By Jim Smith
BOSTON — After spending nearly nine years in the federal correctional system, Richard Johnson became a free man last week when he was released from a federal halfway house in Boston. On Friday night, the 51-year-old electrical engineer and Connecticut native thanked his supporters during what was billed as a "homecoming celebration" at a packed Nash’s Pub in Dorchester.
Johnson told the Echo before addressing the gathering that he has spent his first few days of freedom relaxing and walking along a Cape Cod beach near the Harwich home of his parents, Anne and Roy, who accompanied him to Friday’s event along with Johnson’s brother Brian.
"I feel a little like Rip Van Winkle," he said. "I’m still getting adjusted, but you can’t imagine what a relief it is just to be able to go into a grocery store and do simple things like that — it’s really amazing."
Now on 36 months of supervised probation, Johnson was convicted in 1990 in federal court in Boston of exporting to Northern Ireland technical equipment designed to enhance IRA weaponry. He has steadfastly maintained that his actions violated no U.S. laws and that his trial was a miscarriage of justice driven by political considerations and the so-called "special relationship" between England and the U.S.
Commenting on the current impasse in the peace process, Johnson said that the prognosis for a just and peaceful solution to the conflict is not good. "The fact that Gerry Adams is not optimistic about the current situation is a cause for concern," he said. "Adams has been the supreme optimist throughout this whole thing, and he obviously has serious concerns. Unfortunately, Trimble won’t move, and there has been no attempt on [Prime Minister] Blair’s part to get the unionists to move."
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Johnson said that he will be working on his resumé in the coming weeks, with a view toward getting a job on the Cape in the field of computers or electronics. He has a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley.
In his address to supporters, Johnson said that it was gratifying to actually meet some of the people who had been writing to him over the years during his imprisonment. "It’s quite an experience to put an actual face and a handshake to the letter and an image that you have of the person," he said. "I can’t tell you what it means . . . Without that support I would never have been able to make it."
Johnson then urged his supporters to continue the struggle for "basic justice" in Ireland and throughout the world.
A similar fund-raiser will likely be held in New York early next year if Johnson is granted permission to leave the state.