Homeland Security Won't Let a Former IRA Man Out of Prison

After living in the U.S. for 25 years, Pól Brennan is now stuck on the Texas-Mexico border

In six hours this past January, all the good that Pól Brennan had ever done came unraveled.

The 56-year-old Belfast-born carpenter and his American wife Joanna Volz were in their brand-new Sportsmobile camper van, heading from Volz's parents' home on South Padre Island to Austin to visit friends. From Austin, they would start the long drive back to their home in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Pól Brennan just before his arrest in South Texas this year...
Courtesy Pól Brennan
Pól Brennan just before his arrest in South Texas this year...
...he is pictured around the time he came in from the cold in the 1990s.
Courtesy Pól Brennan
...he is pictured around the time he came in from the cold in the 1990s.

Brennan decided to drive the ­Harlingen-Austin leg of the trip. He would never make it to Austin.

Volz napped as they whizzed up Highway 77 under the warm winter sun through the lonely brush of the King Ranch. When Brennan eased up to the Border Patrol/Department of Homeland Security checkpoint in the tiny hamlet of Sarita, he woke Volz. He knew they would be stopped and questioned, as the van still had temporary plates. As it turned out, the van's registration was the least of his worries.

The two cars ahead of the Sportsmobile were waved through. The guard shoved an upraised palm at the Sportsmobile.

"You a U.S. citizen?" the patrolman asked Brennan.

"No," Brennan replied. "I am Irish."

The patrolman asked Brennan for his papers. Brennan complied, handing over a valid California driver's license and his yearly federal work permit. "I didn't know anything was amiss," he would say much later.

In fact, the Border Patrol would find very much to be amiss. For starters, Brennan's work permit had expired. The patrolman told Brennan to park the van and come in the office for further ­questions.

Although he still held some hope, Brennan could already feel his life slipping away. He had one card up his sleeve: He dialed up his San Francisco lawyer, James Byrne, on his cell phone, and asked him to fax his papers to him — his pending applications for a new work permit, a green card and political asylum. All were sent, and none was enough. "I had thought that maybe the faxed paperwork would save me," he would say later. "When they hold you for six hours, you know it's not good."

Because at the same time the fax was humming with papers coming over from Byrne's office, the Border Patrol's computers were churning out other information, and it was exciting stuff. The slight, ­scholarly-­looking Irishman with the glasses, close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair and the Mephistophelean beard was no mere tourist or snowbird.

Reams of information on Brennan's past came humming over the transom — an old Interpol warrant detailed how one afternoon in Belfast in 1976, Brennan and a companion had been caught with a gun and a 23-pound bomb they were alleged to have been intending to plant in a shop, and how he had been sentenced to 16 years in Long Kesh Prison, or Maze, at it was also known. And how, seven years later, he and 37 of his fellow Irish Republican Army cohorts had busted out of the Kesh in the largest jailbreak in the entire history of the United Kingdom.

For patrolmen accustomed to catching run-of-the-mill Mexican, Caribbean and Central American immigrants and the occasional drug-runner, this was a red-letter day. The shark fishermen had netted something more exotic, even if it was probably no threat — a giant squid, ­perhaps.

In a posting to his Web site, Brennan would later write that the Border Patrol agents' "little eyes were jiggling with excitement" as they downloaded Brennan's picaresque adventures, "acting as if they had caught the terrorist ­Al-Zarqawi."

Brennan tried to explain that those matters had been settled in federal courts in San Francisco, where he had been living openly since 2000. He argued that he had filed for the extension to his work permit on time, and that it was the government's fault that he hadn't received it. He told them truthfully that he was no longer being actively sought by British authorities.

All to no avail. They were more interested in that bomb he was caught with in Belfast in 1976 or that day 25 years ago when he broke out of jail. Volz eventually headed to Austin alone. Brennan went to jail, where he is now fighting to avoid deportation to a country he hasn't seen in 25 years.

Brennan's current plight is unusual but not unique. There are at least 15 former IRA prisoners living in America today. Many or most of these people are married to Americans and/or have ­American-born children, and many have faced ­deportation.

As it stands now, former IRA prisoners in America cannot travel back to Ireland to visit friends and family, and must renew their work permits often at great expense and danger to their employment. (Often, the applications are delayed; in the interim, employers are at risk if they allow the immigrants to work.) Additionally, a handful of former IRA members — an estimated five or so — are still hiding and now have no incentive to come in from the cold.

Earlier this year, two former IRA prisoners — Paul Harkin and Matt Morrison — announced the foundation of Thar Saile. (Pronounced "Har Sail-ya," the Gaelic name means "Overseas.") Thar Saile's stated aim is "to end the uncertainty for these men and their families by providing them with a permanent legal status and the right to live, work and travel ­unencumbered."

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

I'm probably the only person here who was born and raised in Ireland during the Troubles, so I want to state for the record that during the course of the Troubles, Mr. Brennan and his IRA comrades  murdered more Irish men, women, and children, than the British. And still do. Can you guess the damage those 23 pound bomb would have caused? If not, look up Bloody Friday, La Mon, the Remembrance Day Bombing, Omagh Bombing. This is the only charge he was jailed for. The IRA were kill Irish Catholics as well as Protestants - we have no idea how many murders he participated in. At least he gets his life - not many IRA victims did. You do the crime, you do the time.