Interview With Ex Irish Political Prisoner Stephen Murney

17 Aug

Several Months ago I had the honor of interviewing Stephen Murney for 100.3 sound fm. Despite several mess ups on the show and not being able to complete the interview, the podcast was quite popular.Below is the full transcript of the interview.

Biography
Stephen Murney is a 30 year old political activist. In his role as an active member of socialist republican party, éirígí, he has reported on numerous occasions the actions of the PSNI in the Newry area, where he lives. One of the greatest concerns raised by Stephen was the repeated stop-and- search policy of the PSNI, this is a common practice to ‘monitor, humiliate and demoralise Irish Republicans and state opponents in the North’.

On November 29th 2012, Murney was taken from his home by the police to the Antrim detention centre where he faced dozens of interrogations.

He was charged and moved to a maximum security prison called Maghaberry where he remained for 14 months. Once charges were formalized, Stephen bore a lengthy process for three allegations:

Collecting information likely to be of use to terrorists.
Distributing information likely to be of use to terrorists.
Having articles likely to be of use to terrorists.

The first two charges were in relation to the numerous photos of commemorations, protests and meetings which Murney had attended. Those photos mainly consisted of evidence of police harassment of local people in the Newry area.

The third claimed that ‘suspicious items’ were found at Stephen Murney’s home. In particular police stressed how some clothes (which are later found to be part of a uniform of a local Republican Flute band, in which there are numerous pictures of him marching in a perfectly legal and legitimate manner) and two toy guns belonging to his young son might be used for terrorist purposes.

The detention of Stephen Murney , considered illegal and as another facet of political policing, by Republicans, led to a huge mobilization on social media (Free Stephen Murney page reached a thousand ‘likes’ in a few days) and on the streets where many rallies were held.

After 14 months in jail awaiting the verdict Stephen Murney was found innocent and was immediately freed .

Stephen your a member of an Irish Republican group called éirígí, can you explain to our listeners who exactly éirígí are?

We were formed in Dublin in 2006, initially we were just a small campaign group with just 6 members. Over time we grew and now we are organised across Ireland North and South and we also have a support network in scotland.

We are an Irish, socialist republican, political party. We believe that poverty, exclusion and conflict, both in Ireland and internationally, are caused primarily by the joint system of capitalism and imperialism. It is only by replacing this system with one based upon co-operation rather than exploitation that true human freedom can be achieved. A Socialist Republic would be such a system. In the Irish context the continuing British occupation of a part of Ireland is a clear manifestation of modern imperialism.

éirígí views the ending of this occupation as integral to the establishment of an Irish Democratic Socialist Republic.

Stephen you were arrested and jailed in November 2012. Can you tell us the offences you were charged with?

Firstly, for the benefit of your listeners, i’d like to explain the background to my arrest and imprsonment.

In the area where I live here in Newry, British state harassment of political activists and Irish Republicans is rife. Stop and searches occur on an almost daily basis, house raids are a regular occurrence.

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.

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 have been assauted by the PSNI, they have also threatened to shoot me dead, and have theratened other members of my family. In fact just a few days ago heavily armed members of the British forces conducted a very aggressive raid here in the Derrybeg estate.

I and other members of the party had started to record and collate all those incidents of PSNI harassment. I photographed members of the PSNI when they were carrying out stop and searches and harassing people. I also photographed and recorded the PSNI’s heavy-handed response to various pickets and public protests in Newry. Pickets which i might add were perfectly legitimate, lawful and peaceful.

Those photographs accompanied press releases which were sent to local newspapers and 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.

Altogether i was charged with:

Collecting information likely to be of use to terrorists.
Distributing information likely to be of use to terrorists.
Having articles likely to be of use to terrorists.

when i was arrested in November 2012 i was handcuffed in front of my family and taken from my home. my family were left not knowing why i had been arrested, where i was being taken to or when i would return.

I was taken taken to Antrim interrorgation centre where i was held for a number of days, during which i was intensly interrorgated. i was also approached a number of times during this detention by MI5. Their advances were rejected

Why do you think the PSNI singled you out Stephen?

By arresting and charging me the british state was trying to send a message to others. that message is a simple one- if you disagree with the Stormont administration, oppose the British forces, speak out against injustices and human rights abuses that are carried out by the PSNI, you will automatically find yourself labelled as being ant-peace process, a dissident, a conflict junkie and you will find yourself becoming a target of political policing, stop and searches, house raids, harassment and ultimitatley imprisonment.

Thats why they targetted me and thats why they have targeted many other republicans, they simply target the few to intimidate the many.

You then spent the next 14 months in a maximum security prison called Maghaberry, what was that like for you and your family?

My partner was left at home with three kids to raise. 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.
Incidents like that can be very traumatic experiences for any young child.

While 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.

With regards to the effect it had on me, 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. But i will have to be honest and say that it was harder for my family than it was for me.

Stephen in february 2013 you were taken from Maghaberry by the PSNI and re-arrested. You were then charged wth more terrorist offences. Can you explain why that was?

The PSNI removed me from Maghaberry Prison and took me back to Antrim interrogation centre for further ‘questioning’. The following day the British state levelled additional charges against me, in a move widely seen as an attempt to bolster the very weak case.

The new charges included one of ‘possession of articles for use in terror’ and ‘aiding and abetting in criminal damage to property owned by persons unknown’. The former charge related to a single photograph allegedly recovered from my computer a photograph which I had already been charged with possessing. The latter charge related to the possession of a number of political stencils.

Can you tell us what the conditions were like in Maghaberry?

Before my arrest i was involved in campaigning against internment and highlighting the injustices and human rights abuses Republican prisoners were faced with and i also visited the prisoners on a regular basis, so it was kind of ironic that i would end up in prison beside them. To be honest nothing could prepare me for the reality of what was happening in maghaberry.

When I first entered the Republican wing on Roe 4 the first thing that hit me was the smell. Just 2 weeks beforehand, Republican prisoners had just ended a “dirty protest” lasting 18 months. When I was first placed in my cell there was still human excrement on the walls from the protest and it was several months before the prison administration decided to clean it off.

The Republican prisoners called off the protest as an act of good faith, to give the prison administration the opportunity to implement the changes the agreed to in the august 2010 agreement which they reneged on. the republican prisoners just want to live their lives, they are in prison and they just want to be able to get on with it and they have stated numerous times that they simply want to live in a conflict free environment in Maghaberry and thats not a lot to ask.

There are currently a number of outstanding issues that remain unresolved and they are forced strip searching, controlled movement, and the isolation of republican prisoners. I’ll explain each one for your listeners

first of all you have the strip searching. When you arrive in maghaberry you are first brought to the reception area, this is where they forcefully strip search you.

At this point I made it known that I would not be complying with the strip-search as it was degrading and humiliating for prisoners.
I was then taken and placed in a ‘holding cell’ and informed that I had 15 minutes to rethink my decision.

During the 15 minute period, I see the riot squad gathering outside my cell glaring in at me in an attempt to intimidate me.
The riot squad is comprised of screws wearing black boiler suits, surgical gloves, heavy black boots and a utility belt around their waists with batons attached.

The cell door opens and I’m brought to the cell next door which is bigger in size. I enter the cell and sit on a wooden bench. I am then faced with the riot squad who file into the cell.

The screw in charge of the riot squad asks me if I have changed my mind regarding the strip-search. Once again, I tell him I won’t be complying with their degrading strip-search.

They shout at you to get up and I stand onto a mat which is situated on the floor in front of me. Two of the screws stand guard at the cell door – one is standing directly in front of me, two stand each side of me, one stands behind me and another stands in the corner and ‘observes’ the strip-search.

The screw standing in front of me grabs me by the face with both his hands while, simultaneously, the two screws each side of me grab my arms and stretch them outright forcing me to stand in a crucifix position. Both my wrists are forcibly twisted and bent backwards, causing extreme pain and discomfort.

I am forced onto my knees. As the screw in front pushes my face into the ground, the screw behind me then pulls both my legs from under me. I am now being held on the ground still in a crucifix position by four screws.

I am forcibly held down with my face pushed into the ground. Both my legs are being held by two screws. My arms are still outstretched with both my wrists twisted and bent in an almost impossible position.

While I am held in this position my jumper is forcefully pulled off and thrown into the corner, my shoes and socks are the pulled off, next my jeans are very forcefully yanked down in a manner, which clearly, is only used to inflict pain on the prisoner. Lastly my underwear is pulled down.

I am now lying on the floor of the cell completely naked, humiliated and degraded. My clothes are lying in the corner of the cell. My face is throbbing, my wrists are aching and, while I am lying there naked, those responsible stand towering above me.

The riot squad then begin to leave the cell one at a time. I am still lying on the ground naked yet they demand that I do not look at them or get up off the ground until they leave the cell

Strip searching of Republican Prisoners has been taking place for decades, Today little has changed despite the advances in technology. The forced strip searching that takes place in Maghaberry today is still brutal, humiliating and very degrading.

I was forcefully stripped between 20-30 times during my internment and other Republican prisoners have endured it many more times. The technology, the BOSS chair, is in the prison and could put an end to this draconian practice, but the prison administration for their own vindictive reasons won’t use it for prisoners entering or leaving the prison.

The second core issue is controlled movement – an examle of how that works is this – You have to press a button for the screws to let you out of the canteen. Then you walk to the slider and step in between the grills. When the screws eventually open the grills you step onto the landing. You are then escorted by up to 3 screws to your cell. If you are staying in your cell the door is slammed behind you and locked. If you are simply getting something from your cell such as a newspaper etc then the screws stand at your door and watch you, then you have to go through the whole process again to get back to the canteen and once again locked in there.

You have to go through the same process if you want to go to the shower or the laundry room. It’s very restrictive and unnecessary.

Then we have the issue of the isolation of republican prisoners. A perfect example of this is the case of Tyrone Republican prisoner Gavin Coyle. Gavin was arrested and jailed in 2011 and he has been held in isolation ever since. Basically that means he is locked in a small cell for 23 hours a day, he has no contact with any other prisoner. During his time in isolation MI5 have made numerous advances and they have failed to break gavins resolve. To lock someone up under those conditions amounts to pshycological torture. If you locked an animal in a small room for 23 hours a day on its own you would find yourself in serious trouble, yet the authorities here can do it unhindered.

there are numerous other issues that stem from being interned such as licenses being revoked and prisoners being denied compassionate bail. Most recently jason ceulmans and DD mc laughlin were denied to attend their kids holy communion and in DDs case he was also refused permission to attend his youngest childs christening, this is simply vindictiveness on the part of the state. No parent should be denied the right to participate in such important events in their childrens lives

Stephen you were granted bail in December 2012, just a few days before christmas. it might seem bizarre but you refused to accept bail and remained in jail. Why did you choose to do that?

its true that i was granted bail and refused to accept it but it should be remembered that the conditions were very draconian. and due to the stringent conditions i refused to accept bail, those conditions included:

a ban on living with partner and child at our home in Newry

i had to reside at least 5 miles outside Newry

a ban on entering newry for any purpose including visits to my doctor, even if notice was given to the PSNI in advance

a ban on attending meetings or other events of a political nature

a strict curfew between the hours of 7pm and 10am

a requirement that i wear an electronic tag

and that i report daily to newtownhamilton PSNI barracks which is a further 12 miles from my bail address

neither i nor my partner drives so seeing each other would have been difficult under those conditions. we wouldnt have had anything like a normal family life. 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.

Stephen your imprisonment has been described as Internment. Can you explain to the listeners what exactly Internment is?

Well i would need to start by explaining the historical context to internment.

‘Internment by remand’ was previously used in the Six Counties by the British state during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. This replaced the process of internment without trial which the British introduced on 9th August 1971 and which lasted until 1975. The use of internment without trial was abandoned by the British due to widespread opposition in Ireland to its use and international condemnation of Britain for the denial of basic legal rights to those detained.

‘Internment by remand’ is merely a more subtle and insidious form of internment. It is not a new invention given that, as a process,

‘internment by remand’ commenced as a planned strategy in the late 1970s.

Britain would claim that this was part of a legitimate legal process as, unlike internment without trial, persons faced charges, court appearances and the possibility of a conviction at trial on some far off future date.

Furthermore, as this strategy of ‘internment by remand’ also involves the prosecution service, the judiciary, and the wider legal system, Britain could respond to critics of the system and deflect justifiable censure by claiming that ‘due process must take its course’.

That, of course, was the illusion.

The reality was that men and women were arrested, charged, remanded in custody, with many being eventually released one year, eighteen months, or two years later when it was found that the charges could not be substantiated.

Nevertheless, the strategy of ‘internment by remand’ allowed to Britain to remove political opponents and key activists for protracted periods of time.

Despite various changes to the legal and judicial system in the Six Counties in recent years, the system of ‘internment by remand’ still continues in use to this day.

Indeed, some of those who were previously critical opponents of ‘internment by remand’ and who represented victims of that process are today integral parts of the prosecution and judicial system which implements this system.

Today it is often said that we live in a better society – ‘a new dispensation – is the phrase often used. Despite all the supposed ‘changes’, many of the old repressive injustices remain including internment, political policing, Diplock courts and ongoing MI5/British military activity.

Almost forty two years have passed since internment in 1971, yet Irish men and women are still being interned at the behest of the British state, arrested by its willing armed forces, including the PSNI, and aided and abetted by their political apologists in Stormont.

And then there are those who were previously politically opposed to ‘internment by remand’ and who were themselves the victims of that process are today remarkably silent on its continued operation in the Six Counties.

Those of us who have been most vocal in opposing these unjust activities and our families, have paid a heavy personal price in the form of constant PSNI harassment, frequent ‘stop and searches’, house raids, assaults, threats, intimidation and, ultimately, the loss of liberty.

Internment was wrong and unjust in previous years and it remains as equally wrong and unjust today.

I would encourage all those that disagree with its continued use to organise and publicly oppose internment in its current form.

How did you feel when you were finally found innocent and aquitted of all the charges?

On the day of the verdict To be honest, I had no idea what way the judge was going to decide.

If i had of been found guily then it would have had severe implications for political activists, and indeed journalists and press photographers It would have meant that anyone with a photo of a police officer could have found themselves facing so-called terrorist charges.

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.

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.

I certainly dont have anything to be grateful to the court for aqquiting me.

You told us earlier that before your arrest you were involved in protesting and campaigning for the Republican prisoners. Are the protests continuing?

yes there are protests and pickets happening on a regular basis across Ireland and scotland. The next one takes place here in Newry on saturday the 28th June at 3pm in monaghan st. it is organised the anti-internment group of Ireland. its also being supported by the IRPWA (Irish republican prisoners welfare association) and they are encouraging all members and supporters to attend. Events like that are vital for the prisoners as it reminds people of what is happening in the prisons. and it generates awareness among the general public

Has your experience made you think about taking a step back from your role in Republican politics? or will you continue with your work?

I certainly wont be taking a step back from my activism. If anything this has strengthened my views and made me more determined to continue with my work in eirigi. It has also 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.

As soon as i was released i immediately re-involved myself with the party and i have taken part in numerous political activities and i have spoken at countless events in Ireland and scotland to spread awareness and highlight the plight of Republican prisoners, and i will be speaking at the protest in Newry on the 28th June and i’ll be speaking in scotland again later in the year.

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.

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