Death in Custody

When an Irish republican dies in British police custody it is certain to give rise to an atmosphere of suspicion and recrimination. Over the past four decades republicans have undergone no small measure of abuse and deprivation while in the hands of their police custodians. There are still enough republicans around who remember the death by hanging of Brian Maguire in Castlereagh Interrogation centre in 1978 at the height of an RUC torture onslaught. When they learn that a republican is found hanging in a police cell they suspect the worst.

In cases where the evidence is simply not there many will dismiss this as trivial and proceed as if the absence of it can be ignored. When Sean Bateson died in H7 in June 1990 from natural causes the Sinn Fein president blamed the negligence of the prison system and alleged medical neglect. Neither of these contributed to Sean Bateson’s death. Prison medical staff surrounded the collapsed IRA volunteer within a minute of him hitting the ground and worked strenuously to save his life. Unlike the death of James Moyne in the internment cages 15 years earlier prison medical service tardiness played no part in his death. But republicans have learned to think dirty when examining the circumstances behind a death in custody.

John Brady who died in Strand Road PSNI station at the weekend was a veteran republican prisoner. He was on weekend release from Maghaberry Prison where he had been detained for the past six years as a result of having his license revoked by British authorities although he had been convicted of nothing. Most of the last twenty years of his life had been spent in prison as a result of his involvement in republican activity. Arrested days ago following a domestic fracas he was discovered dead less than 24 hours later. Initial news reports said that he had taken his own life.

Sinn Fein politicians were quickly off the mark to speak publicly about the death of John Brady, one suspects, to prevent a head of steam building up. Aware of the bad publicity likely to accrue from republicans dying in British police custody, particularly as the party is calling for republicans like John Brady to be handed over to the police, Sinn Fein was keen to act as the honest broker. Yet Martina Anderson is hardly to be faulted for pointing out that no one should be dying in police custody. And as Pat Doherty put it ‘there are obviously serious issues of concern about how John Brady died during daylight hours whilst in police custody.’

Republicans are distressed and angry that John Brady came to his end in a facility they are deeply suspicious of. Today they staged a vigil outside the station where he died. But to blame the PSNI for actively killing John Brady would be seen by many as little other than a political point scoring exercise. It would also undermine attempts to flag up glaring inadequacies in the system that in all likelihood contributed to the death of the Strabane republican. Negligence would be a major but hardly a solitary factor here.

Regardless of what the PSNI members might think of John Brady as a result of his conviction for killing one of their RUC colleagues twenty years ago, the force had a duty of care to him while he was in its custody. What monitoring procedures were put in place for a man who might have felt he was facing the trauma of being returned to prison for a lengthy period after having served so much time in it already? Was any attempt made by the PSNI to establish John Brady’s medical records from prison staff in Maghaberry to assess if he was a prisoner at risk and to take appropriate measures to limit that risk? Was he simply banged up and left to his own devices? Willie Gallagher of the IRSP reported that the dead man’s solicitor had informed his family that he would be released shortly yet within an hour he was dead. What happened in that intervening hour which led him to take his life? Did the police tell him with malign intent that he was to have his licence revoked, thrusting him over the edge? Did they pressurise him in a bid to have him become an agent for them under threat of a return to prison? These and many more questions need raised in the days and weeks ahead if insight into this incident is to be forthcoming.

For those of us who knew John Brady or served time with him in British run prisons the idea that his fate can be glossed over as an unfortunate tragedy is not going to wash. Whether through neglect, negligence or nefariousness, the PSNI action or inaction in the lead up to the death of this republican is something that needs thorough explanation. Nothing less will suffice.


  1. There is no doubt that any human being placed in the precarious situation that John Brady was placed in, would be under huge pressure. Remember, he had spent the past number of years walking a tightrope trying to secure his release. Those who supported him had no political clout. Those who had political clout, did not give him the support he needed. He was left alone, with his family, to try and carve a dignified route out of prison for himself, in the face of a bureaucratic system that unsuccessfully tried to get him to criminalise himself in exchange for his release. But through all this John kept a clear cool head. Speaking to him recently it was clear he was so glad to be on his way home. There was a sense that he had overcome every hurdle they threw at him. I have never been as glad to see any republican come home than I was at John Brady's release... because of everything he faced.

    I first met John in Crumlin Road prison 23 years ago, when he was 17 or 18. He spent the next 23 years in a constant political battle. Recently, I think Father Time whispered in his ear, and he realised he needed some semblance of a 'normal' life. He was so close to achieving that.

    I believe that something happened in that barracks to trigger this event. I don't know what it was. But I doubt very much if they were serving him tea and telling him things would be fine, and that it wasn't going to affect his eventual release.

    Sometimes when we continually try to get our pound of flesh out of someone, we get more than we bargained for.

    I don't know if we'll ever get a full answer to the question of what happened here.

  2. Nice sentiments Seán Mór but such a tragic outcome to a life that deserved much more and had the potential for much more. I found it very sad. He was vulnerable and needed protection which he obviously failed to get

  3. You are 100% correct Mackers. It's been a long time since I've felt this despondent about any event. Nobody denies that John was a life-long republican and was involved in the physical conflict here in the past. But that for him was over, and he deserved a break as much as anyone else, on any side, who were combatants in the conflict here. We need a more humane media too. I'm not sure how that can be achieved, but we seem to have a media that relishes adding to some people's pain.

  4. the establishment (or 'norn iron') media are mercenary scum Sean...what do you expect from a pig but a grunt??

  5. Rights and Responsibilities,it seems to me, ought not to be culture bound-so I will put forth the conclusion that I have come to through professional experience-ANY society which asserts the right to deprive any person of their freedom,by arrest or imprisonment,must assume the absolute moral responsibility for SAFE CUSTODY(shouting on purpose) of that person. The least that a suicide in custody indicates is negligence, at some level to be determined. My most sincere condolences to the victim's family.

  6. uilodomhnaill, a nice point. The absence of any duty of care was appalling

  7. uilodomhnaill,

    After 2 months I finally got Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolutiuon, it was hard to get and cost €27, so I hope it's good!


  8. Rory, You'll love it! The man is the human and fallible side of revolution,even when he blows his own horn. Best