Republican Prisoners In Britain
Sir, - I have just returned home from visiting Joe O'Connell, an Irish republican prisoner, in Frankland prison, Durham. I have been visiting Republican prisoners since 1972, and this visit was my worst experience so far.
Frankland prison is hard to find. Although Durham has many prisons in its environs, they are not signposted - in order, I assume, not to distress the tourists. Once at the prison I was told they had no record of my security clearance, in existence since 1972. After a while I was told that my photograph was "out of date", although I had never been asked to provide another. Eventually I was told I would be admitted as I had come "so far" - 250 miles, but of course not as far as if I had come from Ireland.
The first hurdle over, I was allowed into the ante-room of the jail. Here I was told I could take only coins into the visit: no bag, no cigarettes, no personal items. I was "hand-printed" three times. The back of my hand was stamped with an indelible dye and I was photographed and the photo was made into an identity card. It was useless to point out that I was a woman visiting a man. I was then asked to remove my shoes, watch and jewellery and pass through a metal detector. On the other side I was frisked by a female warder who ran a metal detector over me, presumably for good luck.
After passing through four locked gates I entered the inner sanctum of the high-risk visit room where the numbered table and chairs were screwed to the floor. Two warders sat within earshot and the visit was videotaped. Fetching tea took another 15 minutes out of the time already reduced by security procedures.
Joe O'Connell, like those sentenced with him, Harry Duggan, Eddie Butler and Hugh Doherty, has served 22 years of a mandatory life sentence without being given a "tariff" or release date. These four are the only republican prisoners to have no tariff and they are the only ones who have not been told they will be transferred to serve their sentences in Ireland. The average "life" sentence served in Britain is 14 years.
The right to transfer has nothing to do with the "peace process", but is granted to all prisoners under an inter-governmental agreement to which both the British and Irish governments have signed up.
However, it was announced on November 21st that Bertie Ahern had given an understanding to Tony Blair that his Government would abide by a "minimum of 35 years" if the British Home Office should care to impose such a tariff and should these prisoners be transferred. The reason given was British public concern.
Sir, I live in Britain. There is no public concern about these prisoners. I am sure the British public would like to see the back of them but does not consider them to be more dangerous than, let's say, Michael Stone or the Shankill Butchers. Is Blair vindictive? Maybe. Does Bertie Ahern want to send a signal of his willingness to grovel? Perhaps. What could be more reassuring for unionists than an Irish government which appears to lack confidence in its jurisdiction over the 26 counties?
And who cares about the lives of these four men as they are made into political pawns in a game where all pretence at justice has long since been abandoned? - Yours, etc.,