Thursday, 4 August 2011


A man with a debilitating arthritic condition, Ankylosing Spondylitis – Brendan Lillis – nears death in Maghaberry Prison, outside Lisburn (56 degrees North, 6 degrees West) in Northern Ireland. 

No doubt he is a criminal. He was convicted of causing an explosion in 1977 as part of a militant republican campaign. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1993 he was released under licence as part of the Good Friday Agreement that produced the current devolved administration in Belfast (54 degrees North, 5 degrees West). This licence was revoked in 2009 after he was re-arrested on robbery charges and told he must serve the rest of his life sentence. The new charges against Brendan Lillis, who weighs just five stone, were shelved last year because he was too unwell to stand trial.

The Northern Ireland administration, in both its justice ministry and its parole commissioner arms, now wrestles with the proper response to the plight of Brendan Lillis.   

Shakespeare, as so often in human experience, has been here before and offers:
The quality of mercy is not strained. 
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven 
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: 
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. 
Tis mightiest in the mightiest;

Both arms of the administration have the case under review and it is clear that this is not only a matter of justice and parole, but of politics.

All prisoners are political. All criminal acts are political which explains why so many white collar crimes go untreated and why the vast bulk of the best brains in the legal profession make a killing at the white-collar end of criminality. Think of the legal teams the Murdochs have.

As regards the case of the Northern Ireland state versus Brendan Lillis, is the new state so weak that it cannot find a way to benefit from Shakespeare's insights?  Has it no room for manoeuvre that would take it to the high ground of magnanimity? Would compassion not be a sign of strength in the face of the threat from dissident republicans who, along with family members and supporters, challenge the state on this matter? 

Grim histories exist here with the 1981 Hunger Strikes. The fateful determination of the prisoners. The bullish intransigence of Margaret Thatcher wielding her dreadful handbag, like a demonic tricoteuse, knitting at the foot of the guillotine during the Terror in Paris (48 degrees North, 2 degrees East). 

Images from 1981 of tricolour-draped coffins leaving a prison in 2011 would not be in the interest of a state attempting to present itself as 'new' and future-focused. Any moves, however, to release Brendan Lillis to die outside prison need to acknowledge the context and the challenge such moves would present to victims.

Another Brendan, this time Behan, famously quipped: If it was raining soup, the Irish would go out with forks. Behan wrote a play, The Quare Fella, in which prisoners pass the night in jail discussing a colleague facing a death sentence. As Brendan Lillis faces.

Meanwhile the gentle rain of mercy falls through our forks and the state is in danger of becoming as fatuous as Margaret Thatcher's infamous handbag.

The Merchant of Venice; 1596; William Shakespeare
The Quare Fella; 1954; Brendan Behan  

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