Parolees from IRA talk peace

January 01, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau

LONDON -- About 200 people from the outlawed Irish Republican Army and its legal political wing Sinn Fein met in a small town in Northern Ireland this week to discuss the Anglo-Irish peace proposals.

In a country more or less in a guerrilla war, the meeting itself was remarkable. But even more remarkable was that about a quarter of the people at the meeting were IRA prisoners released from jail for Christmas.

One hundred inmates serving life terms, most for "terrorist-related offenses" including bombings and murders, were furloughed for seven days during the holidays. Fifty were from the IRA, 40 from the pro-Britain paramilitary groups and 10 were "ordinary criminals."

Back on time

Perhaps most remarkable was that every one of them came back on time, a Belfast prison spokesman said yesterday. In the five years the program has been in effect, no prisoner has ever failed to return when required. None has ever been arrested while on furlough.

In fact, none of the 300 IRA and loyalist lifers paroled since 1983 has been reconvicted. The prison spokesman said they have in effect fulfilled their duty to their cause. Their movement's leaders do not ask them to repeat the kind of action that landed them in jail.

Along with the lifers furloughed this year in Northern Ireland, 336 prisoners serving lesser sentences were allowed home leave over Christmas. They included 99 opponents of British rule in Northern Ireland and 75 loyalists to Britain. The rest were ODCs -- "ordinary decent criminals."

Their return dates vary, but prison officials expect them all back. Few have ever defaulted in the 45 years of the Christmas leave program.

Very disciplined

The IRA and loyalists maintain very disciplined, close-knit communities in prison, and released prisoners are unlikely to stay away after the end of their furlough and ruin the system for their comrades.

In England and Wales, about 1,000 prisoners, including murderers, rapists and armed robbers, were furloughed over Christmas. Several minimum-security prisons shut down and sent everybody home.

British prison officials expect that 94 percent will be back on time. Most of the rest will merely be late. Few abscond.

But none of the 29 IRA prisoners held in mainland British prisons were released. Most serve life sentences and do not qualify for home leave under the stiff provisions of the British prison service.

Northern Ireland released such famous prisoners as Thomas "Wee Tom" McMahon, jailed for the 1979 assassination of Lord Mountbatten; Robert "Basher" Bates, serving 14 life terms as one of the Loyalist "Shankill Butchers" who slashed and bashed their victims to death with meat cleavers, hatchets and knives; and Brendan "Bic" McFarlane, who led an escape by 38 IRA prisoners from the Maze prison in 1983.

McFarlane, who is serving five life terms for the bombing of a loyalist bar in Belfast 18 years ago, spoke at the meeting in Loughmacrory, County Tyrone, where the peace proposal was minutely dissected.

"We're looking for our country back again," he said, according to Mary Holland, a columnist for the Irish Times of Dublin.

John Pickering, another IRA prisoner, who has spent 17 years in jail, sat on the official platform and made what he said was his first political speech.

"Times change, people change," he said. "You can't just have war, war, war. The document looks like nothing, but it would be foolish to turn away."

Republican prisoners played a soccer game with the local team before the meeting. They lost.

County Tyrone and County Armagh, where a British soldier was killed by a sniper Thursday at the crossroads town of Crossmaglen, are solidly republican areas. British troops serve six months here in heavily fortified posts they leave only for patrols or furlough.

No bargaining chips

Sinn Fein has raised the issue of amnesty for IRA prisoners as a condition for any peace talks. But at Loughmacrory the prisoners made it clear they did not want to become bargaining chips.

"There has been a misconception that there are all these prisoners, locked away for years, who are screaming for the document to be accepted so they can be released," Richard McAuley, a Sinn Fein press officer, told the Irish Times.

"The exact opposite is true. They have given far too much to want the campaign called off unless very substantial gains are made."

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