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31 July 1997 Edition

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Blair can act on POWs

By the end of next week Sinn Féin leaders will have visited republican POWs throughout Ireland and Britain briefing them on the current situation and listening to their views on the peace process.
The issue of the prisoners is at the heart of the peace process. In 1994 the response of the then Conservative Government was to punish republican POWs for the fact that there was an IRA cessation in the first place. The brunt of this deterioration was felt by POWs in English jails. They were deprived of the few facilities they had, put in SSUs, strip searched and constantly moved from prison to prison, while some prisoners were held beyond the formal length of their unjust sentences. In sum they were sytematically brutalised and deprived of basic human rights at the behest of Home Secretary Michael Howard.

Over the next few weeks the British Government is supposedly establishing the bonafides of the IRA cessation. Over the same time period there is a requisite for Tony Blair and his government to establish their bonafides. Next week Mo Mowlam will meet with Sinn Féin and this is a positive step. It was nine months before Patrick Mayhew conceded to take a similar step.

Tony Blair can use these weeks to order the end the holding of POWs in SSU's. He can stop the ghosting of POWS and end the red tape preventing the transfer of prisoners to Ireland. He can direct his Home Secretary to review the continued detention of prioners who have served 20 year sentences and where even in the twisted British court system no reason exists for their continued encarceration. He should also end the twisted and morally bankrupt courts system that condemns people to 35 year sentences not for murder or destruction of property but on the allegation of conspiracy.

Ultimately Blair should move swiftly to release the POWs. International experience has taught that it is not possible to resolve a political conflict while those imprisoned as a direct result of that conflict remain in jail.

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