Bertie reneged on promise to release killers
For the first time, Gerry Adams outlines in detail his negotiations with the Irish government on the release of the killers of Jerry McCabe; how this was formally agreed; how Michael McDowell was to fly to Limerick to inform Ann McCabe; and how at the time of the Good Friday Agreement Bertie Ahern gave an explicit assurance on the release of these men
Recently, I expressed a deep sense of disappointment at the inadequate role of the Irish government in the ongoing negotiations.
The Irish government dismissed my concerns as pique at its refusal to release the Castlerea prisoners.
This is not the case. My concern at this time is about the Irish government's overall failure to play any meaningful role in the recent negotiations, as it should have done. Instead of being briefed about developments, they should have been leading the negotiations as equal partners with the British government. They should have been working with us to see MI5 removed from civic policing, something of huge interest to people across Ireland, they should have been helping in the work to try and get the powersharing institutions up and running by 26 March and they should have been dealing with all the outstanding issues for which they are responsible.
But because they probably surmised that I didn't want a distracting side argument with them, when the main focus needed to be on the Brits and the DUP, they used the emotive issue of the Castlerea prisoners in order to avoid addressing their absence from the talks.
However because they raised the issue of the Castlerea prisoners again, I feel it is time to set the record straight on this matter. I do so in the knowledge of the great grief suffered by the McCabe family and particularly by Ann McCabe. I am deeply sorry for her loss.
In 2003 the government agreed arrangements with Sinn Féin for the release of these prisoners. This involved the minister for justice flying by helicopter to Limerick to tell Garda Jerry McCabe's widow Ann that the men were being released.
The backdrop to this was a series of intense discussions between Sinn Féin, the Ulster Unionist Party and the British and Irish governments.
In our discussions with the British government and the unionists, we covered a wide range of issues including equality, powersharing, policing, the transfer of powers on policing and justice, the demilitarisation of society, human rights and the need for an election to the assembly.
Our discussions with the Irish government dealt with all of these issues, as well as matters which are the direct responsibility of the government like northern representation in southern institutions, the Castlerea prisoners, the all-Ireland institutions and other matters.
Sinn Féin made clear our view that the Castlerea prisoners are qualifying prisoners under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and that they should be released. During the Good Friday Agreement negotiations the Taoiseach agreed with me that if these prisoners, who were on remand at the time, were sentenced they would be included in the early-release schemes contained in the agreement. As is now well known, the Taoiseach didn't keep that commitment.
However in 2003 there was an agreement by the Irish government that following a positive report by General de Chastelain, the Castlerea prisoners would be immediately released.
The agreed sequence involved:
• The announcement of an election by the British government
• A statement by me
• A statement from the IRA leadership: in which it accepted my assessment as reflecting the IRA position; a commitment by the IRA to meet with the IICD and begin the process of putting arms beyond use at the earliest opportunity; and a further act of putting arms beyond use to be ratified under the agreed scheme
• An act of putting arms beyond use
• An IRA statement confirming this
• A report by the IICD
• The release of the Castlerea prisoners
• A statement by David Trimble
• A joint statement by the two governments
Martin McGuinness and I negotiated the Castlerea aspect directly with the Irish government and the Department of Justice.
It was agreed that following the confirmation by General de Chastelain of the IRA putting arms beyond use the four prisoners, Kevin Walsh, Pearse McCauley, Jeremiah Sheehy and Mick O'Neill would be released.
Simultaneously with this, Michael McDowell would fly by helicopter to Limerick to inform Jerry McCabe's widow, Ann.
On 20 October Martin Ferris visited Castlerea Prison where he informed Kevin Walsh of the arrangements. The prison governor was aware of these developments. Sinn Féin organised a van to pick up the four prisoners and transport them away from any possible contact with the media.
Despite the fact that republicans kept all of our commitments the Irish government reneged on their commitments.
Almost a year later Sinn Féin was engaged in another round of intense negotiations with the British and Irish governments and the DUP. Once again the issue of the Castlerea prisoners was negotiated.
On 17 September 2004, the Irish government confirmed that in the context of an agreement being reached:
• The government would be prepared at that time to authorise the release of the persons convicted in relation to the killing of Garda Jerry McCabe
• Pending their release they would also be considered for short periods of temporary release for individual prisoners as is normal for prisoners who are coming to the end of longer periods in custody.
Just over one month later on 27 October the government's position was given in writing to Sinn Féin. It confirmed that the prisoners would be released in the context of an agreement. The government also said that no public reference could be made in relation to these matters prior to the minister informing Ann McCabe and Ben O'Sullivan, Jerry McCabe's garda partner.
Less than a month later on 19 November in an ‘Annex I' entitled ‘Castlerea Prisoners', as part of an ‘Outline for a comprehensive Agreement', the government set out its position in detail in the event of a comprehensive deal. This now included ‘the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law reform meeting as quickly as possible with representatives of the McCabe and O'Sullivan families'.
It confirmed the terms under which the prisoners would receive temporary release and that, if by 23 December republicans had kept to our commitments, the government “will at that time authorise the release of the prisoners, under the provision of Section 13 of the Offences against the State Act, 1939”. Because of pending extradition proceedings against Pearse McCauley it was acknowledged that it may be necessary “for legal reasons for his release to be authorised under the Provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 1960”.
Finally, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern confirmed that the release of the Castlerea prisoners was a part of the negotiations in remarks he made in the Dáil on 1 December 2004.
In response to questions he confirmed that in the context of a comprehensive agreement and republicans keeping to their commitments in that agreement: “The Government, as part of a comprehensive agreement, would give consideration to the early release of the prisoners, not under the Good Friday Agreement but under the earlier acts, of which I think two are involved. That is still the position of the government. I have confirmed this a number of times. I know the difficulties involved and that we would have to engage in discussions with the families, which we would do, and the Garda representative body. It is still an outstanding issue. To be frank and open – this is the place to say it – it is my belief that if we are to have a comprehensive agreement, this is an issue that will have to be part of the final deal. This is not a question on which I want to have ambiguity. If we are to have a comprehensive deal, this matter will be part of it and I would recommend that that be the case. I do not see how we will be able to deal with it otherwise.”
Since then of course the government has reneged on these commitments, as it has on other issues. Fair enough. That happens in negotiations, in politics, in life. But any pretence that the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat coalition has any principles on the release of the Castlerea prisoners is nonsense.