- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2003

LONDON, March 16 (UPI) — Irish people around the world celebrate St. Patrick's Day Monday, although many in America will have been imbibing green Guinness for several days since President George W. Bush decided to celebrate Ireland's national day this year in the White House last week.

However, as the Irish diaspora looks home to Ireland, there are up to 3,000 people who want to go home but risk a bullet in the head if they dare to do so. Nearly 700 people were banished in 2001. These are the exiles who have been forced to leave their families in Ireland by the pro-British loyalist and Irish republican paramilitary groups.

The exiles can be split into three groups.

— First, there are "anti-social elements." Apologists argue, with some truth, that "the community" demands their expulsion since many, especially paramilitary godfathers, do not recognize the policing and criminal justice system and they feel entitled to export those who they deem are trouble-makers.

But this excuse is wearing thin now that every major Nationalist group, except Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Catholic nationalist Irish Republican Army, has accepted the new Police Service of Northern Ireland. Indeed, it is highly likely that even Sinn Fein will come to accept the new policing regime.

— The second category includes those who have broken the rules of paramilitary organizations by informing on their activities.

"Touts" — that is, informers to the British and Irish security forces are often cited. But paramilitary prisoners broke society's rules and have been released — and the same principle should extend to informers.

However, even if paramilitary leaders formally lifted their death sentences, these exiles would be wise to take this with a bucket of salt. They remember the fate of an IRA informer, Frank Heggarty whose mother was told personally by the Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness that her son could return safely. Instead, he was tortured and shot in the head by the IRA.

Another informer, Eamon Collins continued to live in a republican stronghold in Newry and was brutally bludgeoned to death by his former colleagues

— The third category includes the ones who have offended those whom the human rights campaigner the Rev. Denis Faul calls the paramilitary "controllercrats". These people face death or expulsion to avoid the "controllercrats" suffering a public affront to their authority.

Their "crimes" have included fights over girlfriends, cards or other such slights to senior paramilitary "volunteers."

A British House of Commons Committee recently produced a hard-hitting report on expulsions. It showed that some people move a few streets away or to other towns within the North but most flee to Britain. Uprooted from their families and friends, exiles often face practical difficulties such as finding a doctor, suitable housing, employment, and schools for their children. Some become suicidal.

By its very nature, being exiled means being isolated. Many victims just keep their heads down and hope to slip home quietly when they have done their time. Some even prefer to be knee-capped rather than sent away from their families.

The exiles are usually out of sight and therefore out of mind. However, the suffering of the exiled is becoming a major national and even international issue.

Part of the deal being negotiated between the British and Irish governments and the Irish republican movement includes provision to waive charges against several dozen fugitives — the "on-the-runs." These include the head of the Sinn Fein political lobby operation in the United States, Rita O'Hare, who is wanted in connection with a shooting.

Politicians from across the spectrum point out the unjust contrast between those IRA veterans on the run from justice and those on the run from the IRA.

A cross-party motion is being tabled in the British Parliament to coincide with St. Patrick's Day and the issue will be raised with Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen at the forthcoming meeting of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body in Kilkenny in the Irish Republic.

Joe Sherlock, a Labor party member of the Irish parliament from Cork, and British Labor Member of Parliament Harry Barnes will unite to ask questions about "people who may have been driven out of Northern Ireland as a result of threats of death or violence from Republican and Loyalist paramilitary organizations."

Sherlock suggests "that it should be a quid pro quo for any arrangement for 'on the runs' that these people should be allowed to return."

The issue of the exiles is also addressed in the unpublished negotiating paper, which has been drawn up by the British and Irish Governments and which is due for release in April.

Once all those who have been expelled secure the right to return home, we will know for sure that the "war" in Northern Ireland is drawing to a close. The exiles' fate is a crucial indicator of normalization.

That is why people who love Ireland and wish it well everywhere should remember the fate of the exiles as they celebrate St. Patrick's Day.

(Gary Kent is a journalist specializing in British and Irish politics.)

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