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          In 2016, the last year for which there are figures on record, 116 people were granted temporary release from Irish prisons so that they might spend a few festive days with their loved ones. The 116 people released comprised the full range of prisoners – from drug dealers, to petty burglars, to people who had taken a life and been sentenced to jail time for it. Christmas being a time of goodwill, the state is willing to grant a little happiness, you see, to even those who have greviously offended against it.

          Whether this should be the case is, of course, up for debate. Perhaps one of the points of going to prison – the punishment element of it – is that one should, of necessity, miss family events like christenings and births and weddings and funerals and christmasses. Prison is designed, after all, to deprive one of the ordinary liberties. That’s the whole reason that you are supposed to be keen to be a well behaved person, and avoid going there in the first place.

          Nevertheless, seasonal leniency is regularly granted.

          But not, it seems, to one Enoch Burke.

          By now, everybody in Ireland knows the Tragedy of Darth Enoch the Wise, as one Star Wars fan recently described it to me. Burke is not in prison for murder, or for burglary, or for common assault, or even for finally annoying a judge by racking up 700 convictions, or whatever it takes these days for one of m’learned friends to finally decide enough is enough. He is in prison solely and entirely because he, for whatever reason, refuses to promise to abide by an order of the court to stay away from the school in which he remains, technically, an employee.

          This, as I have previously written, is no simple situation: Burke’s conscience, for whatever reason, has placed him in open conflict with the courts themselves. It is true that he could walk out of Mountjoy tomorrow by offering a simple commitment to abide by the rulings of the courts. He refuses to do so, and the courts say he will remain in prison until he changes his mind.

          But there’s a wrinkle, here:

          Enoch Burke’s specific crime is that he will not obey an order not to attend a school.

          Regular readers may be aware, I suspect, that schools are customarily closed over Christmas. Thus, even if Burke were released on temporary licence to spend some time with his family, and even were he entirely determined to thumb his nose at the courts by occupying a classroom in the school in question, he would first have to break into that school, and second have to sit in an empty, unheated classroom while everybody else pretended to enjoy their Brussels sprouts.

          It seems to me that this is that rare case where a prisoner could be released from prison with as close as it is possible to get to a 100% chance that they would not reoffend during the period of their release.

          And yet, there is, it seems, no prospect of any such mercy being granted.

          Two things can be true at once, I think: It can be true that Enoch Burke is in prison for a refusal to comply with a court order, and that the courts really have no option, if they wish court orders to carry any meaning at all, but to keep him there, or at least subject to being there, until he recants.

          It can also be true that Enoch Burke is being made an example of, with uncommon cruelty.

          There is no reason, for example, that he could not presently be detained in an open prison, like many other white collar criminals. He is not a danger to the public. He is not violent. He has given no indication that he intends to participate in any activity other than peaceful disobedience of the court. That disobedience could easily be thwarted without condemning him to a cell block with violent crooks.

          And it is true, and obviously true, that somebody in his specific situation could be granted a Christmas release without any harm accruing to the state, or the interests of the state.

          What are we to take, then, from the refusal to show any leniency or compassion towards Mr. Burke at all?

          Many people will, I think, take from it that the state intends to break Mr. Burke, and hold him up as an example of what happens to those who dissent on issues where the state wishes to be no dissent. Are they wrong? There is no reason that this state, on its present policy course, should be granted the benefit of the doubt. This is the same state that openly intends to criminalise some speech. It is the same state that just yesterday proposed regulating social media to prevent embarrassment to amorous politicians. It is the same state that gleefully passed laws, not that long ago, openly making unvaccinated people second class citizens, unable even to share a table in a restaurant with the anointed elect.

          There is no reason, whatsoever, to give them any benefit of the doubt. Just as there is no reason, whatsoever, that Enoch Burke should not be granted a Christmas release. It is cruelty, and his suffering is intended to send a message.

          They are no different, really, from those Kings of England who, in their wisdom, would place the heads of dissenters on spikes above the city gates. Pour encourager les autres.

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