My old ex-schoolmate Eamonn McCann had an interesting piece in the Irish Times yesterday. He was talking about the Gerry Conlon case and how, at that time, most Irish journalists kept their heads down and their mouths shut. To have done otherwise would have been seen by many as tantamount to saying you supported the IRA campaign. And so, because those who should have known better kept silent, Conlon stayed in prison. When I wrote a piece about Conlon recently, on the occasion of his death, I received a fair number of pats on the back. I also received one or two comments that suggested I check out a present-day case that was a modern parallel to the Conlon one: that of the Craigavon Two.
So what do we know of the Craigavon Two case. Well, it followed the 2009 killing of PSNI officer Constable Stephen Carroll in Craigavon. Like the Guildford Four case, public feelings over Stephen Carroll’s death ran high. There was concern that we might be slipping back to the dark days of widespread violence and there was public pressure for someone to be charged and convicted. Two men, Brendan McConville and John-Paul Wootton, were arrested, tried and convicted.
So should they be in prison? Well, there are certainly some unsatisfactory aspects to their case.
* They were tried and convicted, not by a jury of their peers, but a Diplock court. Whatever reasons may be advanced for having a Diplock court, it does fly in the face of justice as we’d normally conceive it.
* A tracking device attached by MI5 to Wootton’s car placed him at the scene of the crime at the time of the killing. There were blanks on the tracking device, however. These were explained to the court by an anonymous MI5 agent as due to the fact that he he had left it on his desk and someone had moved and then replaced it without his knowledge.
* A brown coat, central to the prosecution case, had particles of gun powder residue on it. These didn’t match the rifle or ammunition used in the killing of Constable Carroll. Nor did it have any DNA, fibres or fingerprints belonging to Wootton.
* Evidence that might have supported the defence team was kept from them by use of Public Interest Immunity Orders.
* An anonymous eyewitness known as M offered testimony but M’s partner did not support his story, saying that he was with her that night.
* A witness who had made a sworn affidavit that M was a compulsive liar and a Walter-Mitty type was arrested by the PSNI.
I don’t claim to know enough about the case to be definitive but I do know that if the facts listed above are true, the case against the two men looks to have some alarming gaps. If a key anonymous witness was in fact unreliable and if the weapon used was found not to have any trace of the DNA of the accused men, then questions must be raised as to why these two men should be in prison.
What I suspect – I have no evidence, I’d stress – but what I suspect is that these men were republicans who disagree with the Sinn Féin strategy of engagement in politics and using politics to achieve their ends. For some that makes them ‘dissident republicans’ and hence committed to violence against the PSNI and the British Army.
Which brings us back to the Gerry Conlon story. At the time, as McCann points out in his article, to express concern over the conviction of the Guildford Four was seen by many as equivalent to saying you supported violence. Nowadays, there’s the danger that those who dissent from mainstream republican thinking will be seen as by definition supporting violence. This is an illogical and dangerous conclusion.If the points listed above are true, the public deserve to be told why two innocent-until-proved-guilty men have been in prison for several years. And every journalist with self-respect should be saying so. Loudly and repeatedly.