From Long Kesh to working with the Police
Sean Lynch Interview
BY AILEEN MURPHY
7 May 2008
From the Officer Commander of Republican prisoners in Long Kesh to a member of Fermanagh District Policing Partnership, Sean Lynch is perhaps the most visible example of how things have changed in Northern Ireland over recent years.
At 54 years of age Mr Lynch's journey is remarkable.
Going back to his youth, he explains: "I got involved in the Republican movement in the 1970's, more as result of the Civil Rights campaign, injustices, and Bloody Sunday, these events had a major impact on my decision to get involved."
As his involvement grew Mr Lynch went on the run for seven years in Monaghan until he was arrested in 1986: "I was arrested during an operation by a SAS ambush in Roslea, during which Seamus McElwain, an IRA Volunteer, was killed. I was seriously injured, I wasn't found until two hours after the ambush, and very lucky to be alive.," he explains.
Brought before a Diplock Court, Mr Lynch was sentenced to 25 years in jail.
Housed in Long Kesh with Republican prisoners, Mr Lynch served 12 years of his sentence imposed for possession of explosives and a rifle. He was released under the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1988.
During his time in prison, Mr Lynch learnt many of the negotiating skills he would turn to in later life: "During this time, we prisoners had a lot of control over our own lives. And prison issues were resolved through dialogue between the prison leadership and the Republican prisoners' regime."
Turning to the Good Friday Agreement, he explained there was a very close communication between Republican prisoners and the Sinn Féin leadership leading up to, during, and after the negations surrounding the Agreement.
"When it was signed, we didn't know what to think at that time, how it would affect us. It wasn't until a number of months later we knew we would be part of a process of releases.
"We also knew it wasn't about prisoners, but that it was about much more. For instance, our release under the GFA, which was an International Agreement between two governments, and was recognition by the British Government that we were political prisoners. "
Released in October 1998, Mr Lynch turned to mainstream politics: "Prison was a phrase of struggle in my life and getting involved with Sinn Féin was a continuation of that struggle.
"When I got released, I came back to Lisnaskea, this was the first time I was home in 18 years. It was strange after being away for so long. And it does take a while to get used to the ordinary things in life again.
"The changes I noticed then were the lack of harassment, and the saturation of the British Army and the RUC that seemed to have been really toned down. There was also a sense of normality starting to come about."
Working for the last decade with Sinn Féin at all levels, his most high-profile role was as Election Officer for Michelle Gildernew in the Westminster elections.
With a wealth of experience both within Sinn Féin, and as a negotiator, he was a frontrunner when it came to getting involved with policing here.
"Policing, was part of the GFA, it was something we knew we had to deal with. At the end of 2006, the real debate began within Republicanism on the issue. I supported the position of engaging with policing. It was one of the most thorough debates I have ever seen. In the end, over 95 percent of people agreed with the decision.
"It's easy to fight against something, it's much more difficult to get involved in something, shape it, change it and rebuild it," Mr Lynch reflects. "And this is the same in regards to policing.
"We knew the decision would lead to Republicans taking their place on the Policing Board and on local DPP's. You can't take a decision and then back away from it.
To secure his place on the Fermanagh DPP, where he serves as an 'Independent' member, Mr Lynch went through a rigorous interview procedure. He has already attended one private meeting of the DPP, with the first public meeting scheduled for next Wednesday.
Speaking about his appointment, the fluent Irish speaker admits it came with mixed emotions, but he believes it is a move the Party had to make: "Sinn Féin have a mandate to engage in policing, the election of last March was based mostly on the policing position, and the party received overwhelming support."
However, sitting across the table from the police is not all plain sailing: "I do feel some sense of anger, reflecting back on the number of dawn raids and the brutality on my own family and neighbours. Including the fact I was brutalised by members of the RUC while lying in a field in Roslea after the SAS ambush.
"But, at the same time, I know I can't allow my own personal feelings to get in the way of change and progress. And I understand the PSNI have their own difficulties and apprehensions with myself.
"This is a working relationship. Society needs a police service, we are a long way from that yet before the PSNI get the total trust of the nationalist/republican community," he continued.
"I just see it as another stage in the struggle, no different than I was involved in 25 years ago. The tactics are different, probably less dangerous, but the struggle is the same.
"On the DPP, I hope to achieve an end to political policing," Mr Lynch explains. "We have to hold police accountable for their actions. We need a transparent service which polices the entire community."
He is equally forthright in encouraging people to work with the police: "That's what they are there for, it is their job", he stated.
"And if people have issues with crime, then yes, they should bring it to police attention. But people should also hold them to account, because there are numerous times when the police are not fit for purpose. This was a militia who were involved in fighting a war, and that mentality hasn't totally gone away. And one of our jobs is to demilitarise their thinking."
He also encouraged those who are still engaged in violence to stop: "These are a few people out there who belong to micro-groups who do not have the support of the people. They have no support and should desist from their actions."
Asked if he every envisaged himself on the DPP, Mr Lynch explains: "When you join a struggle there are many situations you don't envisage finding yourself in. But in revolution you must be able to adopt to changing circumstances. And while I didn't see myself in this position, it's not a great surprise to me.
"The important point is we are now in government with the DUP, we are now pushing for the last aspects of the policing and justice powers to the Assembly. There are big challenges before us, but they are of a social and economic nature."
Looking to the future, Mr Lynch is confident: "We are in a transitional period, and in my opinion we are moving towards an All-Ireland. The Six-County statelet is a failed entity. I think some Unionists are coming to the same conclusion. Britain is taking less of a role. I don't think they have any key strategic, economic or other interests in this part of Ireland."
Part of his motivation for change is to make things better for the next generation: "I have a 23 year-old son, Ciaran, and that is certainly a motivation. This current leadership are committed to solving the conflict so our children won't have to experience what we went through."
But in some ways the struggle goes on, Mr Lynch explains, not least at making life better for ex-prisoners: "There are still contradictions and anomalies in being an ex-prisoner. We can't go to certain countries, we have difficulties getting mortgages, we can't get certain jobs, we are still barred from the Civil Service. Take for example Conor Murphy or Gerry Kelly: they wouldn't qualify for a job in the lowest aspect of their Department in the Civil Service, yet they are Ministers. These restrictions should be expunged as we were 'political' prisoners.
"It was the 22th anniversary of Seamus McElwain's death last week, and it does bring back to you the realities of the conflict," he concludes softly. "But, the one thing we have to do is exert every effort that we don't ever again slip back into conflict. That's the guiding principle. We've seen what war is like and it's effects and we can't go back there."