Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: A vengeful society is not the answer

There is no doubt that Brendan Lillis is an ill man with a very disabling spinal condition.

Those who have seen him in Magheraberry Prison can testify to the deterioration in his health and pressure from his supporters mounts on Justice Minister David Ford to intervene and have him released. This newspaper finds Mr Lillis' past terrorist activity abhorrent but, nevertheless, feels that there is something disquieting about his case.

He served 16 years of a life sentence for republican terrorist offences in the past - a considerable stretch by any measure - before being released on licence in 1993. That licence was revoked when he was arrested on robbery charges in 2009 and, although the authorities deem him too ill to stand trial, he remains in jail and his application for release on compassionate grounds was turned down by the independent parole commissioners last week.

While it is accepted that society has the right to judge and punish wrong-doing, it has to be borne in mind that the allegations made against this prisoner are, as yet, unproven. Whatever the opinion of the Secretary of State who revoked his licence, Mr Lillis is innocent of the charges he faces until a conviction is obtained in court. Sometimes society has to show that it is of a different order to those who attack it. Mr Lillis' crimes in the past were reprehensible, but a vengeful society is not the answer.

There is a secondary consideration. Some on the republican fringes are already portraying Mr Lillis as a potential martyr, trying to resurrect the images of the hunger-strikers. While that agitation is not an imperative for action in this case, nevertheless the authorities can claim moral superiority by releasing this prisoner. If his condition improves then he can face the charges against him in court and be judged on the evidence.

Little seems to be served by keeping him incarcerated at this point. Certainly his reputation as a danger to the public no longer seems valid.

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