Republic’s precedent for release of prisoners..

An avid reader of histories, Danny Morrison raids the Republic’s bloody origins and argues that Fine Gael had leading members of the old IRA within it’s ranks well into the forties, that is now being hypocritical in its opposition to having Sinn Fein in government. It’s available in today’s print version of Daily IrelandBy Danny Morrison

Last March the IRA prisoners in Castlerea (some serving time in relation to the killing of Gárda Jerry McCabe in 1996) issued a statement. They said that they deeply regretted the death of Jerry McCabe and the wounding of Gárda Ben O’Sullivan during an IRA operation in Adare in June 1996.

“We deeply regret and apologise for this and the hurt and grief we have caused to their families.”

They pointed out that they were “qualifying prisoners” under the terms of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, signed and approved after their conviction, that this had been confirmed by the High Court and Supreme Court and that the government had an obligation to release them.

“They [the government] have refused to do so and are now presenting our release as an obstacle to negotiations and agreement.” Consequently, “we do not want our release to be part of any further negotiations with the Irish government.”

Last year when it emerged that the Dublin government was ready to release the prisoners as part of an overall deal it came in for widespread criticism. So when that deal collapsed over Ian Paisley’s demand for decommissioning to be photographed Bertie Ahern quickly announced that their release was “off the table and would never return.”

It was sheer opportunism and it was cowardly.

However, the party which criticised the Irish government the most – particularly warning against the future release of the prisoners as part of a Sinn Fein/Fianna Fail deal over coalition – is a party which had no problem itself with releasing convicted killers so that it could get its hands on coalition power.

I refer to Fine Gael.

Gárda Jerry McCabe left behind a widow and five children.

But so did Gárda Detective George Mordaunt: a widow and one child.

On the night of 29 October 1942 a cordon of detectives surrounded a house in Donnycarney, Dublin. Inside were IRA men Harry White from Belfast and Maurice O’Neill from Kerry who tried to escape. There was a shoot-out. Mordaunt was killed, O’Neill caught and White escaped. Charged and convicted with the murder of Mordaunt O’Neill was executed by firing squad in Mountjoy Jail one month later. White wasn’t captured and charged until October 1946. He was sentenced to hang on 3 January 1947.

His lawyer was Sean MacBride (a former IRA Chief of Staff) who launched a successful appeal campaign which resulted in White’s sentence being commuted. In fact, just as in the case of Gárda McCabe’s killers, the charge was reduced to manslaughter and White was sentenced to 12 years.

A year earlier – Sinn Fein being fairly marginalised – MacBride, with the support of many IRA sympathisers, set up a political party, Clann na Poblachta, opposed to Fianna Fail. It quickly garnered support. In the February 1948 general election one of its slogans was “Release the Prisoners”. It won ten seats and it and several smaller parties held the balance of power.

Fine Gael entered into discussions with MacBride to persuade him to go into coalition with it to oust Fianna Fail. It was about the only thing the two parties had in common.

MacBride’s price was the release of the political prisoners.

Fine Gael agreed.

MacBride became Minister for External Affairs. The new Minister for Justice, General Sean MacEoin – a Fine Gael TD and former member of the IRA who had once been sentenced to death by the British – freed the IRA prisoners within weeks.

Those released included Thomas MacCurtain, who had been sentenced to death for killing Detective Gárda John Roche, a married man, in Cork in January 1940 (the sentence commuted to penal servitude for life, out of deference to his murdered father, the Lord Mayor of Cork); Harry White, who had been sentenced for the killing of Detective Gárda George Mordaunt; and Liam Rice who had been convicted of the attempted murder of several gárdai.

No doubt some smartass revisionist from Fine Gael or a newspaper of record will attempt to explain that there is no parallel between then and now, no comparisons whatsoever. Perhaps they will tell us that the IRA of the 1940s is distinct from the IRA of today and that’s why, for example, Belfast man Harry White, sentenced for the manslaughter of Mordaunt, was given early release by Fine Gael, while Strabane man Pearse McAuley, sentenced for the manslaughter of Gárda McCabe, must remain in jail.

Fine Gael TD General Sean MacEoin, who was also the party’s presidential nominee in 1945 and 1959, came to the Ministry of Justice with a past which Fine Gael honours. In the Tan War the IRA killed almost 500 members of the RIC. When MacEoin was the leader of an IRA Flying Column in Longford in 1920 he had been responsible for killing up to two dozen of his fellow Roman Catholic Irishmen in the RIC. A small sample includes: 23-year-old John Kelleher from Cork who had only been in the RIC four months; 45-year-old Constable Peter Cooney, a married man, shot in the back whilst returning from leave; and 30-year-old District Inspector Thomas McGrath, a single man from County Limerick, shot through the head by MacEoin when he knocked on MacEoin’s door.

Men like MacEoin shot and bombed British soldiers and RIC men, killed them where they could – on holiday, on leave, in bed with their wives, at their dinner tables, on patrol and in the barracks.

Fine Gael is proud of IRA men like MacEoin. After all, he brought them to power. He fought the British in his country – though mistakes were often made and innocent people were killed.

It has happened throughout Irish republican history.

And that is why Fine Gael and any other party opposed to the release of the Castlerea prisoners rightly stand accused of double standards and hypocrisy.

For political gain Fine Gael released those convicted of killing guards in the 1940s. And for perceived political gain today – taking a tough stance against Sinn Fein – it refuses to support the release of prisoners in the same category, prisoners committed to peace and the Belfast Agreement.

First published in Daily Ireland today.