12 March 2006

Kidnap finally catches up with Sinn Fein warrior priest

Sunday Times

PROFILE ‘Bic’ McFarlane
March 12, 2006

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usOn the run immediately after the 1983 Maze prison break-out, Brendan “Bic” McFarlane and other IRA escapees took over an isolated farmhouse near Dromore, Co Down, and held its occupants hostage. After checking radio news bulletins for reports of the escape, McFarlane and his gang gathered a few useful items for their night-time trek on foot across the border.

Before he left, the IRA commanding officer in the Maze and the brains behind the break-out wrote and signed a list of the items he had taken — a map and a compass among them. McFarlane told the family to bring the list to Sinn Fein headquarters in Belfast, where full compensation would be paid.

Earlier that day, the escapees had shot a prison officer in the eye and stabbed another in the chest. The man later suffered a heart attack and died. It was the biggest prison break-out in British history, but hadn’t gone entirely to McFarlane’s plan, although 38 IRA men had managed to break free from what was supposedly the most heavily fortified prison in Europe.

By the time McFarlane’s gang arrived at the Dromore farmhouse, roadblocks were being erected throughout Northern Ireland and RUC helicopters were circling overhead. It seemed almost farcical that McFarlane should fret over taking a few pounds worth of possessions belonging to his hostages, who included two small children and a baby, for whom the trauma of being held captive by terrorists surely vastly outweighed the loss of a map or compass.

McFarlane was in the Maze serving five life sentences for the 1975 bombing of the Bayardo bar on the Shankill Road, in which five Protestant civilians died. What made the attack particularly horrific was that those who had tried to escape the explosion had been machine-gunned by the terrorists.

Although the IRA has now stood down and decommissioned, McFarlane is facing more time. Last week the Supreme Court in Dublin decided that he should stand trial for the kidnapping of the supermarket executive Don Tidey in December 1983. Tidey was taking his 13-year-old daughter to school when he stopped at what he believed to be a garda checkpoint. A gun was put to his head and he was bundled into a waiting car. A few days later his photograph was sent to Associated British Foods, and this was followed by a phone call demanding a IR£5 million ransom.

The gardai eventually tracked Tidey and his kidnappers — four in all — to Derrada Wood in Ballinamore, Co Leitrim. In the subsequent shoot-out, a trainee garda and a soldier were killed. Tidey’s kidnappers escaped.

McFarlane was arrested in Amsterdam two years later, extradited to Northern Ireland and released on parole from the Maze in 1997. He was then charged with Tidey’s kidnapping, but challenged this on the basis that gardai had lost a number of exhibits containing fingerprints — the central evidence in the case. The Supreme Court ruled last week that the trial can proceed — paving the way for a fascinating case involving one of the IRA’s most notorious figures.

McFarlane was born in 1951 and grew up in the Catholic Ardoyne area of north Belfast. His family was deeply religious and he served as an altar boy at the local church. At 17 he joined a missionary school in Wales to begin his studies to become a priest.

According to Fr Aidan Troy of Holy Cross in Ardoyne, in another world he would indeed have been Fr McFarlane. Troy has worked with him on several occasions over the past few years since McFarlane’s release from prison.

“He’d be a big figure in the area, to put it mildly,” he said. “On a personal level I find him amazingly respectful to me. During the Holy Cross protest he was a very affirming presence. He was always very calm.”

Fr McFarlane never got to hear confessions, however. Returning home in the summer of 1969, McFarlane decided his community needed guns more than they needed God, and he joined the IRA.

For his role in the Bayardo bar bombing, McFarlane was sentenced to a minimum of 25 years. He earned the nickname Bic, after the pen maker, because he took notes during IRA meetings in the Maze. In 1978, McFarlane made his first attempt to escape, dressed, not surprisingly, as a priest. The bid failed, McFarlane’s “special category” status was withdrawn, and he joined the dirty protest in the H-blocks.

McFarlane’s cell was next to Bobby Sands’s, then officer commanding of the IRA in the prison. In March 1981, when Sands began his hunger strike, he gave his job to McFarlane. Asked why, Sands is said to have replied: “Because you will let me die.”

Last year Richard O’Rawe, another former prisoner, revealed that four days before the fifth of 10 hunger strikers died, the IRA was offered a deal by the British in which the “underlying substance” of their demands were conceded. In his book Blanketmen, O’Rawe suggests that the deal was rejected by the IRA leadership in order to ensure the victory for Owen Carron in the Fermanagh/South Tyrone by-election caused by Sands’s death. O’Rawe’s book caused a huge spat with McFarlane, who said no such deal had been offered.

McFarlane’s role in the hunger strike brought him into contact with Gerry Adams, who was in charge of communicating IRA Army Council decisions to the prisoners. Since then McFarlane has been unwaveringly loyal to the Sinn Fein leader.

Two years after the hunger strikes ended, with no concessions and no deals, McFarlane was still the officer commanding at the Maze as the prisoners staged a mass break-out. He used a food delivery van to sneak 38 men out past 40 prison officers and 28 alarm systems. Fifteen were caught in the vicinity of the prison, four were captured the following day, 19 got away, with three never being recaptured.

McFarlane was arrested in Holland alongside Gerry Kelly, now a North Belfast MLA. They successfully fought extradition for more than a year, but were then sent back to Northern Ireland to serve the remainder of their sentences.

Just a month before his arrest in 1998 by gardai, McFarlane had been pictured shaking hands with the Irish president, Mary McAleese, also from Ardoyne. His capture was criticised by Sinn Fein, who described it as “deeply unhelpful”.

The gardai are basing the Tidey charges on items recovered from the kidnap site, including a milk carton and a plastic container, on which fingerprints were discovered. Although the items went missing from garda headquarters during renovation work, the fingerprints had been photographed and a forensic analysis done.

While the eight-year legal wrangling over the Tidey case proceeded, McFarlane returned to “civilian” life in Ardoyne. He is married with three children, and has formed a band, Tuan, which is a regular on the republican entertainment circuit.

Sinn Fein describes him as a voluntary worker, and he has been a vocal supporter of the party’s political stance, appearing beside both Adams and Kelly at rallies and reiterating former prisoners’ support for the direction the party is taking.

Still, many found McFarlane’s contribution to the 2001 Sinn Fein ard fheis revisionist, if not downright hypocritical. He made a rousing speech denouncing sectarian violence, without mentioning he had done time for bombing a Protestant bar and machine-gunning the customers as they tried to escape.

Anthony McIntyre, a vocal critic of the Sinn Fein leadership, praises McFarlane despite disagreeing with his politics. “He doesn’t ostracise you the way other people in the party do,” McIntyre said. Despite this popularity in his own community, McFarlane has never sought election. More than Kelly or Martin McGuinness, he would be a hate figure for most unionists.

Sinn Fein says that even if he’s convicted of the Tidey kidnapping, McFarlane is covered under the terms of the Good Friday agreement and should be released within two years. But despite his loyalty to the party, McFarlane must regret Sinn Fein’s recent rejection of an “on the run” amnesty offered by the British and Irish governments. If enacted, it would have meant McFarlane getting a presidential pardon, courtesy of the woman with whom he so controversially shook hands, Mary McAleese.

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