Stephen, could you recount for readers of the éirígí website and for party supporters the background to your arrest and imprisonment?
First of all, I think it’s important to set this all in a proper context.
Despite the claims to the contrary by members of both constitutional nationalist parties in the Six Counties and by the establishment parties in the Free State, very little substantial change has occurred in respect of policing in the North.
The name of the police force may have changed, but let’s not forget that the PSNI is a fully armed force with access to the most modern weaponry. It still operates under a whole raft of very draconian and far-reaching so-called ‘anti-terror’ legislation.
While the titles of police force and the legislation that force has access to may have changed over the years, there is little to differentiate between supposedly modern, reformed policing and that which took place under the RUC and the legislation available to that force in previous decades.
Let’s not forget that two key demands of nationalists in the Six Counties for decades were for a totally unarmed police force and an end to all repressive legislation.
Neither of those two demands has been met.
As is the case across the Six Counties, in the Newry area where I live, harassment of political activists and their families and friends has continued unabated. Stop and searches occur on an almost daily basis, house raids are a regular occurrence.
My own home had been raided by the PSNI several times over the years under legislation such as the Terror Act 2000. I was also subjected to dozens of stop-and searches.
I and other members of the party had started to record and collate all those incidents of PSNI harassment of activists and members of the general public in the Newry area. It is true that I did photograph members of the PSNI when they were carrying out stop and searches or when they were harassing people in general. I also photographed and recorded the PSNI’s heavy-handed response to various pickets and public protests in Newry.
Indeed, it’s also worth pointing out that on one occasion the photos I had taken were used by a defence solicitor to totally repudiate and discredit statements made by PSNI personnel during the trial of a local man accused of assault on the PSNI.
I mainly used those various photographs to accompany press releases which were sent to local newspapers or to the éirígí website to highlight the abuse of powers by the PSNI.
I was also documenting and recording these cases, as well as PSNI harassment of myself, for the Committee for the Administration of Justice (CAJ) based in Belfast. CAJ is an independent human rights organisation with a cross-community membership established in 1981 and it lobbies and campaigns on a broad range of human rights issues. It regularly submits report to the UN and other international bodies.
Indeed, a CAJ report called ‘Still Part Of Life Here?’ was published in November 2012, just before my arrest. It may seem ironic now, but that report included details of oppressive policing in the Newry area that I had submitted to them.
So it’s against that backdrop that one needs to view my arrest.
Quite obviously, the PSNI in the Newry area took exception to the frequent adverse coverage of their actions in the local papers which I was securing through my role as PRO for the party in the town.
Added to that was the fact that, through my reporting of incidents to CAJ, the PSNI’s actions were coming under the spotlight of a far wider, international audience.
When I was charged, the charges mainly related to those photographs. The other charges regarding my old band uniforms and my son’s toy guns, which the PSNI claimed to be ‘items for use in terrorist purposes’, were added as ‘window-dressing’ to make their case appear stronger than it actually was.
You initially were granted bail, which you refused to accept: can you explain why?
While the High Court in Belfast granted bail, it should be remembered that the conditions were very draconian. Those conditions included:
- A ban on living with my partner and child at our home in Newry
- A requirement that I reside at a location vetted by the PSNI at least five miles from Newry
- A ban on entering the city of Newry for any purpose including visits to the doctor – even if advanced notice of such visits were supplied to the PSNI.
- A ban on attending any meetings or other events of a political nature.
- A strict curfew that would require me to remain within the specified address between the hours of 7pm and 10am.
- A requirement that I wear an electronic tagging device at all times.
- A requirement that I reported daily to Newtownhamilton PSNI barracks which is located a further twelve miles from my bail address.
Neither I nor my partner drives so even seeing each other would have been difficult under those conditions.
We certainly could not have had anything that came close to the normal family life we had been used to.
The extreme bail conditions which the court sought to impose upon me amounted to a form of collective punishment for my partner, children and wider family.
They were also clearly designed to ‘criminalise’ and punish me for legitimate political activism.
I have no doubt that, had I accepted those bail conditions, I would have breached them through no fault of my own as the conditions, as a whole, were designed in such a way to make it impossible for me to avoid breaking them.
For example, I receive regular medical treatment. If I had to see my doctor urgently and went to his surgery in Newry, I would have been classed as having breached the bail conditions.
You have a young family. How did they handle the whole situation of seeing you in prison?
The impact was far greater upon my family than any effect it had on me.
My partner was left at home with the children to raise and look after.
My youngest son, who was 6 at the time of my arrest, was very visibly shaken and terrified when heavily armed PSNI personnel smashed in the front door of our home at 6am, handcuffed me and took me away that morning. On visits to the gaol, he would become very stressed when it was time to leave. Experiences like can have far-reaching effects for any young child.
Additionally, and although my partner, parents and the rest of my family knew there was no substance to the PSNI charges, they had no idea how long I would be held for. That simple fact alone caused them a lot of stress and anxiety.
You were obviously aware of the campaign for your release on the outside. What was your reaction to that?
Members of my family, party comrades in éirígí and friends would visit me frequently so I was kept up to date with events on the outside. I certainly hadn’t expected a campaign to be organised on my behalf but it is good to know that others also knew that I was totally innocent and that they were continuously prepared to say so publicly.
I believe that the campaign played a great part in keeping up the spirits and morale of my family. It gave them strength and encouragement and it ensured that they did not feel isolated.
Of course, when there were successful public events and protests on the outside it raised spirits and boosted morale for everyone.
I remember we were out in the exercise yard in August 2013 and we received word that several thousand people were taking part in a massive Anti-Internment march in Belfast which had been organised jointly by several organisations including éirígí. I'll never forget the feeling on the wing when we heard about the turnout.
In the run-up to and during your trial, how did you feel? Were you confident that you would be released?
My comrades in éirígí had been regularly liaising with my legal team on the outside and were repeatedly stressing to them their view that the charges against me were designed as a test-case which, if the PSNI and prosecution were successful, would have had far-reaching implications for many political and other activists.
They also pointed out that the charges against me were at variance with the European Convention of Human Rights.
Article 10 of the Convention states that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority.”
As local PRO for éirígí in Newry, I had clearly held opinions and political views, and the photographs which I had used to accompany press releases were clearly meant to impart information and to allow others to receive that information.
However, at the time of my initial arrest, I had no idea as to how far-reaching the charges against me could be in terms of possible future prosecutions of others.
Certainly, that whole crux of the case was made clear by my legal team and by those party members liaising with them in the run-up to and during the trial, and was very ably articulated by my barrister – much to the repeated frustration of the prosecuting counsel!
Of the 107 photographs which the prosecution had based their case upon, every one had either been used to accompany press releases to local media outlets, articles on the party website, or were used to confirm misuse of powers by the PSNI during stop and searches.
The PSNI/prosecution argument was that even if a political activist or other member of the public believes he or she is being harassed by police, anti-terrorism legislation should be construed in a way to make it unjustifiable for such a person to publish or even to take photographs of those PSNI personnel. They even argued that while it was acceptable (to them) for press photographers to take and possess pictures of PSNI personnel, it was not justifiable for others to do so.
As my defence argued, it is difficult to see how such an interpretation could be compatible with the Article 10 of the ECHR.
To be honest, I had no idea what way the judge was going to decide.
The court eventually ruled, after several days of deliberation, that the PSNI and prosecution service cannot apply one different standard of law to press or media photographers and another standard to political activists when it comes to recording and documenting the conduct of the PSNI.
According to my legal team and party members, that is a very important and significant decision which will prevent the PSNI taking possible similar actions against other people in the future. Apparently, my case will be cited as case-law.
For me, the decision was complete vindication that I had been acting totally within my rights to photograph and record oppressive policing.
I was declared innocent. That is exactly what I, my family, party comrades and supporters had all been saying since the day I was first arrested. But it took 14 months of my life for a court to say the same thing.
How did it feel to hear you were free to go from the court?
It was obviously a relief and I was happy that I was going home to my family and community for good.
However I couldn’t help but feel angry at essentially being interned by remand in Maghaberry for 14 months despite being innocent the whole time.
Was it strange for you to see your face and name on walls since your release?
Shortly after my release, I was walking through Newry and on almost every wall there was a poster with my face on it. I was also walking down the Falls Road in Belfast and there was a mural of me on the International Wall. I have to say it was a bit strange to see those things but I recognise it was all part of the campaign carried on by my party comrades and friends who all did some great work for me and my family.
What’s your plans for the future and has the whole experience reinforced your resolve as a republican?
I intend to continue with my political activism and I have already re-involved myself with éirígí.
The past 14/15 months have, if anything, reinforced my view that the supposed changes which have taken place in the Six Counties during the last decade and a half have been largely cosmetic.
Peel back that cosmetic veneer and you will find a state that still is under British control, where people’s lives are still subjected to repressive policing and draconian laws; a state that is a failure both politically and economically.
It has helped me learn a lot about Republican prison struggle and what prison life for Republicans entails, particularly when faced with an oppressive and restrictive regime such as the one in place in Maghaberry where the brutal and inhumane practice of strip-searching of prisoners still take place as a matter of routine.
It is also important to emphasise that I am not the only victim of malicious persecution and prosecution by the PSNI.
There are other cases of injustice which are still ongoing and it’s very important that they are also publicly highlighted and supported. I would intend to assist in that.