is because the world has ideas... that it is not passively ruled by
those who are its leaders
A recent report carried in the Irish Independent referred to the leadership of the Real IRA having made a tactical shift in relation to court appearances. Their members are allegedly being allowed to enter pleas of guilty in London, Dublin and Belfast courtrooms on the presumption that it will lead to a reduction in sentence. Success for the captured members of the republican body, according to the newspaper, appears to be limited, with only the Dublin courts being prepared to reciprocate.
One reason that plea-bargaining takes place is that it frees the courts up. The costly and prolonged trial is avoided. For the person in the dock a few years knocked off a sentence in return for freeing the courts from a few days work is a considerable reward. Another reason for plea bargaining is that the prosecution feels uncertain of getting the conviction it initially hoped for, so it operates on the principle that half a loaf is better than none. For the defendant hesitant about his or her chances the 'deal' can ensure something - in terms of having to do whack, less rather than a lot. So institutionalised is the practice of plea bargaining that in earlier days a ruddy faced Belfast court fly known as 'Plead Guilty Paddy', who practiced as a solicitor, was always on hand to persuade the downfallen that their one hope of salvation lay in entering a plea of guilty.
As teenage Provisional IRA volunteers on the streets all of this was the furthest thing from our minds. It had as much relevance as the mating habits of frogs in Germany. We merely assumed in our idealistic way that if arrested we would refuse to recognise the court, the nuance of anything else being hopelessly lost on us. So when eventually my turn came I refused 'to recognise the jurisdiction of a British court on Irish soil', much to the consternation of my parents who could make little sense of the IRA's 'quaint' customs. But the sentence only amounted to two years so it wasn't a life shattering experience for them. I had almost half of it served by the time the case came to court and would be out within the year. What I did learn, however, was that not everybody was as eager to share my desire to refuse to recognise courts and were quite prepared to risk the stigma of pleading guilty.
And a considerable stigma it was then, and became even more so as the British moved to deny imprisoned IRA volunteers political status. A prevailing argument within republican ranks was that by 'pleading guilty' those who opted to do so were in fact helping to criminalise the republican campaign. Convicting ourselves in a British court of an offence presented to us as unambiguously 'criminal' was a horrible vindication of British judicial integrity equalled only by the extent to which it was a serious indictment of the IRA's armed campaign. People who 'disobeyed army orders' by entering a plea of guilty were 'suspended' from the IRA throughout their imprisonment and carried the mark of a modern day Cain. The few who did avoid the sanction and happened to be 'cleared' and were allowed full army status within the prison were always a source of puzzlement to the rest of us. How could they travel first class without paying the price; how was permission to break an order obtained? - constituted the type of murmuring that occasionally bristled in the undergrowth. The notion that it might be as a result of 'friends in high places', if broached at all, rarely came out from the brush.
Apart from the earlier days in the jails I was never all that much concerned with those formalistic arguments as they had a certain theological ring to them, but I did believe that the IRA structure was important and that IRA volunteers should not be prostrating themselves in front of Unionist judges, pleading for the mercy of the court. On the morning of our trial in January 1977, three of us, teenagers, plodded through the greenhouse-like tunnel beneath Crumlin Road on the way to a confrontation with Robert Lowry, the Lord Chief Justice. We were determined to hold 'the army line'; he was determined to reward us for doing so with sentences that would ensure us long-stay membership of the army for decades to come.
Our collective chances weren't bad so the prosecution immediately set about offering deals - 14 to 18 years if we all pleaded guilty to lesser offences than those we faced as arraigned, 4 to 7 for myself if I would be tempted by a deal without regard to the other two who would have faced life. At worst we would only have a further 8 years left to serve. We declined both offers, regarding them as bribes. The pressure mounted from our defence team who could no more understand our seeming commitment to republican theology than could our families. Unbeknown to us, they approached our parents and sent them off to the Short Strand to find somebody senior from the IRA who when presented with our predicament would surely relieve us of our cross for Ireland. My father found one such person, in a local club at an early hour. Whether he was drunk or not I never knew but he told my father (if he in turn were to be believed for he too was not averse to viewing sobriety as a dog would a lamp post) that we could go ahead and plead guilty. When this was conveyed to us by the defence team we were contemptuous, taking an attitude towards the IRA leader of - 'he will hardly be in the dock himself and if he is, no doubt he will plead guilty. Thanks but no thanks'.
Ultimately we were wrong on both counts. He did appear in the dock and did not plead guilty. Our families were devastated as they saw our fidelity lead us by the nose like three principled but blind mice into the penal dustbin carrying life sentences as badges of honour; a graduating certificate which would gain us entry to nowhere other than those places republicans should have been avoiding.
Over the years I never came to regret the act, remaining effortlessly philosophical about it. But with hindsight it was a foolish move. Prison years were never a life lost to me but a life lived differently. Friendships acquired there have been nourished and sustained. Many of the people I served time with are the best people I ever came to know. My differences with some of them today, to the point of outright hostility on their part, don't negate the obvious qualities I recognised in them then. But ultimately what was the point in anyone serving a life sentence for a belief system that in today's world seems increasingly bizarre? 'Take yourself off your Honour, the earth is flat and no matter what you or your cronies say to the contrary will not alter our opinion on that'. The proof for the flat earth theory seemed to lie in us having fallen off the edge of it, landing on our heads in the process.
As years matured into a decade and then almost two, fewer and fewer people held the line. The earlier stigma had been robbed of its potency as common sense gained momentum much to the chagrin of a few leading figures in the jail who constantly swore the 'infidels' would never get back into the IRA. All nonsense which prisoners privately scorned. It merely proved that common sense was not all that common or even those jail leaders would have had some.
Many of these people coming in and pleading guilty had been around the jail block before. They were hardly criminalising the struggle by striking a mere functional deal in court, sparing the legal process days and saving themselves years. They knew the score - the utter irrelevance to the IRA on the outside of what a person did in court measured against the organisation's need for seasoned volunteers.
I have a certain peace of mind that I never devalued or demeaned those comrades who thought differently - even if I disagreed with them at the time and argued the point strongly in earlier years - and who felt that to plead guilty was the best option for them and their families. They had given enough years of their lives already without adding to the tally in defence of a paper principle. Decent blokes, committed republicans, today I would be in their number. Pleading guilty, I could easily live with - much more so than I could live with pleading ignorance.
INDEX: Current Articles
9 June 2002
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6 June 2002
Paul A. Fitzsimmons