7 December 2006 Edition
Interview: Ann O'Sullivan, Sinn Féin POW Department
All excuses gone - republican POWs should not be in jail
For republicans, December is traditionally prisoners' month. This year there are republican prisoners in three jails across Ireland. Ann O'Sullivan, 26 County spokesperson for Sinn Féin's POW Department spoke to ELLA O'DWYER about the circumstances of the prisoners, their families and the importance of demonstrating solidarity, especially at Christmas.
Ann O'Sullivan says that after the IRA's declaration of an end to its armed campaign all IRA prisoners should have been released. Instead of this, eight years after the Good Friday Agreement and over a year after the IRA formally ended its campaign, IRA prisoners remain in prison. "This is due to a lack of political will, especially by the Dublin government, and must be challenged.
"Four of the men still in jail, the Castlerea men, are qualifying prisoners under the Good Friday agreement and should have been released long ago. We've been to court five times in relation to their case. We've been to the High Court, to the Supreme court twice, to the United Nations Committee on Human Rights and we have a case at the European Convention of Human Rights awaiting a judgement."
O'Sullivan explains that the problem with the courts is that the Good Friday Agreement is a political agreement and the courts held that although the men are 'qualifying prisoners' under the GFA, the Minister for Justice has discretion in relation to release. So the release of these men is a political and not a legal issue.
Ann pointed out that the argument was well put in a dissenting judgement at the United nations High Commission for Human Rights by committee member - Hopolito Solari-Yrigoyen.
He said: "Whether the Good Friday Agreement was political or not, the crucial issue for the Committee should be to ascertain whether the exclusion of the authors (POWs) from the early release scheme was consistent with article 26 of the Covenant, which calls for equality before the law and prohibits discrimination on the grounds which it specifies. Even if the early release scheme left it to the discretion of the authorities to include or exclude a particular individual, a decision to exclude someone ought to be based on fair and reasonable criteria - something which the State part has not so much as attempted to do. I therefore consider that the authors' right under article 26 of the Covenant to equality before the law and equal protection of the law without discrimination of any kind has been violated."
Negotiations and the prisoner issue
Asked how things stand now in the broader context of current political negotiations O'Sullivan says: "The Government in Dublin has failed to address the outstanding issues. They failed to deal with the OTRs (on the runs), people facing extradition and the remaining prisoners. If you want to resolve all the issues you have to deal with all the outstanding matters. The prisoners remain high on the agenda at negotiations and their case is raised by Gerry Adams at every opportunity."
On the morale of republican prisoners O'Sullivan says their families are "being heavily punished by a Minister for Justice in an arbitrary, vindictive and unjust way.
"Despite the fact that they know they should all have been released well before now, the POWs remain strong. They use their time in prison between political debate, study, fitness regimes etc. Although angry at their continued imprisonment the men's morale is good. They will do their time and are insistent that they will not be used as pawns in any negotiations.
"On the other hand, it is a difficult time for the families of the prisoners. They are facing into another Christmas, some with young children. In other cases, parents are getting old and infirm and less able to visit. This is the other side of imprisonment and it is important that the Republican family on the outside show solidarity with and support for the families as well as for the prisoners."
O'Sullivan also spoke of the situation surrounding access to paroles, especially in the South. "Of course the big issue for republicans is the release of the men, but while they remain in prison conditions remain a concern. In recent years, and especially during the term of the current Minister for Justice, access to paroles has been severely limited. Paroles that would have been granted in the mid-eighties when the IRA was at war are now regularly refused.
"This is a major issue for families. Two cases in particular stand out. Those are Kevin Walsh and Mick O'Neill in Castlerea. In both cases an elderly parent, his father in Kevin's case and his mother in Mick's case, is very ill and unable to visit the jail. In both cases parole has been refused on several occasions. Twenty years ago such paroles would have been granted."
Ann O'Sullivan says that the Sinn Féin POW Department will continue to work for the release of republican prisoners "until the last POW is out."
On what republicans can do for the remaining prisoners she says: "The first thing that people should do is to show solidarity to their comrades and people do that in many ways. They can send Christmas cards, write letters or visit them. But we've also organised a vigil outside Leinster House for 13 December between 1.30pm and 2.30pm and we're calling on people across Ireland to attend and support the event.
"We want people to campaign for the prisoners' release. We want them to write to their TDs, to their senators, to their Bishops - to all their local representatives. They should also visit constituency offices. All the excuses are gone as to why our people remain in jail."
"On behalf of the POW Department I would like to send solidarity greetings to all political prisoners at home and across the world and to their families. It is my fervent wish that this December is the last 'Prisoners Month'".