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10 September 1998 Edition

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Criminalisation by the back door?

by Laura Friel

The joyous welcome likely to greet released Republican prisoners on their return to their families, friends, comrades and communities is already being viewed with disquiet by the British dominated press.

Recall the outrage with which the media reported the rapturous welcome received by veterans of the Balcombe Street siege at a Sinn Fein Ard Fheis earlier this year. Sinn Fein delegates, who rose to their feet in spontaneous applause, were accused of ``triumphalism'' and Gerry Adams was hauled in front of the cameras to deny it had been ``orchestrated''. The pending early release of a handful of Republican prisoners and the possible release of more before Christmas has set media alarm bells ringing again.

Tabloid scaremongering with the brandishing of a few high profile prisoners' names has been accompanied by an irresponsible whipping up of understandable misgivings amongst those who have suffered as a direct result of Republican resistance to British rule in Ireland. ``Ulster Secretary Mo Mowlam,'' reported the Belfast Telegraph, ``has accepted it will be hard for the families of the killers' victims to see them walking free early, but she has assured them she will inform them in advance of any release''.

However the media's preoccupation has less to do with acknowledging genuine anxieties as with indulging unionist sensibilities in a continuing denial of the nationalist experience of 75 years of British occupation and Unionist misrule. It is an experience which has seen one in every six members of the nationalist community in the North imprisoned during the last 25 years. To put it another way, every nationalist family in the Six Counties has directly experienced the incarceration of a relative, friend or neighbour. The history of the British legal system in the Six Counties has been one of repression of basic civil liberties, the erosion of the rules of evidence and the imposition of non jury courts. The experience has been one of brutal interrogations, hostile prison regimes, forced strip searching, mirror searches, starvation diets, forced isolation and systematic beatings.

From the Victorian dungeons of Crumlin Road and Armagh jail, the notorious H Blocks of Long Kesh and Maghaberry to the Special Secure Units of Belmarsh and Whitemoor. It's a history of the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, the Maguire family, Judith Ward, the Beechmount Five, the Ballymurphy Seven, the Casement Accused, Roisin McAliskey and Paddy Kelly.

It is also a history of all those perpetrators of crimes against the nationalist community who never went to jail, the RUC officers who killed and maimed with plastic bullets, the shoot-to kill assassins, the British Intelligence directors of loyalist death squads and their political masters. Given this experience it is hardly surprising that nationalists have adopted the task of securing the release of political prisoners as an integral part of the current peace process.

In 1981 the British government failed to undermine the struggle against British imperialism in Ireland through criminalisation of Republican prisoners. Any belated attempt by the peace process begrudgers to criminalise the early release of Republican prisoners and vilify the families, friends, comrades and communities who will welcome them home, will also fail.

An Phoblacht Magazine

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