“Political Prisoner” is a term to conjure with, a term that demands headlines. But woe to the campaign which tries to exploit this term’s unique resonance where the media finds the cause in question unfashionable. Martin Corey (pictured, left) was this week released after nearly four years in which he was detained in Maghaberry prison without trial, a detention affirmed by a tribunal hearing closed evidence against him with his interests controversially protected by a Special Advocate. His challenge to this detention reached the UK Supreme Court (and may yet be heard before the European Court of Human Rights). And yet, outside Northern Ireland his case is almost unknown. In a particular indignity, the Irish Times reported his latest Court defeat in December, but has yet to report his release. Stories about dissident republicans mustn’t sell enough papers.
This lack of interest brought a note of farce to the elaborate steps taken by the NI Prison Service to conceal Corey’s release from the media. On word that a single camera crew had arrived at Maghaberry to cover the release, Corey was whisked off in a prison van for a secret assignation with his solicitor at nearby Moira railway station. The thwarted BBC news team must have been particularly aggrieved, for these machinations received higher billing on the evening news than almost any other aspect of the four-year saga.
So, despite social media campaigns and repeated demonstrations by Corey’s supporters in Lurgan and Belfast, why the general apathy towards his case? Corey was originally sentenced to life imprisonment in 1973 for his part in the murder of two RUC officers. In 1992 he was freed on licence, only to be returned to prison fully 18 years later in April 2010. Received wisdom (as voiced in the UK by tabloid newspapers) holds that “life doesn’t mean life”, but prisoners released from a life sentence only regain their liberty under licence. Corey was therefore able to be recalled to prison when the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Shaun Woodward, persuaded a Parole Commissioner that it is in the public interest to do so (in Northern Ireland, the relevant provisions are found in the Life Sentences (Northern Ireland) Order 2001). This recall was reviewed by a panel of Commissioners in 2011 and upheld. The review, however, was in part conducted on the basis of confidential material from the Security Services denied to Corey and his legal representatives, and hence the human rights controversy.
In the open portion of their decision the Parole Commissioners were satisfied that Corey was in a position of leadership within the Continuity IRA at the time of his detention. Under procedure closely related to that employed in Control Order cases, Corey was only informed of the gist of the closed portions of the case against him. He claimed that this was not a sufficiently robust procedure by which to remove his liberty to satisfy the requirements of the European Convention. The first judge to hear this claim agreed with Corey’s contention that he had not received sufficient information for him to be able to mount a defence, but on appeal both the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal and the UK Supreme Court sided with the Government. In the words of Lord Chief Justice Morgan (at ):
In each of these instances we have focused upon the ability of the special advocate to refute the allegations in light of the instructions given to him. A denial by the detainee that a meeting occurred or that a topic was discussed addresses a specific allegation and is quite different from the denial of a general allegation such as membership of an organisation. Although it is not necessary to our decision we note that the special advocate who saw all of the material and made extensive submissions on it having correctly identified the legal principles did not take issue with the gisting process.
The UK Supreme Court denied permission to appeal on this point (making the issue it dealt with, in the words of Lord Kerr at , “academic”, and hardly a basis for excited reporting). Much of the judgments in the case were devoted to efforts to limit the impact of the Court of Human Rights in James v United Kingdom (which has caused considerable political controversy in the UK over the nature of indeterminate sentences for public protection). Indeed, it is impossible to read the UK Supreme Court decision without feeling that Corey’s case was simply a Trojan Horse allowing the judges to challenge the position of the European Court.
In these circumstances, it could be said that Corey’s release this week came somewhat out of the blue. The Parole Commissioners must have reasoned that the public protection issues live when they reviewed the case in 2011 were no longer sufficiently pressing to warrant Corey’s incarceration. That decision does not mean that the Commissioners are under-playing the threat from dissident Republican terrorism (as Ulster Unionist Justice Spokesperson Tom Elliot has been eager to claim) but that the danger said to be posed by Corey himself is not sufficiently pressing.
But there is a sting in the tail to the release. Corey’s release conditions include a term forbidding contact with the media. Whilst he has not yet tested this provision in the hours since his release (it seems reasonable to suspect that the thought of again being recalled to Maghaberry would have a sobering impact on anyone), this peculiar requirement seems unenforceable in light of Corey’s freedom of expression under the European Convention. This is a qualified right, and there may be valid security justifications for preventing him from contacting particular individuals (there are also terms restricting his return to Lurgan). But a general injunction in talking to any media outlet appears plainly disproportionate to any justification for this restriction on his rights. Access to the media by those subject to criminal sanctions, and seeking to expose potential miscarriages of justice, has long been carefully guarded by the UK’s courts.
Moreover, Corey’s restrictions can be likened to the bail conditions initially imposed on Loyalist flag protestor Jamie Bryson, which included a ban on giving press interviews. This ban was imposed because of his leadership role in the flag protests, amid police claims he would use media appearances to stoke further unrest. But these restrictions were lifted last November by district judge Fiona Bagnall. They could not be reconciled as proportionate to the supposed threat, especially as any effort by Bryson to use such interviews to incite violence could be the basis for criminal charges. The irony remains that by imposing such restrictions the Parole Commissioners have given Corey’s case a lustre it had previously been denied. Today’s Belfast Telegraph has devoted an editorial to Corey’s release and the media restrictions. It seems that, if you want the press to sit up and take notice of a case, tell them they can’t cover it.