Parole Commissioners in Northern Ireland failed to reach a decision on Wednesday, January 18) on whether to order the release of Marian Price, 57, from Maghaberry prison in Co. Antrim, where she has been held since last May when the NI Secretary of State, British Tory Owen Patterson, signed an order revoking her licence.
The fact that her detention has caused scarcely a ripple of concern in Britain, Ireland or anywhere else can be put down to her affiliation with the 32 county sovereignty movement, widely regarded as the political voice of the Real IRA. The 32csm denies any connection.
Price’s lawyers argue that Patterson had no legal power to order her detention and that his intervention amounted to an egregious abuse reminiscent of internment.
Price was one of nine IRA volunteers sentenced to life for planting four bombs in London, including one at the Old Bailey, in March 1973. Around 180 people were injured, mainly by flying glass. One man died from a heart attack. The bombing party included Gerry Kelly, now a Sinn Fein minister in the devolved administration at Stormont, and Price’s older sister, Dolours.
Price was freed in 1980 suffering from tuberculosis and anorexia and weighing around five stone. Her lawyers insist that her release was based on a Royal pardon the terms of which supersede Patterson’s powers and not on a licence liable to be revoked. However, Patterson’s lawyers say that “extensive searches” have failed to locate the crucial document.
Price’s lawyers, Kevin Winters and Co., told the commissioners in their submission: “It is difficult to fathom how, even exercising a modicum of care, this document was destroyed without someone, before destruction, ensuring that the original (or at least another copy) was still in existence….There is certainly a foundation for suggesting that the document may (and we can put it no higher) have been deliberately ‘buried’ given the embarrassment it might cause.”
Price has been held as the only female in the high security prison – effectively in solitary confinement – since May 11 2011 when she was charged with encouraging support for an illegal organisation. The charge arose from a 32csm Easter Rising commemoration in Derry during which, on a blustery day, she reached up to hold the script from which a masked man read the Real IRA’s “Easter Message”.
In court in Derry two days later, despite strenuous prosecution objection, she was granted bail, then immediately rearrested on foot of the order signed the previous evening. The bail application had been made meaningless by Patterson’s advance arrangement to trump the court’s decision if it went against the state’s wishes.
Price was further charged in July last year with “providing property for the purposes of terrorism” – allegedly giving a mobile ‘phone to a man currently on trial for the killing of two soldiers outside Massereene barracks in Antrim in March 2009. At an appearance on this charge at Belfast Magistrates Court on January 16, a barrister for the Public Prosecution Service said that hearsay evidence will be used against her, based on statements she is said to have made to a journalist and on ‘phone records.
Price had been arrested and questioned for two days about the Massereene killings in November 2009 and released without charge. Her lawyers say that there has been no change in circumstances in the interim and no new evidence produced.
In July, again over the objections of Patterson’s barrister, she was given bail and, again, returned to prison. January 16, Price appeared at Belfast Magistrates Court on the same charge and was returned for trial. Again, despite bail having been given on the charge in July, she was immediately taken back to prison.
The timing of the court appearance, two days before the parole commissioners were to meet, is regarded by her supporters and many others as more than a coincidence.
The facts of Price’s detention, taken together, suggest she is being held indefinitely not because she has been found guilty of a serious crime, but because the Northern Ireland Office believes the state is better off with her out of the way. In everyday language, she is in internment. We thought we were done with that in Northern Ireland, but obviously not.
EAMONN McCANN can be reached at Eamonderry@aol.com