The Tribulations of Brendan Lillis

Brendan Lillis is a former republican political prisoner who served a life sentence as a result of his involvement in the North’s violent political conflict. He served around 16 years for possession of explosives and firearms. In 1992 BL, as he was known to his friends and comrades, was released on license. While in prison he took part in the many protests against the British government’s criminalisation policy.

Today he is being held in Maghaberry Prison as a result of a completely unrelated charge which we now know is no longer to be proceeded with. Nevertheless the life sentence that he received in 1977 has been reactivated which means he is once again a lifer serving time only for actions carried out in the 1970s and for nothing else.

In 2009 he appeared in court on a robbery related charge. Shortly after his arrest the British Secretary of State withdrew his licence which meant that in spite of no new convictions Brendan Lillis since his arrest has once again been serving a life sentence.

There have been concerns raised about the state of his health. It seems that he is being detained within a regime which can easily be described as one of medical neglect. It was reported in the Andersonstown News that he is suffering ‘from the debilitating arthritic illness ankylosing spondylitis, which leads to a curvature in the spine and causes the body to produce excess bone mass.’

His condition is considered so serious that he has been deemed unfit to stand trial. His partner Roisin described the difficulty his illness posed for communication between the two.
For the first 10 weeks he had no visits because he couldn't get into a wheelchair and they wouldn't let me into the jail … He couldn’t make phone calls as his condition was so bad he could not physically lift the phone. During that time I could not get a hold of a prison doctor to find out how Brendan was – one day I rang 37 times and no-one was available to talk to me … After a lot of debates with the jail I was eventually allowed to visit him in his cell which I have done since …. He was finally moved to the hospital wing … Brendan is now in a precarious situation and if he doesn't get released from jail I am in no doubts he will die soon.

By the time Roisin eventually did get to see her partner she was shocked at his condition. ‘He just looked like he was dying and he still does.’ She later said ‘he’s been on the hospital wing for the past 14 months and he’s supposed to have physiotherapy every day to stop inflammation, but he’s lucky if he gets one session a week.’

There are reports that he lay on the cell floor for a number of days before prison staff would move him to the prison hospital. During his arraignment Brendan Lillis was unable to leave his bed.

The recently appointed West Belfast Sinn Fein MLA, Pat Sheehan, has called for the immediate release of his former blanket comrade. Sheehan, a former IRA hunger striker, said ‘given the urgency of Brendan Lillis’ medical condition he should not be in prison.’ Sheehan also hit out at the British government’s policy whereby former political prisoners can be held in prison by the revoking of their license. He added, ‘now that the charges against Brendan Lillis are not being brought forward he should be released immediately.’ He called on the Owen Patterson, the British Secretary of State, and the Life Sentence Review Commission ‘to deal with this case without delay.’

Another Sinn Fein MLA and former blanket man Paul Butler added his voice to the calls for British authorities to release Brendan Lillis: ‘I have tabled a question to the Minister for Justice about Brendan and I will do my best to see that he gets released as soon as possible.’

Sinn Fein has been joined in its opposition to the ongoing detention of Lillis by the IRSP and the RNU, both of whom have members who were prison comrades of the imprisoned man.

Also backing the bed ridden man is The Friends of Brendan Lillis, a support group which has campaigned on his behalf on the internet and other outlets. Its primary aim:
is to have Brendy immediately released to ensure he receives the proper medical attention he deserves. His continued imprisonment is wrong and we call for his release on humanitarian grounds.

In typical time honoured fashion those tasked with managing the North’s jails seem intent on prolonging the misery. In a piece of blather the Life Sentence Unit on behalf of the North’s British Micro Minister for Justice, David Ford, said, ‘the Minister of Justice does not consider that exceptional grounds exist which would justify the release of Mr Lillis on compassionate grounds.’ Too ill to stand trial, not ill enough to go home. Any excuse to continue with his detention.

The Life Sentence Review Board is said to consider the case of Brendan Lillis on the 22nd of March. If it fails to act humanely and release him the West Belfast man may well end his days in prison. We have experience of this punitive and vindictive trait in the British state character. In 1994 they allowed Derry republican Pol Kinsella to die in prison rather than release him into the care of his family. His father later pointed out that his son ‘died after suffering an illness, barbaric treatment and neglect in Long Kesh.’

That callous practice should have no place in any prison regime that claims to be modern and enlightened. Brendan Lillis should not be in Maghaberry but at home where he can be tended to in a humane and loving environment where medics are health professionals and not screws in white coats.


  1. Totally agree that lad should be released immediatley,and its good to see psf speaking up in this case, mind you if Brendan had been lifted on dissident republican charges would these ex comrades have been so vociferous,I somehow doubt it.

  2. A friend actually asked me today what was happening in relation to Brendan Lillis?
    There seems to be a dearth of publicity in relation to what is going on.
    There is absolutely no way, he could be receiving proper care in a prison hospital and there is no way he will be receiving proper specialist care.
    What justification have they for holding a very sick man?

  3. good piece, Mackers. This man's case isn't being highlighted enough. What is SF doing beyond statements from public representatives? Seems when it comes to the jails they have very little power to do anything. This has been the experience of republican prisoners on Roe House who have met with SF delegations on a number of ocassions.

    It appears someone will have to die due to medical neglect, as in BL's case, or suffer serious injury whilst being forcibly strip searched, before people on the outside awaken to the fact that in the case of the penal system very little has changed in thirty years.

  4. You know its going back to something Brian Clarke NUJ said in another post, there,s 80 million Irish and if even only a third of this number were orgaanised into one coherent voice on issues relating to this country, could you imagine the difference it would make to the way the brits treated prisioners here.I dont believe they,d be as quick to stick up two fingers to human rights here if such a powerful lobby existed,

  5. If a person is 'too ill to stand trial' well surely it would follow they are too ill to remain in prison.

    People seem to have lost direction in relation to the prisoners in general, a very sad scenario.

  6. Alec,

    SF have bulked out the discourse a bit but little else. Useful as that may be it has limitations if there is an inability to move beyond discourse. Even if the will is there it exposes their weakness in that the Brits call the shots.

  7. Sheeky and Butch's comments are welcome. The deputy prime minister though should be adressing this serious issue in his prison.

  8. Marty, you are spot on. The late John Brady was interned from 2003 until his suspicious death in custody in 2009. John was a Republican who had his license revoked after being arrested in a sting operation. These charges were later dropped and new dubious charges brought which were also dropped. John still remained in custody.
    Compare this to the case of Sean Kelly who had his license withdrawn but was released after a month. If you are not with them you are against them mentality still goes on within the shamers. All press releases without action or substance.
    I wish Brendan luck in his campaign to get released.

  9. apart from a statement to the newspapers psf have not been active in brendans case, and to be honest i personally think it suits psf to leave BL in jail as i dont think they want to deal with these men,i do believe that with a bit of effort on psf part Bl could be released. As im sure you are all aware the single commissioner who also happens to be an x RUC man turned bl down for release stating that while BL would not be a threat to the public now as he is so ill, but if he were released there is a chance he could get well and become a danger then. basically he accepts that BL wont get well in jail,as was pointed out in the doctors reports for the commissioner .The doctor stated that they can only care for BL clinically. the doctor said to me and BL he is shocked that he was turned down, the doctor is a foreigner man and i dont think he understands the history of certain prisoners he also stated in his report that BL will only deteriorate if kept in custody. ford got a copy of this and made a statement on another medical report from 9 months ago he completely ignored the most up to date medical alec bl was asking about you i said i would send you his good wishes.

  10. Roisin,

    It is an abominable situation. You did right to raise it the other evening at the discussion. It is vindictiveness that is now holding him in jail.