BY CANDACE WAGNER AND JAMES McFADDEN
PHILADELPHIA - "We are celebrating tonight our defiance, our resistance against the ongoing injustices in Northern Ireland," declared Oistin MacBride to 300 supporters of John McNicholl, an Irish worker facing deportation.
MacBride then called for a moment of silence for Irish attorney Rosemary Nelson, assassinated by a pro-British loyalist death squad the previous week. The March 21 event at the Philadelphia Irish Center raised funds for McNicholl's legal fees.
An activist in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, McNicholl was framed for the July 1975 shooting death of Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officer Robert McPherson in Dungiven, Northern Ireland. He escaped Long Kesh prison in Belfast in 1976 after being jailed there for only a few months. McNicholl, who works as a pipefitter, has resided in the Philadelphia area for the last 12 years. His wife and three children are U.S. citizens.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) began deportation proceedings against McNicholl in 1995. He was charged with "entry without inspection." Later the INS added a charge of terrorism. A six-day deportation trial was held in February 1999. The judge said he will rule on McNicholl's case by September 1.
Prior to the scheduling of the deportation trial, it appeared to McNicholl's supporters that he might get a reprieve. The British government had declined a U.S. government request to seek the man's extradition.
Deportation proceedings have been suspended against six other Irish nationalists living in the United States, and bail was granted to three others who escaped from Long Kesh prison in 1983. But the INS in Philadelphia has proceeded with McNicholl's case.
British army and RUC officers testified against McNicholl during his deportation trial, including RUC sergeant William Elliott, who was wounded in the 1975 gun battle and claims to have identified McNicholl from a lineup. According to the RUC inspector who organized the lineup, McNicholl, who had been tortured and not allowed to bathe since his arrest, was placed at a specific spot in a room, disheveled, and without shoes. Nineteen other men, all of them taller than McNicholl, were also present when Elliott "identified" the supposed gunman.
"I wonder how long it took them to find the Catholic with no shoes on," remarked Jack Worrall of the Federation of Irish Societies, who attended the deportation trial. "Elliott's description fits that of another man who has admitted his part in the Dungiven incident. It does not fit John Eddy McNicholl."
When McNicholl took the stage at the event in his honor, he thanked many for their continuing support, including his union local. McNicholl described the years-long siege of his parent's home in Northern Ireland by the British army and the RUC before his arrest in the 1970s. The house was searched dozen's of times, 38 times in one month, six times one day. Helicopters regularly buzzed the house. Several times his mother was awakened to find armed British soldiers in her bedroom.
McNicholl explained at his deportation trial that the RUC cops tortured and threatened to charge the elderly man who owned the farm where McNicholl was seized with weapons possession and other crimes. To gain the other man's freedom, the Irish nationalist signed a "confession."
"In 1969 John was 17. That year he decided to join the Civil Rights Association in his town of Derry," explained MacBride to McNicholl's supporters, "to do something about the economic apartheid that we lived under." MacBride, also a native of Derry, is a photo journalist living presently in New York City.
During the deportation trial McNicholl's supporters packed the courtroom and held a picket line outside. The fight received front-page coverage in the main daily here, the Philadelphia Inquirer.
"John can not be sent back," stated MacBride. "You each have the ability to make sure it doesn't happen. Every one of us is a weapon to assure that we get freedom, justice, and peace in our country."
Information on the case can be accessed on the web at http://members.aol.com/johnmcn3/john.htm
Candace Wagner is a member of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees.
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