Manners - A Long Time Coming
JM: Just when you think things can't get more bizarre there are now people being brought up on charges for a prison protest. And people on the outside are looking at a two year sentence for something that they did while they were on the inside. And with us on the line from Belfast is Brendan Conway. He's an Irish Republican - Irish Republican prisoner, who ended up in court this week. Brendan, can you explain, what did you do to end up in court this week I believe with about ten other people?
BC: Yeah, there's eleven of us in total eight of whom are still in prison.We started a protest in 2010 in relation to the conditions and the British criminalisation policy which ended in an agreement in August, 2010 which ended strip-searching of prisoners and our daily routine in life, the right to education and freedom of association. That agreement then broke down in September of the same year when the prison service reneged and starting forcibly strip-searching people. We negotiated for some time through independent facilitators and with the British to try and get a way through it which resulted in them actually coming down harder on the prisoners. So in May of 2011,myself and ten comrades were forced back on the protest and as a consequence we wrecked our cells. Which basically means that one evening when we were all locked down we smashed all the furniture and basically started a formal a protest at the conditions we lived in. And as a result for the first time what we believe in history, these matters are usually dealt with internally by the prison authorities, they have decided to take it to an outside court and charge each of us with criminal damage. And we found ourselves in court last week and the prosecution couldn't produce a witness. So we've now been put back until the third of September for a trial to start.
JM: Now Brendan, why wasn't this dealt with right away with punishments or being put in solitary confinement? Was there any punishment for doing it back then?
BC: No, no. Well, as a consequence of the protest action we then began a form of dirty protest then. So effectively we were then locked-down twenty-three hours a day, which the prisoners still are today. And they then increased the protest incrementally from then. So we had a situation where they probably could have dealt with it internally and for some reason decided not to. I mean, we did it originally in 2010 when we started the original protest and they were dealt with internally. The reasons as I say ... it's always difficult to know but usually it's, you know, there's something at work where they're trying to prove a point. It's hard to understand why where the situation (is) now where they refuse to deal with it within the prison.
JM: And Brendan, I mean if you really want to get into some of the politics that are going on, I mean the way they treated Gerry McGeough and going back and charging him with something that happened in 1981. It wouldn't be that much of a stretch to go after the blanketmen from the '70's and '80's.
BC: Absolutely. I'll give you a situation. I'll give you a scenario: In 2012 in what people would call the new “Ireland of Equals” we have Republican prisoners in Maghaberry Prison on full dirty protest. And what I mean by dirty protest is they're putting their excrement on the wall. They're locked down twenty-three hours a day. They are having problems getting medical attention. We have people interned, Gerry McGeough being one of them. We have people who have been arrested on charges, trumped up charges, where they'll do two and three years on remand. We have people who they're trying to stitch-up, in recent times - Colin Duffy. If you look back at 1981 and you look at it now, the only difference is now we have people who then were on protest and calling for the non-criminalisation of Republicans are now in government and administering law and order and British rule here. So if you look under the surface nothing has changed. And in fact, I would go as far as saying in some cases, it's gotten absolutely worse. Because the way they're interning people now - they're not using the word “internment”. They are remanding people. They're revoking licences. Marian Price, for example. We have Martin Corey in there. We have Gerry McGeough as you've said. And we have others whose licences are at the minute under consideration by the British Secretary of State.
JM: Now to get back to the court case that happened this week. What are you and the other ten people being charged with and what do they hope to do if you are found guilty?
BC: Well, we've been told by legal representation that they can pass a sentence of two years. But the very same reason why we did what we did, we aren't going into a British court and say: Oh, we're very sorry we did that. We expect the court to look at the reasons for doing that under European law which we are bound by here. We have rights and there's Article 7 of the Human Rights legislation. So as part of a strip-search for example, the forced strip-search, which is outside of the agreement, the prisoner is tied down, his hands are put up his back, riot-clad uniformed prison officers have in cases cut clothing off with scissors. So there's a protection of your person and your property as opposed to the wrecking of your cells. So I mean there's a whole scenario of stuff here that we need to get into with them and we're hoping that the court exposes that.
JM: Brendan, another thing we cover here on Radio Free Éireann is the never ending season of marching season ... whether it's July Twelfth or the Apprentice Boys March or the Black March that goes on in Derry. There was a march in Rasharkin. And it just seems that the Orangemen are not happy unless hey are going through Nationalist areas. Marching up and down the Shankill is not good enough for them. I know you live in Ardoyne. They have to march through Ardoyne just to show you that they “rule” the place. Can you explain what happen last night and what has been happening in Ardoyne?
BC: Rasharkin passed off with what they would call relatively peacefully. But you have to go right into the whole logistics of why they actually march through Rasharkin and what they do. I'll give people an example I'd suppose to make it pretty easy for people to understand and it's in relation to Ardoyne: We have a parade in Derry which is a considerable length away from Belfast. And we have several bands who march past Ardoyne shops, which is a few hundred yards. They march from the top of the road down. And when the get passed the other side of the shops they board a bus to drive to Derry. So instead of mounting the bus two hundred yards up the road they want to coat-trail and be triumphalist and come past a Nationalist-Republican area. And that's what they do, you know. If you sat and looked at it, I mean recently, it was on the internet and you probably have access to it there, they marched outside a Catholic chapel ... stopped outside it and marched in circles singing a song about the Irish famine. So there's a lot of this. This is covered by Unionist politicians as well. Where they try and cover their right to march. Nobody denies them their right to march or the right to have their culture. But when it comes to coat-trailing and marching through areas they're not wanted it's totally unacceptable to Nationalists and Republicans.
JM: And Brendan, you see the stance that the Loyalists take when they want to get something done – when they want to march through Ardoyne – or they would change the emblem on the RUC uniform- I think Peter Robinson said he would shut Stormont down!
BC: Yes. That was the prison officers' uniform. Yeah, he said he would bring it to its knees.
JM: Now we have former Irish Republicans (and) I would say they're the dissident Republicans who are administering British rule in Ireland. Their main complaint right now is that there's road signs going up in Pettigo and Beleek and all around the border of Fermanagh and Tyrone that say: “Welcome to Northern Ireland”. And to them this is one of the biggest crisis that has come to The Six Counties that they're going out and trying to take down the signs. I mean, could you ever envision a Martin McGuinness or someone else stating that if these people are not released we're not going to participate in this government because it's wrong what's going on with these prisoners?
BC: No, absolutely not. Absolutely not. Sinn Féin are on record as saying that the prisoners, they respect the prisoners' right to be treated properly, blah, blah, but when it comes down to it Sinn Féin and the DUP collectively administer rule here for the British government. So we have a situation we believe they could sort the prison issue out very, very easily. And then you have to ask the question: Why do they not? And the answer could quite easily be: Can they really do it? Has Sinn Féin got the power (stated) in the narrative we were sold and everybody was sold here? To quote Martin McGuinness that they were “going to put manners” on people and the police and whatever. It hasn't materialised. We have a situation now where the hard questions won't be answered because it doesn't suit them. It doesn't suit the narrative of today that the change or the dispensation that this peace has brought and it hasn't. For Republicans every day who are stopped and searched under legislation which the British government has brought in where children are harassed daily, where families are approached by MI5 to work for them on holiday and at home. Nothing has changed - it's getting worse.
SB: Brendan, you were talking about the so-called “power” of the Stormont Assembly. We just had a case we are covering where SDLP member of the Assembly, Pat Ramsey, did the right thing - wrote a very detailed letter to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and said what happened to Marian Price's pardon? The answer came back: Go away. We don't care.
BC: The British government have been asked in the history of Britain how many pardons that have been issued to people throughout the time have been lost? And Marian Price's is the only one ever. They have copies of the rest. So nothing has changed. The difficulty that we have now is that we have a once Republican mainstream party, they call themselves, who sold this to our communities and we have a difficulty now where that narrative has been accepted by some. But if you scrape under the surface you can see that nothing has changed and things are slowly, very slowly getting worse for daily lives for Republicans.
JM: And Brendan, you also have to deal with the re-writing of Irish history, particularly in The Six Counties. It used to be a big deal, the commemoration of internment where the British government went out and interned mainly Catholics into prison without trial, without charges, similar to what's going on now with Gerry McGeough and Marian Price. And Provisional Sinn Féin were down at the Divis Flats telling: do not commemorate this, do not burn a bonfire. I mean they're trying to stop anyone from remembering the history. The Loyalists can remember 1690 but we can't remember in the 70's.
BC: That's right. There's a whole suppose of people trying re-write history and air-brush over parts of history. And it won't be allowed to happen. People will see through it. Eventually, the rites of internment, as you say the bonfires, I mean, there is alternatives in relation to festivals and stuff to do that, you know. Yeah, absolutely. It's hypocritical for people to come now and tell you that you shouldn't do this or can't do that when for years they promoted it. But unfortunately, and it's sad to say, that's where we are at this present time.
JM: So Brendan, now where do we stand with you and the case that's coming up? When is it coming up again? Are there ten separate lawyers that have to deal with this? How is this going to play out?
BC: The way it went the last time we were in court is the eight guys that are still in prisoner, myself, Colin Duffy and Damian McLaughlin are out. So we go down and the eight boys will be brought down and have to go through two - four strip-searches every time they're down. And they're in the dock with their long hair and their beards obviously because they are on protest. And yes, there's separate lawyers for everybody. There was a week set aside for it. They're thinking they can get over it within two days now. I suppose it'll just go through the motions and really depends on the judge and how he handles and deals with it. And there will be a reserved judgment probably for a few weeks and then he will then deliver his verdict, his judgment and whatever sentence comes with that at that time.
JM: So all you're waiting for now is the verdict?
BC: Oh, no, no. It was put back until the third of September. So probably the third, fourth, and fifth, after the fifth of September we'll be put back in. So I would imagine before the end of September we'll have a verdict.
JM: And there's a possibility you could be going back to gaol with Colin Duffy for two years.
BC: Absolutely. Yes. Absolutely.
JM: It's a great system you have over there....
BC: Colin Duffy for one done three years on remand and was found not guilty. He'd already done three years and not on the first occasion where he was set up before and he's done ... I mean ... I think Colin has done done seven or eight years in gaol and never been convicted of anything.
JM: And none of that will count towards what happened inside the prison.
BC: No, absolutely not, no. In the eyes of the law here it's irrelevant.
JM: Well, Brendan, we will be staying on top of this and we'll be constantly getting in touch with you particularly when the case comes up now in September and especially when the verdict comes down because between you and Duffy it is unbelievable the harassment and the constant harassment that's going on of Irish Republicans in The Six Counties.
BC: Yeah. It's unbelievable. I mean, I've been a Republican all my life and I was really hassled years ago but nothing, not just me obviously everybody, to the extent that people go through now. It's absolutely crazy.