Ford strategy stokes the fires of dissident discord
The Justice Minister's delay in granting Brendan Lillis compassionate release risks handing the renegade republicans another martyr to exploit. He should think again, says Henry McDonald
David Ford is an intelligent, erudite and well-read man, so presumably he will recognise this quote from European history. Talleyrand, the great survivor of the French Revolution, is credited with saying of the Bourbon monarchy that "they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing".
Talleyrand's scathing remark was prompted by the unwillingness of the Bourbons to take any lessons from recent history. They had been deposed from power in the 1789 revolution, but were restored as kings when Napoleon fell. But, in spite of the legacy of the revolution lasting, with its ideas of liberalism and democracy, the Bourbons failed to adapt to changing times.
By so doing, they heralded in the future revolutionary upheavals of 1848. Indeed, in resisting moving with change, or learning from history, the Bourbons doomed the institution of monarchy in France and restored republicanism as the core creed of the state to this day.
History, of course, is never repeated in neat patterns, but there are still lessons to be gleaned even from the recent past - including our own.
At present, a 59-year-old republican prisoner is confined to his bed because of a severe medical condition. Brendan Lillis is a former Provisional IRA member who was sentenced to life in 1977 on explosives charges and was released from the Maze in 1993.
Two years ago, Lillis was returned to jail - this time to Maghaberry prison, where he faced charges relating to kidnapping and robbery. But Lillis was so ill from a debilitating form of arthritis that he has since been declared unfit to stand trial.
In spite of a serious deterioration in Lillis' health this summer, the Life Sentence Review Commission has refused to release him on compassionate grounds.
Leading the campaign for his release has, of course, been the prisoner's family, but he has also received support from, among others, the two sisters of IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands and a wide range of republican organisations - from Sinn Fein to the 32 County Sovereignty Committee.
Opposing any early release for Lillis has been the DUP MP Gregory Campbell, who has demanded that Justice Minister David Ford and the Prison Service keep him incarcerated. Thus far at least, it appears the authorities appear to be listening to Campbell and the DUP rather than Lillis' family and supporters.
Such is the mounting concern over Lillis' fate within the wider republican community that Sinn Fein called this week for Ford to instruct the prison authorities to free the gravely-ill inmate.
Aside from obvious non-partisan humanitarian concerns, the party can clearly see the potential of a mini-political crisis coming down the line if Lillis was to die in jail.
Dissident republicans (both those who support the continuation of armed campaigns and those who call for a non-violent political alternative to Sinn Fein) will argue that their prime concern is for the welfare of the prisoner.
Yet they will be all-too-aware of the emotional charge prisoners can exercise over the northern nationalist community.
It was, of course, the prison struggle starting with the blanket protest and climaxing in the death-fasts of 1981 that, paradoxically, galvanised the Provisionals and built up a vast coalition of support across that community.
Even prior to the Maze hunger strikes of the early 1980s, prison controversies - from the torture of inmates inside Long Kesh, to the force-feeding of the Price sisters and the death of Frank Stagg on a sole hunger-strike - created a well of grievance and bitterness towards the British like never before.
These days, of course, the walls on the streets off the Falls are not adorned with murals celebrating the prison struggles of the current crop of republican inmates defying the political consensus.
There are no painted images of support for, say, Gerry McGeough (the ex-IRA gunrunner inexplicably serving time in jail for a pre-Good Friday Agreement attempted murder - a crime other former Provos that are on-message with Sinn Fein have been pardoned for). Nor are there images of Marian Price.
The dissidents, whether they are inside jail or outside, have nothing like the levels of support the IRA and INLA prisoners commanded back in 1980-81. The political atmosphere in Northern Ireland is radically transformed, with northern nationalists generally happy with a political power-sharing arrangement alongside unionists.
And, after years of war-weariness, the appetite within the republican/nationalist community for a resumption of 'armed struggle' is negligible.
Yet there is always danger in complacency - especially when it comes to such an emotionally-charged subject as a republican prisoner potentially close to death inside a British jail.
Dissidents of all hues will protest vehemently that they are doing their utmost to save Lillis' life by securing his release and will welcome support from any quarter - republican, nationalist, socialist, liberal, even unionist - to get him out of prison.
Nonetheless, if this veteran republican were to pass away inside Maghaberry, it would undoubtedly create a new martyr in the Irish republican pantheon and produce a new focal point for violent protest and disorder in areas where the dissidents have some presence.
The former IRA prisoner turned writer Anthony McIntyre has compared the authorities' attitude to playing Russian Roulette with Brendan Lillis' health.
McIntyre has, of late, likened their refusal to free him on health grounds as akin to holding a revolver to the prisoner's head and clicking constantly on the trigger, with the number of empty chambers in the gun running out.
In fact, that analogy can be turned around, or at least pointed downwards. Because, by engaging in a mortal gamble with this inmate, the authorities are in peril, at the very least, of shooting themselves in the foot.