International Socialists, later styling themselves the Socialist Workers Party (or in Trotskyist terms, “State Caps”) often finished up writing books about the Left in which their superficial student involvement was less than serviceable. One named David Widgery, later a doctor and a bitter Marxist sectarian, not to be confused with his relative Lord Chief Justice Widgery until the SWP should take power on Tibb’s Eve, and dying too soon for that anyway, referred to me in his book as an “ex-boxer and auto-destructive artist”. It wasn’t until afterwards I found he didn’t know his Meltzers from his Metzgers (possibly not even his brewers from his butchers) and was mixing me up with a tiny German in CND, Gustav Metzger, who once fell over a pile of boxes and sat there with them all tumbling on him to gasp “Wunderbar! A new art form!” I wouldn’t say he claimed it was boxing but he did say it was auto-destructive art. Later Gustav gave an exhibition at Zwemmer’s art gallery to be interrupted by a horrified management which found him ripping up the floor with a pneumatic drill. Zwemmer’s clientele, brought up on modern art, thought it a great cultural happening, and their delighted Oohs and Aahs gave way to indignant protests against the unreasonable Philistinism of the art gallery when it was peremptorily stopped.
Not then knowing who Metzger was, I thought at first Widgery was referring to numerous autos of mine that had been smashed up. It made my stomach turn over as that was how Evie had ended her days. Then I reflected he might not have known about that but had heard of all the various young Spanish or other visitors for whom Miguel had borrowed my various cars to drive somewhere, saying it was to save me the trouble, and after the smash that it was the first time the person had driven on the left, or “you know these damn people with their drugs, they make me sick”. I had learned to laugh about it and hope the insurance company would do the same. It would have been appropriate to call it auto-destructive art, but it wasn’t what he was widgerying on about.
At the Old Bailey
To my dismay at the so-called Angry Brigade trial I was called as a prosecution witness. I had no intention of appearing, but consulting defence solicitor Mr Birnberg insisted I should. Apparently the prosecution were afraid Stuart would not go into the witness box, and like Purdie would therefore be acquitted when they were relying on him to break down under questioning (some chance) and supply the evidence they so desperately lacked. Stuart intended going into the witness box, but they were not to know that, and as they could not legally force him to do so, they subpoenaed me instead.
It gave an excellent chance to carry the war into the enemy’s camp, as it were.
As I half expected would happen, one of my least favourite people, Wynford Hicks (whose father-in-law subsequently wrote the rubbishy book saying I was a secret member of the IRA who had hidden in the Common Wealth party to emulate the feats of the Spanish anarchists in sabotaging their own war effort), an acolyte of professional secularist Nicolas Walter, then going through the usual stage of radical alternative journalist as a preliminary to becoming a mainstream one, the minute he got the chance, did not fail to smear and sneer, implying I was ratting. Had he been taken seriously and the allegations glibly made in his circle been true, it could have been a death sentence. He retracted saying he was joking. I am sure his secular confessor would have enjoyed the joke even more had it really happened and he could have drummed up a bit of business for a secular funeral besides.
When I appeared in the vestibule of the court a respectable looking gentleman, looking to me more like a bank manager than a lawyer, came over and shook me warmly by the hand. “I’m so glad you have come, Mr Meltzer,” he said.
I hesitated, thinking him counsel instructed by Mr Birnberg. “I was told not to speak with defending counsel or any of the witnesses,” I said, at which he beamed delightedly, and said, “I’m Inspector Habershon. I’m sure you’ve heard of me”. I felt the way I did years later when I reflected the infant I had kissed might have been the Minister responsible for administering the Poll Tax. At least Sergeant Cremer didn’t shake hands but I knew him from of old. He did say to me at the preliminary hearings that he was glad I was sticking by Stuart, but was afraid it looked bad for him, and he was glad Brenda was loyal. “It’s really tough when your girl friend turns against you,” he said, whether to extract information, or hopefully, I know not. One of the other police said she was the prettiest girl in the court, a compliment she could have done without, but I overheard someone say, with some surprise — whether it was a lawyer or a policeman, given my bad judgment in these matters, I cannot tell — that “you have to hand it to Christie, his friends rally round him”, which seemed to me as much a comment on their circles as on ours.
Only a week before I had gone to try to collect my car from the police depot and found it in a wrecked condition, and as I examined it ruefully a voice came out of a circle of police, “If my best friend did that to my car I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to co-operate with the authorities”. Can one doubt it?
Witness of the Persecution
The trial has been described in Stuart’s book The Christie File (Partisan Press/Cienfuegos Press, 1980). As a witness I wasn’t present for most of it. The Daily Telegraph had a crime reporter based at Scotland Yard (more a PRO than an investigative journalist) named Coughlin who was quite annoyed at my presence. The management never liked to approach me directly on political matters as one of the impositions they suffered under the trade union terror was that they could not discriminate. They did raise with the Father of the Chapel (TU committee chair) the question of whether it was in order for an employee of theirs to be mixed up with a terrorist trial. That particular FOC and I never got on well and he put it to me probably stronger than they had done.
“Are you objecting to my appearing as a witness for the prosecution?” I asked indignantly. Though nothing of an FOC he liked having a go at the management — that was how he finally ousted the friendly and efficient supervisor, who had been there sixty years, whom for years he had been depicting as a tool of the management to the members and as putty in the hands of the staff to the management, and so finally got his job himself.
On the other hand my statement was undeniable if incredible. The management were asked if they really wanted to interfere with justice and nobble the prosecution, and they hastily explained it was a misunderstanding. Coughlin, their drunken court reporter, who won a libel action for being so described but never came on the telephone sober once, objected to my taking his copy, for which the chapel committee hauled him over the coals with the management. Either it was solidarity with me or nobody wanted extra duty, or a bit of both. However, every time thereafter when he had a difference with a copytaker on the telephone (a very frequent occurrence in those days) he asked, “Are you Meltzer?” My reply if I got it, and some others took up (not always truthfully) was “I’m sober, sir — are you?”
The journos like to bemoan the printers who served them so faithfully while they were boozing on their expense accounts and accuse them, now that it is safe to do so, of every fault in the book. Why, the copytakers got paid for hours for sitting doing nothing, and even worked out a scheme for unworked overtime, which passed into Street of Shame legend. Yes, we sat for hours waiting and then the pubs would empty and all the journos would be phoning in their copy at the same time. Mercenaries that we were, we wanted to be paid for the whole day and not just the time when they condescended to pass on the work we and they were paid for doing.
Sometimes the arguments took on another nature. When their top journalist got home, not in a very staid condition, he would put his feet up, relax with a further bevvy, and dictate totally inconsequential copy (which finally we refused to take). On one occasion he asked the copytaker, as a member of NATSOPA (as it then was) what he thought of the copy he had just given, which referred to trade unionists as like “the Nazis in Germany” in their actions.
Unluckily for him, it was me. I explained politely I only took the copy, took no responsibility for anything in it but the spelling, and if he insisted on getting my opinion he would not like it. He did insist. I told him, “It’s bollocks. You don’t even know what a Nazi is.” “What?” he cried indignantly. “I don’t know what a Nazi is? I arrested a Nazi when I was an officer in the War”. (No comment, but I bet he was in uniform). I explained that the Nazis never fomented strikes, they broke them. It was those who advocated this who were supporting their policy. “Ah, but they caused suffering, that’s the point” he said. This was their famed political commentator. It never went in, anyway, though what did go in was bad enough.
The Telegraph writers hated strikes and strikers, except sometimes in their interests. John Izbicki, who having once been a German knew at first hand the difference between real Nazis and honest trade unionists, and that the SS did not go around downing tools was one such. Even he, who got out of Berlin early, might have settled for the pain he suffered from the unions in Fleet Street rather than what could have happened to him at Buchenwald. Though FOC of the NUJ, he used to write denunciations of strikers. I suppose he had to. When the journos went on strike against proposed redundancies, he was standing outside the gates picketing. “This is an official strike,” he abjured our supervisor who was just going in. Later that day I had occasion to ask him if it was still on, and he said it had been settled just five minutes since. “Good,” I said. “You can go back to your desk and finish bashing the miners for going on strike”.
The Old Bailey trial went on for eighteen months, during which the press lost interest. Indeed some friends of the defence wrote to the Guardian to protest at the way it was ignored after the allegations had been made in detail. They could have added that the trials did not stop the actions though the people alleged to be committing them were inside. Having given the sensational police evidence, there was no room for anyone to show how it was all destroyed bit by bit, so the final verdicts came as a bombshell.
I had a couple of days parrying questions and cracking jokes in the witness box. As Christie went in the box, they did not need me, so the prosecution at first only asked if my car was mine. However, the defence counsel, a ringer for Rumpole of the Old Bailey, as lawyers fantasise they would like to be but aren’t, had fun cross-examining me and forcing the other side to do so. The judge asked him once not to lead, and he said, surprised, “He’s not my witness, your Honour”. “Even so,” answered the Judge, who was stretching over backwards to appear be fair. He made only a mild protest when Anna Mendelson was handed a birthday cake in the dock, and mildly protested when Stuart’s barrister was handing sweets around the accused. “They’re nearly all gone, anyway,” he retorted airily, finishing handing them round. But the message came over clear: are these the dreaded terrorists?
The star witness against Christie was a barmaid who, when she read of the enormous reward offered for the capture of a mysterious Scottish anarchist who had been sentenced in Spain to a long stretch and whose name appeared in another paper, recollected that he had sex with her and shown her a gun. She recognised the bullet as one which would fit it. Her evidence was somewhat demolished by the fact that several members of Stuart’s work gang testified to having enjoyed her favours without the need to show firearms but more so when the foreman of the jury arose to ask how it was that a barmaid could recognise a bullet that fitted a particular gun, when he, who had served five years in the Army, would have been unable to do so. The judge explained helpfully that she was from Seattle.
Some indignant citizens of Seattle wrote to the judge to complain that it was not the sort of thing that was common in their town at all. It was not a Wild West film set and it was much safer to travel there at night than it was in London. As a result of these remarks, they said, the fair city was in mourning at the slur put upon it in the highest court of the old country, and demanded a retraction. The judge wrote back apologising, though he didn’t make it public. He said he meant only that the lady was once married to a serviceman from there. He presumably was in the habit of giving her “naming of parts” (firearms drill) every night before retiring and no wonder their marriage broke up. The judge asked how they got to know of his remark, anyway. They did not inform him I had wired the good comrade who was secretary of the local Black Cross and she had alerted some outraged friends, nor what their politics were, if that was what troubled the worthy judge.
I was at work when the verdicts came through, and Christie was found not guilty with three of the others. Everybody round me celebrated at the Albion, even the landlord who didn’t know what we were celebrating and might have had a fit if he did. Stuart’s acquittal was being described that day by Government ministers, TV and radio as one of sorrow and misery for Law, Church and society as we knew it.
Joe Thomas came round from the Guardian to join us. It was the only time I ever saw him so drunk that at the finish he hailed a taxi and walked through one door of it and out the other, paying the mystified driver off, thinking he had completed his journey and was home. Come to think of it, that’s what Fleet Street was for him, and he felt exiled in Farringdon Road or back in his home at Notting Hill.
It was all touched with sadness since while four were acquitted, the four at the Stoke Newington flat went down. I did not know them but they were good fighters. The jury had argued about it for hours. The black juror on it was for the defendants from the first, perhaps knowing that police evidence was not necessarily reliable, while most others were sceptical too, all agreeing there was an element of framing. A politically-liberal member of the jury stood out, however, insisting that just because Christie was framed it did not follow the others were. One had to be fair to the police. The defendants hadn’t even challenged him as he was carrying a copy of the Guardian and he was typically the cause of the compromise. The rest of the jury was sympathetic and asked for clemency. The judge gave them ten years which was his idea of mercy. I shudder to think what his idea of a savage sentence was. As a result Jake Prescott’s sentence got reduced as well on appeal.
Fun and Games in the Gulag
The longest trial this century ended, so far as Stuart was concerned, with one of his minor road offences being brought before the magistrates. They could not endorse his licence as he did not have one. I was asked at the trial if I knew he did not have a licence, and said I had not asked him but with so many high-ranking police officers interested in him and following him constantly, I was entitled to assume they had the interests of the law at heart. Inspector Habershon actually blushed.
A few years later when Stuart’s daughter was born, his reckless driving gave way to caution and it was safe to let him drive one around, though when the police pursuit ceased he gave up such habits as driving up one way streets suddenly to fox the enemy and tried less hazardous way of defying them. Could we reduce road accidents by cutting down police chases to where essential?
After the case he phoned Scotland Yard in response to some inquiry about some personal property they had taken before the hearing. He was put through to one of the detectives who had been questioning him for days. The detective was in an upstairs room. When Stuart came on he recognised his voice and said, “Hallo, John?” “How did you know what number to get through to me?” he asked. “This isn’t even my normal number” — “Oh, I’m in the building opposite. I can see you from here but you can’t see me,” he said breezily, as the panicking detective put the phone down, opened the window and gazed out.
It wasn’t the best way to get his seized papers back, but it was part of the enjoyment he got out of being harassed by the police, which (as Evie had thought all those years ago) was entertaining if you could see the funny side of it. If you dwelt on the other side of it too long, the lengthy imprisonments, the shootings without trial even in so-called democratic countries (both von Rauch and Pinelli, German and Italian secretaries of the Black Cross respectively, had been murdered by police), it savoured but of shallow wit. Stuart had got off lightly with eighteen months in close imprisonment prior to being acquitted of all charges bar proceeding the wrong way on a motorway. He was entitled to a bit of fun in return but I think it aided the terrible picture they passed on through their public relations officers — sorry, the independent, free and democratic British press.
He was found not guilty. Some others were found guilty. It was irrelevant. Nobody did what they were charged as doing. All had been involved in revolutionary struggle. As there were no leaders, someone had to be singled out of one, or as it turned out, two political persuasions. “The angel of death is passing over us all,” a friend said to me at the time. I was the luckiest of all because they wanted to portray “the anarchists” with a caricature brush that never fitted me in the slightest (nor anyone else of us). I would not have fared so well if I’d been Irish and mixed with IRA activists a year or two later.
The Most Distressful Country
This was before the renewed Irish Republican Army campaign caught on and it was that which ended the Angry Brigade, not the imprisonment. Working class opinion swung by and large against individual actions of this nature because theirs was indiscriminate terrorism and the anarchist type was the opposite. The press made it seem it was all one and the same. The “non-violent” and “anti-terrorist” types who criticised the Angry Brigade for its “violence” and “mindless terrorism” went overboard to support the IRA, curious as it may seem. Nationalism made it respectable: it seemed like a real war with a proper structure.
Without going into the matter of the IRA, of which my opinion is worth no more than anyone else who had no involvement with it, they created the climate where Government terror could easily pick up a middle-aged family on the basis of their knowing someone or lending a car or writing an envelope, and give them fifteen years imprisonment sometimes even without asking the forensic expert to pass birdshit off as nitro-glycerine contamination.
As the Angry Brigade hit specific targets, avoided hurting the public, and had a clear aim in mind — namely to wake up the people — but no structure and no membership, it was passed off as “mindless violence”.
The IRA, though a minority within the Northern Irish Nationalist community, itself a minority within the Northern Catholic community, which formed a minority of the Northern working class, and within all Ireland came to a smaller minority still, had a command structure, used military and political terms and hit indiscriminately and caused mayhem and murder. The press could understand this but class issues were “mindless” to them. The IRA wasn’t “mindless” but was regarded as the voice of Ireland struggling under oppression, even by people who said there was none. The Left generally either felt it right-wing to doubt it or went the other way and swallowed British Government propaganda. Even many anarchos — and real ones too, not just pacifists and liberals masquerading — couldn’t resist the discreet charm of bourgeois nationalist phraseology, which destroyed the revolutionary upsurge of the Sixties in Britain and revived, without intending to, religious bigotry dead in the time of Queen Anne.
After the Storm
When the harassment of individuals ceased after the Angry Brigade trials, the media and the academics began sniping at Black Flag, whose editor had been acquitted of all offences except driving the wrong way up a street.
While in jail Stuart had translated Antonio Tellez’s life of Sabater (in Catalan, Sabate), and reviewing the book on its publication the Spectator reviewer, as the voice of scholarly Toryism, commented how perverse it was of the jury to have acquitted Stuart since he clearly was in sympathy and contact with International Anarchism. That summed up why a Government Minister was appalled at his acquittal, but it was not what the charges were. We are not supposed to have political trials in England.
On the other hand, when Miguel Garcia’s book was published, the Tribune reviewer, as the voice of the left of the Labour Party, commented that he deserved all he got, since resistance was illegal in any country, and he should have waited until he could have voted for parliamentary socialism. Perhaps for twenty years in a cupboard, as a Spanish mayor, author of a book they reviewed in favourable contrast at the same time, had done.
In a TV show around this time, it was asked what leading politicos would have done if Hitler had won the war. Nobody admitted they would have collaborated, as they certainly would have done. The Tories would have, according to their account, all killed themselves and their families rather than resist illegally or submit. One supposes the Tribune Group would have advised socialists to hide in the closet until the regime liberalised.
We did have the occasional reasonable interview or sympathetic reference, but most settled themselves down to terror-by-association or plain daftness. Like the Daily Telegraph correspondents, some of whom knew better but in print expressed the view that the anarchists were a mass movement with every young radical in London supporting a bewildering number of causes from Arabism to Zionism, with bookshops galore and magazines sold at every street corner, and a vast array of newspapers at its disposal, like Private Eye and Socialist Worker, with the obscure Freedom the daddy of them all directing operations! History is taken from geeks who write rubbish like this!
The Irish association
However, with the troubles in Ireland hotting up, the IRA was stealing the thunder. At first that did not bother the press coterie at El Vino’s. They cheerfully made the IRA into “anarchists”, from which a later generation of journos deduced that “anarchist” just meant anyone who was against the Establishment. Bad descriptions, like bad money, drive out good. Even one of the Irish Bishops, asked to denounce the activities of the IRA, said that of course if the terror campaign were by “anarchist groups” he would denounce them. The campaign was in the name of patriotism, religion and a new State, all the opposite from anarchism, and the old humbug well knew that but at that stage was sitting on the fence. I answered him in one of the Sundays and for once he became strangely silent.
Eventually some people, even in our movement, came to think that nationalism, the achievement of a Nation State, could be compatible with, lead to or not be opposed to anarchism, the abolition of all States. Strange how Republicanism got back its old radical image in one country at least, when for years it had been the party of conservatism, and remained so everywhere except in the United Kingdom and at one time Spain. Many radical-minded people went down the path of thinking there was a popular movement in Ireland rising against British Imperialism.
I had a trip round the Republic, which diehard Tories and Republicans refused to admit existed but took pains to describe as that contradiction in terms, a Free State. I can only say in every bar I visited as soon as a London accent was heard people asked what they were up to in the North. I heard an earnest English leftie explain to an incredulous Cork pub it was a struggle for national liberation and an expression of the people’s will, but I don’t think he convinced any people around.
As for the Continent, in Cologne I found the lefties patronised a Guinness bar “in sympathy with the Irish struggle” (not understanding Guinness was the pillar of the Anglo-Irish Establishment, if the comfort of its opponents). When the Irish Government condemned a woman to death almost every British Embassy in Europe was picketed, and British diplomats must have had a great time pointing out smugly that there was no death penalty in the United Kingdom and they were knocking on the wrong door. When an Austrian feminist group picketed the right Embassy, that of the Irish Republic, in protest against the proposed hanging of a woman an official asked them cynically “But isn’t equality what women’s liberation is all about?”
This epitomised the hypocrisy of the Irish Republic. Its unfairness and the subsequent relentless perversion of justice and absence of any mercy whatsoever, shown in the case of the Irish anarchists and the Murrays, makes mincemeat of the rightful claim echoed by many subsequent Irish politician that “no Irish person can obtain justice in the United Kingdom” with the false corollary that they could obtain it in the Republic, or at least could get it there if only it had six more counties.
It revived in the Seventies with the activism of a few men and women in the South. They felt Ireland’s social problem were ignored. The parties were still polarised as to which side they had been on in the Civil War. Every question was answered by an appeal to nationalism and past oppression. Every political assessment was countered by demands as to what one (or, as time went by, one’s father, grandfather, or great-grandfather) had done in 1916. Every solution for social ills was solved by religious diktat or by buying a boat train ticket. When the campaign in the North began again and Catholics and nationalists wanted a degree of freedom, this was something that did not exist in the South with which they wanted union.
There had not before been an active Irish anarchist movement. Though the syndicalist movement had at one time made inroads, and there were many Irish anarchists throughout the English-speaking world, and even beyond, these got introduced to anarchist thought through socialism and therefore after leaving Ireland. A few of an earlier generation, like Louisa Conroy and Mat Kavanagh, or many of mine, returned to Ireland, but soon left for a freer atmosphere in which they could at least express their thoughts and where one could fight for liberation from rather than of the State.
In Northern Ireland the nationalist and religious tensions dominated and though there are a few anarchists there, they have got caught up in them. But in the late Sixties a group within Dublin moved from the nationalist and socialist attitudes of left wing republicanism to anarchism. It came as a surprise to Irish politics where the bogey of “anarchist violence” was even more virulent than in countries either where an anarchist movement had existed or where political questions were not habitually argued with dynamite.
One of the results of the press caricature of bomb-throwing anarchism, whether deliberately intended or not I do not know, is that it has always made it difficult to reject the image without appearing to fall into the opposite trap of pacifism or parliamentarism. It is obviously sometimes necessary to use violence, since laying down a code that says one may not use it in any circumstances leaves one helpless against attack. Everyone except an extreme pacifist would admit this, yet a different standard is laid down up for anarchists. It seems the official line, certainly the judicidal view, is they must either be believers in “mindless violence” or woolly-minded idealists, so-called “non-violent anarchists” or “violent” ones, as if 99.9 per cent recurring of the population were neither ultra-pacifists nor mad axe-wielders.
The Irish anarchist resistance group conformed in most respects to the resistance tactics followed by the Angry Brigade, the Spanish Resistance, the First of May Group. Like them it never took life intentionally and directed its activism against property. It was thus quite out of step with the tradition of Irish patriotic politics which set out to kill as a means of persuasion and until lately in the North respected property rights. It may seem cynical to say that this is why it raised more horror and alarm in the Republic than the entire IRA bombing campaign throughout its history to that date, but such was to prove the case.
I myself was always sceptical about the idea of bank robberies to raise “funds” on purely pragmatic grounds. In most cases it seems to me that all they do at best is to raise money, which is a different matter. Crime is a business like any other, sometimes it is anti-social, sometimes it is merely illegal. Any gainful occupation, legitimate by State standards or not, brings in money. One needs it to live without dependence. I earned my living in a lie factory and couldn’t feel squeamish about any other way. Had I the nerve I might have earned my living in hold ups. Either way I would have given a large part of my income to what I believed in, like a great many others. People in the Spanish Resistance came in both categories, as did those within the International Revolutionary Solidarity Movement. Those into almost full-time active resistance sometimes financed themselves by bank robbery, usually they were in orthodox working practices. I am sceptical as to whether crime pays much, but what I do know is that when the average honest working person goes into crime it does not pay, because they have not the ruthlessness which professional crime and professional business both need.
When the Irish resistance group had carried out a number of spectacular attacks such as those on the American and Spanish embassies, they turned to raising money by armed bank robbery, influenced by the whole record of diehard anti-State resistance which the Irish establishment enshrined as part of the national myth. They were heroic but unlucky and by the chance that inevitably accompanies such circumstances were arrested and jailed. How the Irish press howled for vengeance as a few young people were taken into custody and given savage sentences for a few illegal acts that did not entail killing. Never mind the IRA, these were self-confessed Anarchists! In Dublin! How terrible!
The group who were arrested were charged with bank robberies, but nonetheless tried by a juryless court and confined in a military barracks reserved for political prisoners, though denied political status. Noel Murray jumped bail and he and his wife carried on the struggle.
Noel and Marie Murray had collected money for the Black Cross (quite legally — some of it was stolen by the Government when they were arrested) and so I knew them. I could have found them asylum if they had chosen to escape, as was easy at first provided they could get through the “Berlin Wall” of English Customs. I arranged a place for them to stay and work in Paris. It would have been hard for the Irish authorities to ask for extradition since they themselves ostensibly opposed it in far less overtly political cases than this.
The plan was crushed by Noel and Marie themselves. Noel wrote that he did not think revolutionaries should leave their own country in this fashion, having regard to the consequent ineffectiveness to that country by thousands who had done so. In the course of another bank raid, a plain clothes policeman intervened. Marie, blind as a bat without her recognisable thick glasses, and having dropped her unaccustomed lenses, fired and accidentally killed him.
Taken to a station, Noel and Ronan Stenson, arrested with them, were beaten and tortured so badly that Ronan was not in a fit state to be charged next day. It was a stroke of luck for him, as he was freed. Marie, in the next cell, confessed to the killing to get the police to stop beating Noel, pointing out the two had not been concerned in her careless act.
Noel and Marie were charged with capital murder (murder of a policeman, as distinct from that of anyone rated much lower in the free and equal republic). Both were sentenced to be hanged (June 1976), but Noel’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Worldwide protests were caused by the death sentence on Marie, who had accidentally shot a policeman in plain clothes. Even Jean-Paul Sartre came to Dublin to protest at the sentence. The hypocritical Conor Cruise O’Brien, the English establishment’s greatest living Irishman, stammered apologies for his government to hostile audiences in France. Finally the sentence on Marie was also changed to life imprisonment.
Conor Brady, writing in the Irish Times (10 December, 1976), not only named the “Anarchist connection” but the Black Cross specifically, finishing his peroration with the statement that “undoubtedly Noel Murray started out as an idealistic young man. The question is at what stage did he trade in his principles of peaceful protest and take up guns? And perhaps more important, who gave him the guns and taught him how to use them?”
So blinded with State humbug was Mr Brady that he never realised you could be idealistic without being nationalistic, and that Government and Opposition politicians were still trading on reputations built on taking up guns, robberies and violence. Long before they were released they saw men convicted of deliberate multiple murders, having served a portion of their sentences, go free with enhanced glamour and become distinguished politicians. Some of them renounced membership of the IRA and got remission that way, but those who had not belonged to it could not do so.
For eighteen years, neither Noel, who had not shot anyone, nor Marie, the longest serving woman prisoner in the Republic, and a person of considerable talent, had a day’s concession or the slightest consideration, despite the fact that even the warders spoke highly of them both. For all that time they were not allowed a day out even for medical reasons. Ludicrously, Marie’s letters to a relative in her native Irish were disallowed as in a country which had adopted it as the official language there were no warders who could read it for censorship purposes.
In one thing Conor Brady was right. It was part of a general anarchist struggle which included the International Revolutionary Solidarity Movement, First of May Group and the Angry Brigade and had waves everywhere. Actions in favour of their release included occupation of the Aer Lingus offices in London, demonstrations in Australia and all over Europe, and to no avail.
The Irish Republic was deaf to pleas for justice or even mercy. Yet it granted remission of sentence regularly to those who, for nationalist reasons, took life deliberately, even on a multiple scale. It has wept crocodile tears over the English Establishment having kept people guilty of mass murders five, ten or fifteen years in jail. It has wrung its hands in indignation when miscarriages of justice have occurred in English courts, swayed by confessions obtained by torture and juries stirred by press incitement in the mainland, or by juryless courts in the North. But juryless courts, swayed by political motivation, corruption and hostile press propaganda, continue in both North and South Ireland.
There can hardly have been a single leading member of the Irish Establishment to whom I did not write over eighteen years pleading the case of the Murrays, and though in the last two years of their private hell they asked for demonstrations to desist in view of the light at the end of the tunnel, I had just posted off my latest and last petition when I heard they were released quietly one Saturday.
I have never had any pride in dealing with people in authority whom I despised. If I thought it would help those condemned to the prison cell and the new inquisitors had asked me to walk round in my shirt, with ashes on my head and holding a candle in vicarious penitence I would have done so, but those days were over, if not the intolerance which demanded it. I felt as if I had bathed in muck and needed to shower after writing this type of letter especially after addressing the scum of the earth as “the Honourable so-and-so”, but I made it a weekly penance for years.
When I worked on the night shift, usually quiet after one in the morning, and others dozed off peaceably, I would be writing slavishly until four. Perhaps they didn’t all land in the trash. Maybe even today somewhere in some country some ex-Minister or retired civil servant gets a kick out of reading my fawning requests for clemency for someone or other. At least they weren’t for myself. Now and again they actually worked, even with military dictatorships. But never in Eire.
On the Murrays, sometimes I wrote in my name, sometimes in that of another. I got one reply from the Roman Catholic Primate of Ireland, Cardinal O Fiaich, who had intervened in the case of Republican prisoners in the North, and been denounced (always in the anglicised version of his name, Cardinal Fee) in the English press for doing so. The spelling varied to the Irish O Fiaich when his statements pleased them. The reverend cynic informed me that he did not seem to have any luck dealing with prisoners of the English government and did not expect he would have, or would try for, any better luck in dealing with those of the Irish government. He suggested I use my “influence” with “my” government, as his efforts had failed! His influence with the Irish government was supreme, his influence with the British Government at least not to be overlooked. My influence with any government was about equal to his with any God.
I am notorious in my small circle for writing amusing letters to friends and acquaintances, and hope I kept some spirits up in prison, but even if the authorities had not refused to let my letters get through to the Murrays I could never be amusing in a correspondence with them. Time and again we thought we had seen light at the end of the tunnel but to no avail. I do not think the Republic broke their spirit but it broke my heart. Every one who came in contact with them, whether class enemies or not, even the very warders, even the woman lawyer who represented them and subsequently became President of Ireland, said what fine people they were. Yet while the Government that imprisoned them insisted on a higher standard of justice and clemency from its neighbour, it resolutely set its mind against either fairness or mercy in this case. I wish them luck and a family now they are out.