The detention of IRA veteran Marian Price harks back to internment

18 January 2012

Today, parole commissioners for Northern Ireland will decide whether to order the release of the IRA veteran Marian Price from Maghaberry prison. The 57-year-old has been held since last May, when the Northern Ireland secretary, Owen Patterson, signed an order revoking her licence.

The facts around Price's detention suggest she is being held not for any crime, but from a belief the state is better off without her.

Her detention has been a scandal. Price has been effectively held in solitary as the only female in the high-security prison, charged with encouraging support for an illegal organisation. The charge arose from an Easter Rising commemoration in Derry organised by the 32-county sovereignty movement - widely regarded as the political voice of the Real IRA - during which she held up the script from which a masked man read the Real IRA's "Easter message".

Price was one of nine IRA volunteers sentenced to life for planting four bombs in London, including one at the Old Bailey, in March 1973. Around 180 people were injured, mainly by flying glass. One man died from a heart attack. The bombing party included Gerry Kelly, now a Sinn Fein minister at Stormont, and Price's older sister, Dolours.

Price was freed in 1980 suffering from tuberculosis and anorexia and weighing around five stone. Her lawyers insist that her release was based on a royal pardon, which would mean that Patterson had no legal power to order her detention. His intervention amounted to an egregious abuse reminiscent of internment, they say. However, Patterson's lawyers say that "extensive searches" have failed to locate the crucial document. A copy destroyed in 2010, they have told the parole commissioners, turns out to have been the only copy that existed, so its exact terms cannot be established. But, they add, the "surrounding circumstances" of 1980 suggest that Price was not pardoned but conditionally released.

Many are surprised that British authorities have not been able to come up with a stronger case. Price's lawyers, Kevin Winters and Co, told the commissioners in a submission on 4 January: "It is difficult to fathom how, even exercising a modicum of care, this document was destroyed without someone, before destruction, ensuring that the original (or at least another copy) was still in existence - There is certainly a foundation for suggesting that the document may (and we can put it no higher) have been deliberately 'buried' given the embarrassment it might cause."

In court in Derry two days after her detention last year, despite strenuous prosecution objections, she was granted bail, then immediately rearrested under an order signed the previous evening. Her bail application had thus been made meaningless by Patterson's advance arrangement to trump the court's decision if it went against the state's wishes.

In the high-security jail where she is being held, Price was further charged last July with "providing property for the purposes of terrorism" - connected to the trial for the killing of two soldiers outside Massereene barracks in Antrim in March 2009.

Price had been questioned for two days about this allegation in November 2009 and released without charge. There was no change in circumstances in the interim and no new evidence offered. Again, over the objections of the state, she was given bail and, again, returned to prison. It seems at the least a reasonable suspicion that the new charge was designed to pre-empt the planned challenge to Patterson's authority.

On Monday, Price appeared at Belfast magistrates court on the same charge and was returned for trial. Again, despite bail having been given on the charge in July, she was taken back to prison.

The facts of Price's detention, taken together, suggest she is being held indefinitely not because there is evidence that she is guilty of serious crime, but because the Northern Ireland Office believes the state is better off with her out of the way - that, in everyday language, she is in internment. We thought we were done with that in Northern Ireland. Marian Price should be freed forthwith.