A unionist politician has said that dissident republican prisoners had been among those participating in sinister paramilitary-themed parades to mark the 1916 Rising.
Adrian Cochrane-Watson pledged to contact the Justice Minister and the Prison Service with a string of questions concerning temporary leave granted to the prisoners, dubbing the episode an “insult to the entire community”.
The UUP Assembly candidate also questioned why dissident republicans – who often claim not to recognise the validity of the prison system – are allowed to “milk” the concessions which it offers, such as applications for home release.
He said that the six prisoners in question – all with dissident-linked convictions, rather than being held on remand – had been released over the Easter period.
He learned this from three prison guards who had visited him last Thursday with their concerns.
They had told him that some of the prisoners were heard “boasting” afterwards of having been at 1916 commemorations.
These included ones at Coalisland, where police are investigating alleged breaches of Parades Commission determinations after men in military fatigues paraded through the town on March 27.
Another location attended was Lurgan, where masked men in camouflage uniforms paraded on March 26. The PSNI has said it is investigating an “un-notified” parade in the town.
Mr Cochrane-Watson (who was MLA for South Antrim before the Assembly dissolved) said that five of the prisoners were from Roe House, and one from Foyle House – both in HMP Maghaberry.
“These guys had come back and were having a great time, and boasting of their antics while on leave,” said Mr Cochrane-Watson.
He said the prison officers understood that their attendance at these events saw the convicts participate, and not just spectate.
The officers had expressed “revulsion” over the affair, which involved “the same convicted terrorists who laughed and joked” after Adrian Ismay – a long-serving prison officer – was murdered in a bomb attack on March 4.
Mr Cochrane-Watson believes that the period of leave taken by the prisoners covered Thursday, March 24, to Tuesday, March 29.
He demanded to know who authorised the leave, what restrictions were placed on prisoners, and what sanctions are available to prison authorities for anyone found to have breached them.
“The big thing for them is that they don’t conform,” said Mr Cochrane, referring to the dissidents held in jail – some of whom have engaged in vile so-called “dirty protests” and other acts of disobedience.
“Yet they’re still getting every benefit the system has to offer.”
When Mr Cochrane-Watson’s claims were put to the PSNI, they said that it was a matter for the Department of Justice (DoJ).
The DOJ said: “Prisoners coming to the end of their sentences can apply for periods of pre-release home leave. With the exception of the pre-planned Christmas scheme, these periods of home leave can take place at any time throughout the year.”
Asked whether any of the prisoners had specifically requested leave for the purpose of attending commemorations, or what restrictions were in place for those granted home leave, the DoJ said: “The Prison Service will not be providing information in relation to individual prisoners.”
Finlay Spratt, a long-serving prison officer and chairman of the Prison Officers’ Association in Northern Ireland (representing about 1,350 staff) said he was not aware of the matter specifically, but added: “I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised”.