 January, with defence barristers telling the cameras afterwards that prison officers had played a key role in the escape plan, helpfully cutting two fences to aid the over-the-wall gang in their cross-country expedition. That was on Thursday. But by Monday's BBC evening news we heard that a public inquiry was being demanded because one of the Whitemoor screws who would have been called to give evidence had mysteriously disappeared six months after the escape and hasn't been seen since. That news item also revealed that another prison guard had suffered a fatal car accident on the way to give evidence at the trial. Coincidence? MI5 shenanigans? We may never know but the old chestnut about fact being stranger than fiction was never more apt. Maybe that's why I don't watch the X Files.

Cutting Edge, (Channel 4, Monday, 27 January, 9pm) again challenged the official British version of events, this time put forward by Britain's security and defence apparatus. The subject of the documentary was the fatal Chinook crash in 1994 which left the bodies of 25 top intelligence chiefs and four RAF crew members scattered all over the Mull of Kintyre. A cover-up thicker than Paul McCartney's mists rolling down to the sea took place afterwards if the families of the two pilots involved are right.

The pilots were eventually blamed by the RAF for the crash. They were posthumously charged with ``gross negligence''. But their families and other experts consulted by the makers of The Last Flight of Zulu Delta 576 believe that their loved ones were the scapegoats for other people's errors. The programme suggested that the real negligence may have been on the part of the RAF top brass. The Chinook fleet had just returned from a complete refit in the US and major problems had been detected in flight testing yet the heavy-load choppers were pressed into service despite the unresolved problems.

Our old friend, Bernard Moffatt of the Celtic League, had bombarded us with faxes before and since the crash chronicling the problem of the use of obsolete equipment, inadequate maintenance and a failure on the part of the British forces to learn the lessons of past accidents. Ever since the Mull of Kintyre crash, conspiracy theorists here have chewed over the eggs-in-one-basket nature of the accident which left so many vacancies for counter-insurgency experts, but that is by the by. Moffatt warns that with an over-stretched and over-aged military helicopter fleet ``more losses and more deaths seem inevitable''. Watch this space because the man is rarely wrong.

There was no room for conspiracy theories in The Joy (RTE 1, Monday, 27 January, 9.30pm), the first of a four-part fly-on-the-wall series filmed inside the 26 Counties' largest prison. There wasn't much room to do anything. The presence of the cameras may have encouraged a certain ``screen presence'' on the part of both staff and inmates but nothing could hide the cramped conditions and outdated Victorian coldness of the place. If locking up offenders is the punishment society wants to counter crime, then Mountjoy looks punishing.

The first episode did little to dispel its image of an aged, overcrowded, under-resourced, drug-infested holding area for a rotating clientele. ``The jail is overcrowded, as it is, like you've 200 extra people in the jail,'' said Charlie, a prisoner. ``There's two in cells where there should be only one. There's too big of a population for starters, you know, coming in here for 12 months, locked in a cell... there's nothing in here to change your mind when you get back out...'' And that wasn't counting the cockroaches and rodents captured on film. This initial impression confirmed that it is not only the prison that is almost 150 years old. Society's attitudes towards tackling crime are also outdated and ultimately self-defeating.

The message has not yet sunk in. The majority of crime is directly related to social conditions, to poverty, disadvantage and lack of educational and economic opportunity. This is the root of the drug crisis which in turns fuels crime which crams court schedules and stuffs Mountjoy to the rafters. The answer - Evening Herald headline writers take note - lies in combatting the disadvantage outside before young men and women take to drugs or crime as desperate escape routes. The answer lies in discouraging young men and women from reoffending while in prison by giving them real options for the future. The answer lies in society and the state accepting responsibility to pay to tackle disadvantage in the short term to empty our prisons in the long term.

Mountjoy is a grim and grey reminder of the failure of the lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key strategy. This first episode was a fascinating look behind the wall but was introductory in nature and lacked meat. Next week's programme about the availability of drugs in Mountjoy will tell whether the documentary makers have managed to get an accurate picture or are merely scraping the surface.

And finally, a quick word about the shock resignation decision by Fianna Fáil's Máire Geoghegan Quinn. RTE's Six-One News interviewed Albert Reynolds on Monday evening to discuss the matter. Albert was not short of words of praise for Máire but sometimes the correct terminology escapes him. The former Justice Minister was ``very articulated,'' said Albert. Later, referring to the media attention focused on her son, he worried about the effect this might have ``in his afterlife''. No offence Albert, but it did raise a chuckle in our living room.


An Phoblacht
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