By Robynne Murphy
DUBLIN — Bernie Farrell is a spokesperson for Saoirse, a support group fighting for the release of Republican political prisoners.
"I am the mother of a political prisoner in Portlaoise jail", she explained, "which, I suppose, was the start of my involvement in Saoirse. But, given the stories that I have heard, even if my son was released tomorrow, I would stay with this campaign until every last one of these prisoners are free."
Saoirse, which means freedom, was set up after the IRA cease-fire of last year in response to relatives and friends of people who had prisoners in jail.
"We believe that the Irish political prisoners should be released as part of the peace process", Farrell told Green Left Weekly. "A lot are in jail for their fight against the British army in the north. Those in prison in Britain are mainly in for conspiracy charges. It's all been a result of the war against British imperialism.
"Everywhere else in the world where there is political conflict of this kind, prisoners have always been released as part of the peace process. It's happened in South Africa, El Salvador, Israel and Palestine."
There are Saoirse groups in almost all counties of Ireland and also in the USA and even a few in Britain.
"The Irish government have already moved to release a small number of prisoners — about 19 to date — and we are on record as commending them for that", said Farrell.
"But nine months after the cease-fire, the British government has refused to release any prisoners. There are still almost 40 political prisoners in Portlaoise jail here in the 26 Counties. There are four Irish political prisoners in Germany. Their trial is ongoing and they've been in prison for six years. There are nine Irish political prisoners in America and about 500 in the Six Counties. Forty Irish political prisoners are in jail in Britain. Of these, 10 have spent 20 years in prison. One of those was 17 years old when arrested."
Farrell says that the situation of prisoners in Britain has actually deteriorated since the IRA cease-fire. "A lot are in 23-hour lockup; they're in bad health because their food is being served cold and dirty. Dietary supplements and educational facilities have been withdrawn.
"They have moved a few prisoners; some have been transferred home on a temporary basis, and about three on a permanent basis. But again it's not acceptable.
"The families of the prisoners, travelling to see their husbands or sons over the years, have suffered horrendous hardship. Some elderly parents haven't seen their sons in years because of the travel expense. Sometimes when they get to England, they find their son or husband has been what they call 'ghosted' away from that particular prison to another, maybe at the far end of England.
"If the prisoners were to be transferred home, Saoirse would welcome that as a step towards their eventual release."
Saoirse has been involved in an intensive lobbying campaign of members of the European parliament and of the Irish parliament.
"We launched a Green Ribbon day on May 3, which has now spread all over the country. Thousands of people are wearing green ribbons to show their solidarity with the campaign for the release of political prisoners.
"We're planning a three-day vigil outside the British Embassy, which will end in a mass rally; we're expecting buses from all over the country.
"We find all the Irish political parties that we've spoken to are generally supportive — they realise that the political prisoners are a vital part of the whole peace process.
"With regard to international support, it would be good to bring this situation to the attention of your government so they could influence the British government in some way. Messages calling on the release of all political prisoners should be sent to the British Embassy in your country."