The Law of the Baseball Bat

[This is an article I wrote back in 1998 after meeting Tony Friel and Mickey Donnelly and hearing their stories. It was published on a couple of websites back then but since none of the sites are currently operational, I have republished it here. It is the same article as I wrote back in 1998, though I did take the liberty to break up a few of the paragraphs. –Jackie]

Friday, 10 July, 1998

Many Irish republicans have recognized the inherent flaws in the so-called Irish “peace process” and have presented an alternative perspective on the “Good Friday Agreement”. The Irish Republican Socialist Party, Republican Sinn Fein, and the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, although they differ ideologically in certain respects, all are republican political organizations. They have all publicly opposed the Agreement and encouraged Irish people to vote “no” and oppose it in the referendums that were to approve or discard the terms of this Agreement.

There are many who have dared to question the willingness of fellow republicans in Provisional Sinn Fein to participate in a governmental body that legitimizes partition and to cooperate with the British imperial presence in Ireland. Because of their political opposition, two men in Derry City were severely beaten by individuals they believe belong to the Provisional IRA.

Tony Friel is a former Irish Republican Socialist political prisoner and a leading member of the IRSP. He has a wife and three children, two of which were home when on 21 April 1998 several men broke into his home in the Bogside and severely injured him with a baseball bat studded with nails.

Michael (Mickey) Donnelly is chairman of the Ulster Executive of Republican Sinn Fein. He was interned in 1971 and became one of the twelve “hooded men” singled out by the British soldiers for special torture later deemed inhumane by the European Court of Human Rights. On 28 June 1998, Mickey, his wife Martina, their 22 year old son Deaglan and his fiancee, and their three young daughters aged 6-11, experienced a brutal attack in their home, also in Derry.

Tony Friel’s and Mickey Donnelly’s beatings were clearly premeditated.

The evening when Tony’s beating took place, he saw the men coming up the sidewalk and he tried to run out the back door. He wasn’t able to unlock the door fast enough to escape, and the men caught up to him in the back garden, where the beating itself took place. He recalls how two men were randomly hammering at him when a third man took over, this one knowing how to more “efficiently” administer the blows so as to actually break the bones. Although they started with his legs, Tony believes they were planning to break his arms as well, and as he said this he displayed the puncture wounds on his upper left arm, which after the attack had turned totally black from the bruising. Fortunately one of his children called out that the cops were coming and, fearing arrest, the men ran off before they could injure him further.

After the attack Tony spent approximately a month in the hospital, and he is still confined to a wheelchair. His entire right leg is in a cast, and he lost the kneecap. The other leg was also in a full cast up until a couple weeks ago when doctors replaced it with one that ends just below the knee. He has almost no mobility due both to the casts themselves and the incredible pain he still endures whenever he moves – in fact, the only way he can get up is to take a heavy dose of painkillers that either make him very ill or knock him out. Due to the severity of the attack, the doctors refuse to give him any concrete prognosis as to whether or not he’ll regain regular use of his legs again.

Mickey Donnelly’s attack was very similar. Four men entered his house at about 11:30 in the evening, interrupting the family as they watched television. As they assaulted Mickey and his family, the men shouted “IRA Provisionals”, indicating the political nature of the attack. They beat Mickey and one of his daughters with a crowbar and, as in Tony’s case, a baseball bat studded with nails. Mickey’s left leg was badly shattered, to the extent that the doctors couldn’t perform surgery for fear of infection, and it is currently in a full cast. His other leg was also wounded, though not broken. He spent a week in the hospital and faces potential surgery in the future, and for the next several months will also be confined to a wheelchair. His injuries might have been even worse. Initially the attackers aimed for his head, and his arms and back are bruised and punctured from where he protected his head, and his right thumb is badly bruised from where he caught the bar. He has additional puncture wounds from where the bat hit his back. The beating ended only when Mickey’s son Deaglan announced that the police were on their way and the men escaped from the house.

Mickey’s daughter Niamh, aged 10, suffered a leg wound from the bat and all the children and Martina were sprayed with canisters of Mace. In an interview for the New York radio show Radio Free Eireann Deaglan said that “it had been clear they had been watching the house, and that they’d seen him come in with the children. So they knew the children were there.” The family said that the attackers justified attacking the children by commenting that they deserved it for being allowed to be up so late at night. And Mickey thinks they would have also attacked Deaglan except for the fact that his son was the one to escape and raise the alarm.

Both Tony Friel and Mickey Donnelly are certain their attackers were Provisional IRA, and that they were chosen as targets because of their political beliefs. After Tony’s beating the story spread in Derry that he was a drug pusher, a charge he adamantly denies. Such rumors, he explained, are spread through bars, and therefore it is difficult to refute. “My friends will come back and say that’s wrong, but there’s no real way of combating it and so we just let it burn out.” Others have said that he got what he deserved for opposing the Agreement and Sinn Fein. He disputes those sentiments as well. “I don’t feel I was attacking Sinn Fein in the first place,” Tony said. “I’m entitled to my free speech just as they are. I’ve a right to challenge what they’re saying. And I wouldn’t go and beat them up.”

Tony accepts without doubt that his attack was sanctioned and not a rogue attack. The men who did the beating weren’t actually known to him personally but he knows they were IRA because just the day before the attack members of the Provisionals had called on him and warned him not to speak about recent robberies that had occurred in Derry against nationalists.

Mickey Donnelly also had prior warning that his activities were not appreciated by the Provisionals. During the election campaign Sinn Fein Youth members attacked the Donnelly house at about 3:00 am, banging on the door and windows. “At first we thought it was an RUC raid,” he said. Then they heard people chanting “Sinn Fein Youth” over and over again but were too afraid to go outside. When it finally quieted down they opened the door and discovered approximately 200 Republican Sinn Fein “vote no” campaign posters torn up in the garden. Furthermore, Mickey’s attack came just after a series of “Shame Fein” posters started appearing in Derry, with pictures of McGuinness and Adams “wanted for treason” and so forth. Apparently he, the local leader of RSF, was being taught a lesson.

When asked how he knew the attackers weren’t loyalists posing as members of the Provisional IRA, Mickey explained that the “getaway” car was hijacked from the neighborhood and dumped nearby afterwards, pointing to locals, not someone from the Waterside or other Protestant areas. If it had been loyalists he has no doubt that they would have shot him straight away instead of beating him – at one point they fired a gun but it had been loaded with blanks.

Perhaps most telling of all is that Sinn Fein has refused to deny or condemn either beating.

In a statement to the media after Mickey’s attack, the party said: “Sinn Fein has no knowledge of this incident. Sinn Fein’s position has been clear and consistent in wishing to see an end to such actions.” Additionally, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness was agitated when Mickey’s wife Martina went by his home to demand an explanation for the attack. She was angry and her voice was raised, and he told her to lower her voice so she wouldn’t upset the children. She responded by asking, “what about my children who were attacked in their own home and who were forced to witness their father being brutalized.”

McGuinness offered no sympathy to her family and instead said that he didn’t appreciate being called a traitor by her husband.

Although Sinn Fein’s official position is to deny knowledge of the attack, the response of individuals supporting the party has varied. Although neighbors who support Sinn Fein have largely remained distant from Mickey and his family, he described how some Sinn Fein members and supporters went to the hospital to offer their sympathy as individuals.

One who had worked for the party all the way up through the election brought his election rosette and ripped it up in front of Mickey saying he would have nothing more to do with Sinn Fein. “When this happened,” Deaglan explained, “people came to me father and said they’re done with the provisionals.” The publicity, he added, “has done a lot of good to show the provos up for what they are—fascist thugs.”

In light of the beatings, one might expect that the men and their families desire retribution against those who acted with such savagery. However, in fact, neither man is willing to assist the RUC in its investigation, and neither seems interested in a paramilitary response.

Tony said he had to speak to police officers when they came to the hospital to file a report, but he said he never would have given the RUC the names of the men. Furthermore he doesn’t hold any animosity towards his attackers because he accepts that they were just following orders. On the other hand, he would like to hear an explanation from the leadership of the Provisionals about why they did this to him and what they hoped it would accomplish. As he said, he’s a republican at the end of the day, just like they are, and they should be fighting for the same things.

Mickey expressed similar sentiments. He said that he’s been through too much to turn informer now and that even if he had a name to give the RUC he wouldn’t tell them anything.

Tony believes that rather than the beatings being simply intimidation, they are actually intended to put productive activists, such as himself, Mickey, and Mickey’s son, out of commission. “It’s a form of internment, to put you out of the picture for a length of time, remove you from the game for a while.” When asked if he thought beatings would continue to occur, he said, “They’ve stepped over the line this far already. If the publicity isn’t enough to stop them, then no, I don’t think they’ll stop.”

Deaglan agreed. “If people don’t stand up to what happened there will be more attacks,” he said.

If the attacks were meant to silence opposition, in the end the result is the exact opposite. First of all, both men and their families remain committed to their goals.

As Tony said, “It isn’t going to change anything I believe in. It’s barbaric to think that it would change. But they knew it won’t change anything.” And Mickey told the Derry Journal that “the intention was to silence me but there’s not a chance of that.”

Furthermore, since the beatings, people have been volunteering their services towards a Broad Front of all anti-imperialists as an alternative to Sinn Fein.

“The law of the baseball bat with 12 inch nails in it is the law of Stormont,” Deaglan said. He believes his father’s and Tony’s attacks will strengthen the move towards this Broad Front. As he said, “There’s plenty of common ground.” Further, he notes that “a movement is an amalgamation of different voices. Diversity can only be healthy for Irish republicanism.”

Deaglan said, “if people don’t take responsibility themselves it will end in disaster.” He encourages republicans to not take the easy path and follow Adams, but to take what he calls the “true path of justice and freedom” by deciding to think for themselves.

Since the attack neither man has been able to work. Tony had a factory job, and the hardship has been difficult, particularly since the family has a mortgage on their home. Mickey, a bricklayer, also will be unable to work for at least six months due to the extent of the injuries. Funds are being raised to support both men and their families. Supporters of both families also encourage individuals and organizations supporting free speech to make their voices heard by contacting the men as well as writing letters to the local media.

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