SDLP leadership backs rally for release of dissident paramilitary

Tony Taylor, pictured in 2007, had become involved with the Republican Network for Unity in recent years
Tony Taylor, pictured in 2007, had become involved with the Republican Network for Unity in recent years

A statement criticising the detention of a violent dissident republican has been issued on behalf of the SDLP leadership, ahead of a rally in support of him this weekend.

An SDLP representative is to address Sunday’s gathering in Londonderry, which is being staged in protest at the ongoing imprisonment of Tony Taylor, a veteran republican with bomb and gun convictions.

Pleas to release him have been made since his licence was revoked by the secretary of state last spring.

Campaigners have claimed his ongoing detention is unfair, and recruits to his cause have included Catholic priest Father Paddy O’Kane and IRA leader-turned-politician Martin McGuinness.

At the time he was returned to jail last year, the SDLP backed a vote at a meeting of Derry City and Strabane District Council calling for his release.

That move was attacked by DUP councillor David Ramsey, who suggested the SDLP was “moving into supporting violence” – something strongly rejected by SDLP councillor Brian Tierney.

The SDLP has since continued to signal concern about his case.

A recent review of his case determined he should remain in custody and now, in an apparent escalation of public support for Taylor from the SDLP, Mr Tierney – the party’s whip on the council – is to give a speech at Sunday’s rally for Taylor (which begins with a march at 2.30pm, ending at the Guildhall).

Speaking to the News Letter ahead of the event, he said: “I have met with Tony Taylor whilst he’s been in prison. I’ve met several times with his wife Lorraine. I’m also a member of the campaign team [the Free Tony Taylor campaign].

“All of that work is being run by the party; I’m only a representative. I feed back all the information that I’m receiving. The party are giving me direction for the work that I’m doing here locally.”

He said the party leadership is “providing me with advice” about the campaign.

The News Letter then asked the SDLP’s central press office what precisely the party leadership’s position is on the Tony Taylor campaign, and the extent of its involvement.

It responded by noting that Mr Tierney will be at the rally, adding: “The SDLP believes that this is an issue of unfair process and detention.

“The right to a fair trial is a civil rights issue and as the party of civil rights, the SDLP will not shy away from challenging the ill treatment of any citizen.”

Taylor was given an 18-year sentence some time in the mid-1990s in relation to an explosion in Londonderry (the details of which remain unclear, because the Department for Communities has stated his court file cannot be disclosed until 2019).

He was freed in 1998 under the Good Friday Agreement, and his licence term for this crime has since expired.

However, he was then detained in 2011 accused of possessing a semi-automatic rifle, before finally pleading guilty in 2014 and being sentenced to three years in jail and five on licence.

Mr Tierney reiterated to the News Letter that he fully rejects violence, adding that he would take the same stance on Taylor’s detention if he were a loyalist.

He said any evidence supporting his reincarceration should be presented in open court, allowing it to be challenged.

He added: “To date, Tony Taylor and his legal team haven’t had that opportunity.”