Ideas won't go to jail.
- Alfred Whitney


Three political prisoners in Colombia show
how Sinn Fein bow to the politics of compromise

Anthony McIntyre
Sunday September 2, 2001
The Observer

In West Belfast black flags still adorn the streets in memory to the 10 republican volunteers who lost their lives on the 1981 hunger strike. This year has added poignancy being the twentieth anniversary of that awesomely selfless act.

A world away from West Belfast, three Irish republicans are imprisoned in a country with an atrocious human rights record. Culpable or not, the three detained in Colombia are political prisoners, arrested only because they were republicans, conveniently positioned when a range of powerful forces in London, Dublin, Bogotá and Washington found it purposeful to move as one on strategic matters of mutual interest.

The party that benefited most from the suffering of republican prisoners seems to have little to say in their defence. 'Never seen them before in our lives,' was the apparent refrain from Sinn Fein. The party's obsession with suppressing adverse public discussion of the obvious - reflected in claims that the Colombian affair is in fact a 'non-story' - has merely led many to conclude that the 'obvious' in this case is the guilt of the three men. The British media, sticking to the principle that everybody is innocent until proven Irish, has been eager to facilitate each Sinn Fein faux pas. If Sinn Fein is to be believed on the anodyne matter of the men's alleged links to the party, then not only are the British and Americans lying - an eminently reasonable proposition - but so are the Cubans and FARC.

It is not that Sinn Fein is embarrassed only by the existence of alleged IRA links with FARC. Indeed, it seems that on strict evidential grounds there is little to link merely alleged IRA volunteers to the Marxist guerrillas in a manner that would constitute serious illegality. Sinn Fein do not even want it said that the men are totally innocent but linked to the party and were in Colombia on a whatever-the-euphemism-of-the-day mission. Hence its willingness to make liars of both the Cubans and FARC. The right-wing palate of corporate America must be assuaged even if it means behaving as St Peter no matter how often the cock crows.

Perhaps things may not have been so distasteful had the men been arrested leaving a camp run by right-wing paramilitary groups. It is hard to imagine the Bush administration upsetting itself over that despite the fact that the Right rather than the Left are the main players in the drugs trade. Sinn Fein may even have sighed with relief.

In a semi-explanation to a local newspaper, Sinn Fein's Mitchel McLaughlin alluded to republicans having internal management problems dating back to last October - when, coincidentally, Real IRA member Joseph O'Connor was assassinated and which the Provisional IRA denied - causing people to reflect that the 'P' in 'P. O'Neill' stood for Pinocchio. McLaughlin earlier told The Observer that only a fool believed that IRA guns are totally silent. Perhaps he should have added that only a fool would use IRA guns and then be disowned by Sinn Fein if arrested for having them.

Once the British had laid the ground rules pertaining to the circumstances in which sanctions would be employed for breaking the silence of those guns it was inevitable that IRA armed activity against some of the nationalist community would continue pretty much as before and that there was always the possibility that IRA volunteers would be arrested, thrown into a criminal environment - and subsequently deserted.

When Mo Mowlam bizarrely rationalised in 1999 that young Belfast man Charles Bennett was legally dead but somehow politically alive so that the IRA ceasefire could not be determined as having been breached, she nourished the 'constructive fudge' and 'creative ambiguity' that has made the peace process the intellectual farce it is. Its foundation is a nonsensical consensus that is presently blind to UDA attacks on Catholics and their homes.

That consensus was revealed at a 1998 Oxford conference on the need for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, when a leading Irish participant proffered the following wisdom on the Good Friday Agreement: 'A delicately balanced compromise which can be destroyed by truth...honesty and straightforward talking must be avoided at all costs.'

Twenty years ago as prisoners died and people trudged the streets in a bid to save them, who would have thought that Sinn Fein, gorged on fudge and ambiguity, would dismiss Irish political prisoners as a 'non-story'? Sinn Fein should have no reason to be embarrassed over republican prisoners. But such prisoners may now have every reason to be embarrassed over Sinn Fein.

• Anthony McIntyre is republican writer who served 18 years in prison for IRA activity.


Books won't stay banned. They won't burn. Ideas won't go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas. The source of better ideas is wisdom. The surest path to wisdom is a liberal education.
- Alfred Whitney, Essays on Education


 Latest News and Views

 The Blanket