By John Kelly
Getting out is sometimes as painful as going in. No fervent shouts of "Tiochfaidh an la!" can quite alleviate the pain of receiving five consecutive life sentences for various atrocities. Few IRA prisoners ever went happily to the scaffold or to prison.
Going in was painful for the prisoners. You can be very sure of that. But getting out is even more difficult for the survivors of the attacks they left behind, the broken hearts, shattered dreams, and the terrible legacy of 30 vicious years.
Yet release is a critical provision of the Good Friday peace agreement, a section that many find hard to swallow.
Last week, Michael Stone was one of the remaining prisoners released from the Maze. Wearing a black shirt, his beard neatly groomed, he looked fit and lean. He smiled broadly as he was greeted by friends and accomplices.
He apologized for nothing. Apologies are few and far between in Ireland. He almost apologized for not apologizing. He was a soldier, he said. That was all. He would never become a politician.
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They made the wars that people such as he had fought. Now it was over. His fighting was done. He was now fully in favor of the Good Friday agreement. He wanted to see it implemented irrespective of the pain.
Stone looked nothing like the burly, anorak-clad lunatic who perpetrated one of the craziest outrages of the entire Northern conflict, one that was flashed over TV screens throughout the world. He piled tragedy on tragedy when, with guns and grenades, he attacked tightly packed mourners in Belfast’s Catholic Milton Cemetery in 1988.
The funeral of IRA members engaged in surveillance in Gibraltar was one of the biggest ever held in the city. Stone brought yet more death that morning. As mourners gathered around the gravesite for the last decade of the Rosary, he opened fire and slung grenades. He killed three men and injured 63. When he stood trial, he was accused and convicted of killing three more innocent Catholics in unrelated attacks.
Twice, he was about to assassinate Martin McGuinness. But when he saw that he had his child by the hand, he just couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. The father of nine children and grandfather of three, he said after his release that it was ironic the man he planned to kill was now responsible for their education as minister for education.
He persists in describing all of the killings as "military operations," some of which worked and some that did not. How any loyalist killers can describe the murderous attacks on Catholics as military operations is puzzling me. However, Stone is now as free as any free man. He has only to live with his conscience and the revulsion of the relatives of his victims.
On the other side of the sectarian fence is Sean Kelly, almost a victim of his own bomb on the Shankill Road when an IRA colleague and he blew up a fish shop on the presumption that it was a loyalist paramilitary headquarters. Nine innocent people died in that murderous botched attack.
Another indiscriminate Taig killer who was released was UDA member Terrence Knight, one of those who fired a hail of bullets into a crowded Catholic bar in Greysteels, the week after the Shankill bombing. Seven people died in that atrocity.
Except for the pain and suffering these killers leave behind them, it seems that it is now truly over, at last. And it leaves the Irish government in a political and moral quandary.
It is already proving to be a severe test to the vaunted pragmatism of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. The dilemma is as simple as it is sickening. It concerns the IRA killers of Det. Jerry McCabe, one of two policemen shot during a botched holdup of a Limerick post office. His companion and fellow detective, Ben O’Sullivan, was seriously wounded.
Five IRA members were jailed. They serve their sentences in the low-security Castlerea jail in County Roscommon. They are the last remaining IRA prisoners held in the Irish Republic.
Under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, all such prisoners have to be released. But the government made it clear, before the GFA referendum, that it did not include those guilty of the killing of Jerry McCabe in the provisions for early release.
The paradox is that IRA members guilty of the killing of RUC officers in the North can go free while some, like those in Castlerea jail, are not treated similarly within the Republic. It has naturally attracted the anger of unionists who are opposed to the agreement.
Ahern publicly declared that the government would maintain the same stance it took when the referendum was carried out. He also said that the public who voted for the Good Friday agreement was perfectly aware of the situation.
Under those circumstances, the remaining IRA prisoners have only the option of making a court appeal, something they have not decided to do. The government has also made it clear that it will defend its position if it comes to that.
It is a classic standoff. One tends to suspect that the government would be happy if it could be solved through the courts because in the future it may have to take electoral considerations into account as well.
There is every possibility that Sinn Fein may hold the balance of power after the next general election. If that happens, as seems more likely with poll after poll, both parties will have to consider the possibility of forming a coalition regardless of their public positions at this time.
While the government attempts to put the issue on the long finger it is still one that will have to be dealt with at some time unless, of course, Sinn Fein takes the matter to court and wins.
Only this, it seems, can get the government off the hook. Is it not very ironic indeed that Fianna Fail, the republican party, should have to face such a troublesome dilemma?