THERE was general surprise in early July when news broke that five TDs were making representations for jailed dissident IRA man Michael McKevitt.
The five had written twice to the justice minister expressing “deep concern” that McKevitt was not allowed on extended temporary release.
McKevitt was leader of the Real IRA at the time of his conviction for directing terrorism in 2003. He was sentenced at the Special Criminal Court to 20 years; but in the last year he had been granted temporary release for a medical condition.
That release was revoked . Fianna Fáil’s Eamon Ó Cuív; and independent deputies Maureen O’Sullivan, Mick Wallace, Clare Daly, and Thomas Pringle said they were acting out of “humanitarian concern”, but eyebrows were raised at their involvement.
Relatives of those murdered in the Omagh bomb were not pleased that anybody would be making representations for McKevitt.
Yet, this was not an isolated case for these politicians. For the past five years a number of them have been involved in monitoring prison conditions for dissident republican and loyalist prisoners.
At a time when such people are regarded by many as being beyond reason, the TDs are claiming fidelity to the old idea that a society can be evaluated by how it treats its prisoners, irrespective of their crimes.
Maureen O’Sullivan first got involved when she was approached after speaking at a human rights event in 2011.
“Somebody came up to me after it and said that’s all very well but what about what is happening in Maghaberry prison. I didn’t know that there had been an 18-month dirty protest which had led to a written agreement. Then we were contacted by Marion Price’s family. At the time she was the only female prisoner in Maghaberry.”
The circumstances of Price’s case are typical of many that O’Sullivan and her colleagues find themselves drawn to.
Price was arrested in 2011 and had her release from prison on licence revoked. She was charged in relation to an address she gave at a rally, but ultimately the charges were dismissed.
After being transferred out of Maghaberry she was still kept in custody until being finally released in May 2013. Effectively, she spent more than two years in custody under dubious circumstances.
In the current environment, where those who refused to sign up to the Good Friday Agreement are considered by many in the body politic to be beyond reason, few have been paying attention to human rights aspects of so-called political prisoners.
“The authorities can revoke the licence of those out on licence at any time,” says O’Sullivan.
“But our point is that charges should be brought against these people and due process gone through. You bring them to court and you don’t leave them in prison for a few years and deny parole hearings.
Instead, the response is often that it is closed evidence and the detail can’t be discussed. It has happened a number of times that prisoners who had their licence revoked were due for hearings which were cancelled the night before and postponed.”
Another case that the TDs came across early on was that of Martin Corry. He had been released on licence in 1992, after serving 19 years for murder.
By 2010, he was a known dissident and had his licence revoked. He was then subjected to four more years imprisonment without any further charges being brought against him.
O’Sullivan is keen to emphasise that neither she nor her colleagues are offering any support for the political viewpoint of those being locked up.
“We are just there to attempt to support the justice aspect of it,” she says. “You can’t have trial by media and people deciding you’re guilty and not getting their day in court. We’re doing this as a human rights issue and to attempt to keep conflict out of it. Nobody wants to go back to that.”
The conditions under which dissidents can be locked up is one issue, but just as pressing from the point of view of human rights is the conditions these prisoners are subjected to.
The dirty protest in Maghaberry was a direct result of the denial of what the prisoners regarded as human rights. On the other side, prison staff say they are subjected to intimidation on a regular basis, which is denied by the prisoners.
In 2010, an agreement was brokered between staff and prisoners by an independent assessment team. Two years later, tensions were heightened again following the murder of prison officer David Black, who worked at the facility.
The contentious issues involve strip-searching, and particularly freedom of movement within the prison. For the staff, there are ongoing issues of abuse and threats.
A stocktake of the agreement in 2014 came to the conclusion that “Clearly not all principles of the August 2010 Agreement had been adhered to, not have undertakings been acted upon…” and that there continued to be a “lack of trust between NIPS (Northern Ireland Prison Service) and republican prisoners”.
O’Sullivan says the prisoners disagree with some aspects of the stocktake results. “They tell us that there are no assaults on any prison officers but there is a lot of verbal arguing going on,” she says. She has also been to Portlaoise where about 15 republican prisoners are kept on E wing.
“It was interesting the difference there from Maghaberry,” she says. “We were very struck that with the contrast in the relations between staff and prisoners there and the ease of movement that was allowed within the prison.”
For Eamon Ó Cuív, the fact the stocktake had to be undertaken in Maghaberry last year was a sign that progress had been halted.
“Everybody has the right to decent prison conditions and there are serious problems there,” he says. “The International Red Cross has been brought in but agreements haven’t been fully implemented.”
For Ó Cuív the politics of those in prison now, or their adherence to violence, is not the issue. It’s all about treating prisoners in a humane manner, he says.
“I got involved in this area back in the ’90s when Albert Reynolds put me on the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. One day a lady at the forum told me that her husband wasn’t being allowed to speak in Irish to their children on visits. He was in England at the time and I followed up on that.”
Ó Cuív notes that when he got involved in politics back in the 1980s mainstream politicians weren’t even supposed to appear on the same platform as members of Sinn Féin.
“When I started visiting prisoners most people said they were beyond the pale. So in some ways we’ve come full circle. Back in the mid-90s, I was told you couldn’t talk to these people, they were beyond reason. In recent years I’ve met one man in the corridor of Leinster House who was in prison when I began visiting. Another I met in a university a few years ago.”
Whether those who are considered to be beyond the pale ever completely renounce violence and come fully into the political process remains to be seen.
In the meantime, these politicians are intent on pursuing what they see as the maintenance of human rights for all, irrespective of how some are regarded in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement and all that flowed from it.