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David Ford has stepped down...but will he now step up for Sean Lynch?

Alliance leader faced threats from republicans and loyalists, but fate of vulnerable prisoner could be his political epitaph, says Henry McDonald

Published 07/10/2016

David Ford after becoming Alliance leader in 2001
David Ford after becoming Alliance leader in 2001
A young Sean Lynch

Before the loyalist flag protests resulted in Alliance offices being firebombed, picketed and vandalised and the homes of party representatives targeted for the same treatment, the cross-community political party was in the crosshairs of another violent campaign.

From the day its leader, David Ford, became Justice Minister in the last five-party coalition at Stormont, Alliance bore the brunt of attacks from republican dissidents.

Alliance's headquarters in Belfast's University Street was the repeated target of vandalism from graffiti to reeking animal waste. There were a series of bomb alerts at the building and a number of protests outside the office.

The party was singled out because Ford's portfolio included the running of the Northern Ireland Prison Service and, specifically, Maghaberry top-security jail, which holds several dozen republican dissident prisoners.

The inmates' supporters on the outside have vented their anger over strip-searches on the wings housing republicans, demands for further segregation from other non-political prisoners and an overall struggle for political status at the jail.

Whatever their grievances, nothing can ever excuse the intimidation and vandalism directed towards Ford's Alliance.

In just the same way, no matter how angry grassroots loyalists have felt about Alliance's decision on Belfast City Council to back the restriction on flying the Union flag atop Belfast City Hall, there was - and is - no excuse for the treatment meted out to Alliance personnel and premises, from east Belfast to Carrickfergus, over the last few years. The tactics of both campaigns have been nothing more than fascistic and morally repellent.

David Ford will be remembered for taking on what was, arguably, the most controversial ministerial department in the first power-sharing Executive following the St Andrews Agreement. He took the party into the devolved cabinet exactly because of Alliance's liberal, centrist position along the political spectrum of Northern Ireland.

Alliance and Ford were clearly the obvious choice for the other parties, the unionist and nationalist ones, because they would be seen as not having any tribal baggage in running the police, the prisons and the overall justice and courts system.

On Ford's watch, there have been some truly challenging, often tragic, times, from the murders of the two soldiers outside Massareene Barracks in his own South Antrim constituency and, on the same weekend, the killing of PSNI Constable Stephen Carroll in north Armagh, to the deaths at the hands of other republican dissidents of two prison officers over the last few years.

Those periods of Ford's ministerial career must have been dark ones for the Alliance leader and he deserves thorough credit for stepping up to the plate time after time. He also deserves praise for being personally sceptical (to say the least) about the efficacy of Lord Morrow's law, which has effectively made it a crime for men to purchase sex in Northern Ireland.

Ford preferred to stick to facts, rather than polemics, when studying the impact of the so-called "Swedish model" on tackling prostitution - i.e. to criminalise the clients who pay for sexual services.

It is a pity that, on this issue, most of his fellow Assembly members didn't listen to him.

Prisons, however, are an area where, on the balance sheet of Ford's ministerial career, there are a few negatives and perhaps the greatest one of all concerns the fate of a young Derry man called Sean Lynch. The 23-year-old, who was being held in Maghaberry Prison, brutally mutilated himself inside the jail in June 2014. As well as inflicting horrific injuries on his groin, Sean Lynch then went on to blind himself inside his prison cell.

A recent, damning report by the Prisoner Ombudsman for Northern Ireland concluded that prison staff in Maghaberry "directly observed" Sean Lynch inflicting wounds that were described as both "shocking and extreme". The report, by Tom McGonigle, the Prisoner Ombudsman, said that on June 5, 2014, the day Lynch blinded himself, two prison officers watched as the former footballer injured himself on more than 20 occasions in the course of just over an hour.

CCTV cameras showed the prisoner "crying in pain" and banging his cell door, the Prisoner Ombudsman said.

The ombudsman quoted a Catholic priest who had visited Lynch days before the self-harming incident and who told prison staff: "He needs to be in a psychiatric hospital... his condition is beyond anything the officers can cope with."

This warning was ignored and Sean Lynch was not put into civilian psychiatric care and, after some treatment at Craigavon Area Hospital, he was inexplicably sent back to Maghaberry.

His family has yet to receive an apology from the Northern Ireland Prison Service over their son's plight.

His father, Damian Lynch, said that he would like to see the prison officers who stood back and watched his son self-harming over a long period sacked.

So far, no one has been sacked, or disciplined, from within Maghaberry over what has to be one of the worst cases of neglect in terms of a vulnerable young prisoner anywhere in the British penal system.

There is, of course, no suggestion that David Ford had any prior knowledge whatsoever about the case of Sean Lynch before the young man committed such extreme and clearly irrational acts of self-harm.

Indeed, Ford will argue - with some justification - that he had to await the Prisoner Ombudsman's report before making any comment specifically on the Lynch scandal.

But a scandal it certainly is and one that maybe David Ford should turn his thoughts to once more now that he is in semi-retirement.

He could offer to meet the Lynch family and even lend his support to their demands that those officers accused of standing idly by while their son mutilated and blinded himself should face serious internal disciplinary measures.

Ford's record in the Justice ministry has been, by and large, a benign one since devolution and power-sharing was restored.

However, the Sean Lynch story is one of the worst human rights violations inside a prison for many years.

It could have been prevented and is still - certainly in terms of justice for that young man and his family - unfinished business.

David Ford is a decent man with good, instinctive liberal values.

He should put those to some use by supporting the Lynch family in their quest to get the justice they deserve.

Belfast Telegraph

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