Marian Price is free at last

June 4, 2013

Sandy Boyer, co-coordinator of the Free Marian Price Campaign in the U.S. and co-host of the weekly radio program Radio Free Eireann on WBAI in New York City, reports on the victory of the grassroots struggle for Marian--and on what still lies ahead for Irish solidarity activists.

ON MAY 15, 2011, Marian Price was imprisoned after she held up a piece of paper for a masked man at an Irish republican commemoration. On May 30, 2013, with her health broken, she was finally released.

Price was held in solitary confinement even after being transferred from a prison cell to a hospital. All the time she was hospitalized there, a prison guard stationed outside her door. She was handcuffed for family visits and even during medical tests.

Juan E. Méndez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, called for a total ban on solitary confinement lasting more than 15 days on October 18, 2011, when Price had already been in solitary for 156 days. The British government was unmoved.

Prison doctors, independent specialists and even doctors dispatched by the UN all said she needed to be at home to recover with her family. The British cabinet ministers who run Northern Ireland paid no attention.

Marian Price's health was permanently damaged when she was force-fed over 400 times in a prison in Britain. She described the force-feeding:

Marian Price after her release from unjust imprisonment
Marian Price after her release from unjust imprisonment

Four male prison officers tie you into the chair so tightly with sheets you can't struggle. You clench your teeth to try to keep your mouth closed, but they push a metal spring device around your jaw to prise it open. They force a wooden clamp with a hole in the middle into your mouth. Then, they insert a big rubber tube down that. They hold your head back. You can't move.

The force-feeding takes 15 minutes, but it feels like forever. You're in control of nothing. You're terrified the food will go down the wrong way, and you won't be able to let them know because you can't speak or move. You're frightened you'll choke to death.

The force-feeding led to tuberculosis, severe arthritis and life-threatening anorexia. During her latest imprisonment, the anorexia returned, the arthritis became so bad she couldn't open her hands, and she developed pneumonia.

Twice, judges ordered Price freed on bail. Twice, the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland overruled the judge and ordered her back to prison, saying he was canceling her license (parole in American terms). All the while he knew perfectly well that she wasn't on license at all because she had received a full royal pardon.

The buck was passed from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to the Parole Commission, appointed by the self-same Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. They had secret hearings that not even Price's lawyers could attend, and they refused to release her.

Now the Parole Commission has announced that they have restored her nonexistent license after revealing that the intelligence services said she no longer represents "a security threat." Marian Price is finally home with her family.

THE BRITISH government did not have a sudden change of heart and decide to be merciful. They knew all along that the "security threat" Price represented was her loud and public insistence that the current peace deal in Northern Ireland is a fraud. She has insisted that Irish people have a right to wage an armed struggle to totally end British rule.

If Marian is at home today, it is because of sustained protests in Ireland and throughout the world.

There were protest meetings and demonstrations in virtually every part of Ireland, including weekly vigils in Dublin and guerrilla theater in Derry every time she was brought to court. Numerous local councils passed resolutions demanding her release including the Belfast, Dublin and Derry local councils and the Fermanagh County Council. She won the support of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (the Irish counterpart of the AFL-CIO), the Committee for the Administration of Justice, and Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labor Party, the nationalist parties in the North.

Internationally, organizations as diverse as Amnesty International, the Ancient Order of Hibernians in America, the Brehon Law Society and British/Irish Human Rights Watch expressed their concern with Price's case.

In Europe, there were public protests from London to Rome and Glasgow to Berlin as well as in Australia and New Zealand. Irish-American writers and musicians, including Pete Hamill, Malachy McCourt, Peter Quinn, Michael Patrick MacDonald, Tom English and Larry Kirwan of Black 47, signed on to an open letter to the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, which appeared as an ad in The Irish Echo.

The Prison Crisis Group, which was in the forefront of the protest actions, stated: "We do not believe that Marian would be free had it not been for the campaign...Everybody should learn the most important lesson to come out of all this--that grassroots campaigning can make all the difference.

MARIAN PRICE is free but the human rights crisis in Northern Ireland is anything but over. Political prisoners are tried by a non-jury courts on charges as vague as "encouraging support for an illegal organization" or "possession of materials of use to terrorists." In every decade but one since Northern Ireland was created in 1920, people have been imprisoned without charge or trial. All this is against the background of a sustained attack on working people's standard of living.

Martin Corey has been effectively interned for more than three years. The police appeared at his door and took him away to prison in the early hours of April 16, 2010, almost 18 years following his release from jail after serving 19 years for IRA activity.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland declared that he was revoking Corey's license because he was "a security risk." After a judge ordered him set free, the Secretary of State sent him back to prison.

The Parole Commission held secret hearings where neither Corey nor his lawyers could see the evidence. They returned him to prison, saying he was "a risk to the public." Corey's lawyers have announced that they will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. But this process can consume a year or more.

Martin Corey is hardly the only victim of a British miscarriage of justice. Stephen Murney is in prison for taking photographs of the police. When the Craigavon 2, Brendan McConville and John Paul Wooton, tried to appeal their conviction, police arrested and tried to intimidate a key witness. John Downey flew to London from his home in Donegal this May, only to be arrested and charged with a 1982 bombing.

Martin Corey, Stephen Murney, Brendan McConville, John Paul Wooten, John Downey and others are likely to languish in prison unless they have the support of the same kind of sustained grassroots campaign that finally freed Marian Price. There will be nothing easy or automatic about building that kind of campaign. It will take a sustained and patient effort to build the broadest and most powerful coalition possible.

Irish civil rights leader Bernadette Devlin McAliskey called Marian Price's release "an important, but small victory." She warned:

We cannot be complacent. The confidence with which the new administration in Northern Ireland is systematically eroding and nullifying the promises of the Belfast Agreement is growing at alarming rate. The combination of refusal to protect fundamental human rights and an arrogant disregard and disrespect for critical and dissenting opinion is the hallmark of the "New Stormont," just as it was of the old.

This reality needs to be acknowledged by those who pulled this "model" together before it starts exploding before their eyes, even as they export it. Those of us who knew it was flawed need to start working together on the core problems that the growing failure presents, rather than simply fire-fighting for one victim at a time.

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