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Jail weddings - why they deserve a cold reception from all decent people

Prisoners have right to marry behind bars, but system seems to do more for perpetrators than victims, says Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 22/11/2016

Brendan McConville and Siobhan Monaghan tie the knot in prison
Brendan McConville and Siobhan Monaghan tie the knot in prison

No need to double-check the calendar. It is, indeed, coming up to Christmas, though you could've been forgiven yesterday for thinking that it must be Valentine's Day on hearing the heart-warming story of one Irishman's marriage to his English sweetheart.

The bride was inundated with so many messages of congratulations on Twitter after announcing the news that it was like Monica and Chandler from Friends were renewing their vows. All together now: awww.

So, where are the newlyweds going on honeymoon? Well, that's the problem. The answer is: nowhere. It's a bit tricky to head off for a couple of weeks in the sun when one of you is in jail for the murder of a policeman.

The prisoner in question is Brendan McConville, a former Sinn Fein councillor, who is currently serving time for the 2012 murder of Stephen Carroll, the first PSNI officer to be killed in the line of duty.

McConville was convicted of shooting the 48-year-old in the head with an AK-47 rifle after terrorists lured their victim to Craigavon on a bogus 999 call.

The bride, Siobhan Monaghan, comes from the famous Irish nationalist stronghold of, er, Oxford and is, apparently, "well-known in republican circles" for supporting prisoners via letters. Now, a lengthy correspondence with Brendan had led to a trip up the aisle. At least all those stamps weren't wasted.

It's not known whether Stephen Carroll's name, or that of his widow, Kate, was mentioned in any of the wedding speeches. Probably not. That sort of talk can spoil the big day. The happy couple wouldn't want that.

And there's nothing any of us can do about it either way. Prisoners have a right to get married under the 1983 Marriage Act and English women from Oxford have a right to fall in love with men who are convicted of shooting policemen in the head. We might rather that they didn't, but it's their human rights, innit?

Prisoners' rights can only be restricted if it's necessary for prison security, or for the prevention of a crime.

Even the 80-year-old serial killer and cult leader Charles Manson was given permission to marry the 26-year-old woman who runs his social media site last year.

If that isn't proof that love conquers all - including common sense - then nothing is.

Last year, in the UK, saw the celebration of the nuptials of not one, but two murderers, as Mikhail Gallatinov (a convicted paedophile, who's been serving a life sentence since 1997 for the killing of a man he met through a gay chatline) and Marc Goodwin (sentenced to life in 2007 for a homophobic murder, ironically) tied the knot in their maximum security jail near York - though, reportedly, they have not been allowed to share a cell.

The European Court of Human Rights is no doubt busy working on a case as we speak.

In a way, though, Siobhan Monaghan is by far the more interesting side of this strange equation.

Prisoners have little to lose. Having women write to them gives them something to look forward to. Marriage, especially if it involves conjugal visits, must be a pleasant distraction from prison food and slopping out.

But what do the women get out of it? There's been much speculation about precisely that, with some suggestions that these women may be suffering from hybristophilia - a condition in which they're basically attracted to partners who've committed a crime. It doesn't have to be murder, or rape; sometimes, a good, old-fashioned armed robbery will do.

Siobhan would, no doubt, insist that her case is entirely different to those other women. She says that Brendan is innocent; she's a prominent member of the campaign to get McConville and a second convicted prisoner - the so-called 'Craigavon Two' - released.

But it can hardly be a coincidence that almost all serious offenders receive fan mail in prison and it's often of an erotic nature.

There are even websites devoted to hooking up prisoners with those on the outside. Think of them as dating agencies - except that most people usually hope their date isn't a cold-blooded killer, whereas these women are banking on the fact he is.

The American author of a book on this phenomenon interviewed numerous women who'd married, or fallen in love with, dangerous men behind bars and what she found, without exception, was that they were damaged in some ways by bad things in their pasts and found a relationship with a man behind bars easier to cope with.

A man can't hurt you when he's in jail. He can't control you to the same extent. Knowing the relationship is taboo also adds a frisson of excitement to the mix.

You can feel like Romeo and Juliet, as if your love is forbidden. People are out to stop you. The world doesn't understand you. It's an intoxicating feeling.

The author noticed, too, that these women were able to hold on to an idealistic fantasy of a love affair for longer because reality never has to intrude. As she put it, the wife never comes home to find his dirty laundry on the floor. Real life isn't always romantic.

Siobhan's tweets are typical. They're lovey-dovey in a way which seems a little odd for a 49-year-old.

She adds little love hearts and pictures of red kissy lips to the end of messages, as if she was a giddy teenager, rather than a grown woman (though, interestingly, she always refers to Brendan McConville by his full name, never forgetting that there's a campaign on for his release and that it's her duty to garner publicity for the cause).

The Facebook pictures of Monaghan in her wedding dress, sitting on McConville's knee, help that aim, too.

Whether the marriage survives Brendan's eventual release, who knows? Perhaps it's wrong to even look on their unconventional relationship with disfavour.

We live in a world where no one is supposed to judge how others live their lives. It's a good rule. Who marries whom is none of our business. Gay or straight; young or old; rich or poor - we should just butt our noses out.

But the brother of the victim of the aforementioned Marc Goodwin put the other side of the story, when he heard that the killer had got married: "The justice system has gone potty. They seem to do more for the prisoners than they do for the victims."

Of all the things that can be said, or written, about yesterday's marriage in Maghaberry, that statement stands alone as the one undeniable truth.

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