The crime and punishment of Michael Kinsella

  • 1 October 1984
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The Crime

There were four houses at the crossroads. The McCooeys, the O'Harts, the Kinsellas and the Halls. This was at Legnakelly, a crossroads about a mile and a half outside Clones, County Monaghan. Just yards from the border. Two cars came across the border from Ferrnanagh, each carrying four men. The men were armed. When they got to the crossroads they donned masks, left the cars and split up, four at the front of the McCooey home, four at the back.

The McCooeys had a visitor, Noel Thornbury. He was aged 30, came from across the border and was a Provo. He and his wife Stephanie had been staying at the McCooey home and tonight there were three other men in the house.

This was November 10 1973. It was a Saturday, about 11.30pm.

The eight armed men entered the house and held up the occupants. The raiders began smashing furniture. They destroyed some religious pictures and emblems. Stephanie Thornbury was taken upstairs. Noel Thornbury and the other men were ordered outtside. Some of the raiders began preeparing a bomb downstairs in the house.

The four men were being marched away at gunpoint. Noel Thornbury thought that this was it, he was going to die. Better to die trying than just stand there with your hands up. He shouted to the others and began to run. There were some shots. On hearring the shots the raiders in the house panicked and fled, heading for their cars.

Stephanie Thornbury got out of the house before the bomb went off.

Noel Thornbury, with gunshot wounds to the chest, staggered to the O'Hart home and collapsed. (He and the others in the house all survived.)

As the raiders sped off in their two cars a man carne out of the house across the road. Sean Kinsella had grabbed his shotgun when he heard the commotion. He fired after the departing raiders.

Sean Kinsella was a barber. He had a successful hairdressing business in Clones. He was aged 30, the eldest of the three boys and one girl in the Kinsella family. He was a Provo. Republican politics are strong in the border counties and Sean's were stronger than most.

The Kinsellas were not a particuularly Republican family. Tom Kinsella, the father, emigrated to England to get work on the building sites and stayed there for several years. Agnes Kinsella, the mother, gathered up bits of land as often as possible when the Land Commission was redistributing land in the area. She was hoping to put together enough land to get the family a start in farming.

Sean was the only one of the family who became known for militant republicanism when the North began falling apart. He talked of uniting the country, of the underdogs, of how the politicians were getting fat on not caring. He spoke privately and pubblicly. He said that it was an awful thing when you couldn't stand up an say what you believed.

On March 4 1974, according to Sean Kinsella, he was approached br three Provos, "Northmen" he called them. They said they had information from inside the UVF about the bombing of the McCooey house. This four months after the bombing. The Northmen said it was the UVF had done it. (There has been talk within the Provos, then and since, about who was crossing the border to carry out such attacks. Some thought it was the SAS, others the UVF. Some assumed that the Loyalists would get help from the British for such activiy, or at least that a blind eye would be turned.)

The Northmen said they had spies in the UVF, according to Sean Kinsella, and they knew for certain that the raiders got local help in setting up the attempted killing of Noel Thornbury. The UVF had someone helping them on this side of the border, providing them with local knowledge and storing arms for them. It was, they said, the Coulson family above in Tircooney. They had checked out the information and there was no doubt about it.

Now the Northmen wanted help.

They would raid the Coulson house and search it for guns. There was an arsenal there, according to their defiinite information. Sean was needed to organise the local unit to back up the raid.

There had been a lot of fear in the area since the Thornbury attack. Some members of the Kinsella family had been afraid to stay in the house at the crossroads for a while and had stayed with neighbours, the McClusskeys of Stone bridge, only returning to their own house in the daytime. The father of the family, Tom Kinsella, had died the previous year.

Sean Kinsella began assem bling a group for the raid on the Coulson house. He picked four people, all from the Clones area. Sean McGettigan was a fitter, aged 19. He was born in England and had moved to the Clones area only the previous August. James McPhillips, known as Junior, was 26, a builder's labourer. He had gone to England for work in 1970 and stayed a year. George McDermott was 20. He had left school at 14 and went to work as a mechanic in a local garage. He then got work in a factory. He had lost that job the previous month after getting into a fight with another worker.

Sean Kinsella's fourth choice for the raid was Michael Kinsella, his brother. Michael, aged 25, wasn't noted for militant republicanism. He tended to mind his own business, never spoke out like his older brother. Michael left school at 14 and worked at various labouring jobs. When he was 18 he went to England and worked on the building sites with his father for a while. He returned to Clones after three years. He got a job in Tunnney's meat factory and did pig dealing on the side. He was beginning to build up a nice little business, attending marts and buying and selling for others. He had a good eye for a pig and he had a boar of his own for servicing. He was a quiet lad and everyone was very surrprised when it turned out that he was mixed up in this kind of thing. You could see where Sean would be involved, but Michael didn't seem the type.

The "evidence" that the Provos had that the Coulson family was aiding the UVF was non-existent. The Coulsons were Protestants in a mixed but predominantly Catholic area. There is a strong Orange presence in the area and it is probable - but no more than that - that many Protestants in such areas are more sympathetic to unionism than to repu blicanism. There are no strict lines.

The Provos had marked out the Coulsons as unionists and supporters of the UVF and decided to brutalise them in a raid in order to establish evidence to support their allegations. The Provos were deciding to give the Coulsons the heavy gang treatment.

The Coulsons were a solid middle class family. The parents lived in the family house in Tircooney and a son, Robert, lived in a mobile home in the grounds of the family home. A daughhter, Marjorie, also lived in the house and a week after Sean Kinsella was approached by the Northmen, March 11, Marjorie arrived home around 7pm from her job in Belfast. She was exxpecting a visit that evening from a friend, Billy Fox.

Billy Fox had been elected to the Dail in 1969 as a Fine Gael TD for Monaghan. He was now 34. In the 1960s he had been part of the young and comparatively radical trend in Fine Gael. He was a Protestant. In winning the seat in 1969 he helped Fine Gael take a second seat in the constituency for the first time ever. He was broadly sympathetic to repubblicanism and he had strongly opposed the cratering of border roads by the British army, a tactic which caused much inconvenience and local fury. He had lost the seat in the 1973 general election. There was speculation that because of the conflict in the North his religion had cost him Catholic votes, but there were several quite normal electoral factors which accounnted for the second seat going to Fianna Fail. He was elected to the Senate in March 1973.

Billy Fox and Marjorie Coulson had been going together for some time.

Sean and Michael Kinsella, George McDermott and Junior Mcf'hillips had tea that night at the home of the McCluskey family in Stonebridge. They left the house at about 8.30pm and along with Sean McGettigan met up with the Northmen in Clones at 9pm. There were eight Northmen. Guns were distributed.

Sean Kinsella later claimed that he said several times that there was to be no shooting. The Northman in charge said, "Stop worrying, what will we be shooting at?"

Robert Coulson was watching teleevision in his mobile home at Tircooney. It was about lOpm. Three masked men burst in. Two had rifles, one had a pistol. They said they had been told there was an arsenal in the house and they wanted to know where it was kept. Robert Coulson's hands were tied and he was taken up to the family house. The phone line had already been cut. The man with the pistol rapped on the door and the knock was answered by George Coullson, Robert's father. Three more masked men arrived and they all went into the house.

The raiders began searching the house, pulling things out of cupboards and drawers. One of them pulled a bible out of a cupboard and -threw it into the fire.

Suddenly there was a single shot.

It seemed to come from somewhere out by the mobile home.

One of the raiders appeared at the door of the house. "Who fired that shot, where did it come from?"

The Coulsons were all put lying face down on the floor. The lights were switched off.

Sean Kinsella was at the door of the house and he heard his brother Michael shouting, "For Jesus sake keep your head down, there's someeone shooting at us!"

There were more shots over the next ten minutes or so. Eight to ten shots, perhaps. The shooting seemed to be getting more distant. The Coullsons, lying on the floor, were praying.

Two Northmen came back into the house and said to Sean Kinsella someething about a man getting away.

The Coulsons were taken out of the house and brought down to a small wall and put standing against it. Then they were told to walk down towards the road. As they moved down towards the lane they saw a car parked there. Marjorie Coulson recognised it as Billy Fox's.

Sean Kinsella was in the house, Michael was out in the yard. Sean wanted the fingerprints wiped off everything. The Northmen wanted to bum the house, according to Sean Kinsella. "Everyone had moved out into the yard at this stage. I saw flames coming from the mobile home. The Northmen seemed to have gone berrserk. And with the shooting and burnning I became alarmed and decided to pull out the Clones men immediately."

The Clones Provos ran down the yard, over the wall. The Kinsellas headed back to the McCluskey house, the others went towards Clones. They dumped their guns and masks. Accorrding to the Kinsellas, as they ran away they looked back and saw the Coulson house go up in flames.

When the two Kinsellas got to the McCluskey house some time before midnight they were exxcited. Sean said something about how the whole thing had gone wrong, the place had been burned. He said to the McCluskeys that if anyone asked about tonight they should say that he and Michael had been here all evening, playing cards. The two Kinsellas then went straight to bed.

The next morning the gardai found the body of Billy Fox. He was lying in a field in Tircooney. He had a gunnshot wound in the chest, an exit wound in the back. There was another bullet wound across the top of the toes of his left foot. There was blood coming from his mouth.

It was on the radio news at lunchhtime. When Sean Kinsella heard it he seemed shocked.

Government reaction to the killing was severe. The killing of a Fine Gael Senator, a Protestant, was connstrued not only as a sectarian outrage but an attack on the Oireachtas itself. The killing of Senator Fox would long afterwards be referred to by politicians as an example of the Provo plan to take over the state by force.

It was never established just who killed Billy Fox or what the circummstances of the killing were. The story now accepted within the Provisionals is that Fox chanced to come along, was challenged in the laneway leading to the Coulson house, panicked when he saw a man with a gun, ran, and the Provo fired. The story goes that the Provo fired at Fox's legs, but Fox at that moment ran down into a hollow and took the bullet in the back. A variation of this story is that Fox took a bullet in the leg, disappeared into the trees and later bled to death.

There are some things wrong with this story. Fox was shot in the chest. The shooting lasted several minutes, there were several shots.

The first part of the story is probbably true. Fox just happened along. It is apparent that the Provos did not set out to kill him. Beyond that, few know what happened out there in the dark, who panicked, who ran, what amount of deliberation there was in the killing of Fox. Morally it might matter. Legally every member of the raiding party, whether in the house or not, was guilty of murder.

By St Patrick's Day the gardai had arrested and charged five people with the killing of Billy Fox and the burning of the Coulson home. They were the Kinsella brothers, McGettigan, McDermott and McPhillips. None of the Northmen were arrested. There had been a massive garda operation in the area, with questionnaires circulated and the usual lifting of possible susspects.

Various statements were made and withdrawn. There were allegations of heavyhandedness by the gardai but nothing of note. The speed with which the gardai got statements and wrapped up the case seems to have resulted from the shock arising from what happened. The trial lasted 14 days and there was never much doubt of the verdict. Sean Kinsella made an unnsworn statement in which he said that the Clones Provos had no intention of killing anyone or burning the house. They were acting in support of the Northmen to locate what they believed was a UVF arms dump.

"We all profoundly regret the death of Senator Fox. There was a clear understanding that under no circummstances were any shots to be fired." Sean Kinsella said that he had no hand, act or part in setting fire to the house nor had any of them any intenntion of doing so. Neither did they approve of it. None of the local men had any intention of using weapons to endanger life or property. None of them discharged any shots.

It was a bit late for regrets. The law was clear. The accused had banded together, armed, to carry out a crimiinal act, a result of which was that a man was killed. They were found guilty of murder. They got penal serviitude for life. They were sent to Porttlaoise prison.

AUgUSt 18 1974. Nineteen Provos in Cell Block E of Portlaoise prison overpowered the warders and got onto a roof. They had gelignite and used it to blow their way through two gates. All nineteen escaped. Among them were the Kinsella broothers, Sean and Michael. The escape was to have a significant influence on the progress of the Cosgrave Coalition towards a rigid and oppressive security system. It caused severe embarrassment and a widespread search was launched.

Michael Kinsella stayed free for about eighteen months and was reecaptured in Leitrim. He was sent back to Portlaoise. Sean Kinsella went to England and there became an active member of the Provos. In 1975 he was involved with three others in a shoottout in Liverpool, after a car carrying the four Provos was stopped by police in a routine check. Two police officers were wounded. All four Provos got the heaviest possible sentences. Sean Kinnsella got three life sentences. He is now in Wormwood Scrubs. By all accounts he has adjusted to prison life and finds solace in his belief that he was followwing a course he believed to be right.

The Punishment

There are about 130 Provos in Portlaoise. There are 60 or so prisoners from other paramilitary groups, ex-Provos and independent subversives - they are referred to by the Provos as the "mavericks" or "the bits and pieces". There are four landings. The mavericks are on Landing I, the Provos are on Landings 2, 3 and 4. The assignment of landings to one or another faction varies as the numbers go up and down.

In practise the Provos maintain a disciplined structure within the prison. There is no communication between prisoners and warders, except for the transmission of orders. If a Provo wants to make a request or seek a hearing on some matter or other it is dealt with through the Provo represenntatives, who communicate with senior staff. The prisoners won the right to wear their own clothes. The inevitable rows between inmates which arise in such situations of tension are sorted out not by the prison authorities but by the Provisional leadership.

While the prisoners maintain a commmand structure and benefit in terms of morale from the prisoner-of-war status which they accord themselves, and which is to some extent recognised by the prison authorities, they are inmates of an extremely restrictive regime. A life sentence in Mountjoy, for instance, might be seven or eight years (and can be as short as five); in Portlaoise life is life. The sentence is indeterminate and the fact that the inmates have been found guilty of subversive crimes is a factor in deciiding how long they stay in jail.

Many of the restrictions in Porttlaoise arise from the behaviour of the prisoners. They see themselves as prisoners of war and bound to the republican tradition of attempting an escape if it is at all possible. Down through the years their escapes and attempted escapes have resulted in an extremely tight regime. Explosives have been smuggled into Portlaoise and have been used there. There have been elaborate escape attempts made in concert with outside forces. The result is a system of walls within walls within walls, armed guards and barbed wire. Books can be sent in - but they must be paperbacks; hardback covers are torn off lest something is concealed inside them. Clothes may be sent in 0but not if they are coloured blue or black or red or yellow or green; they might be used to fashion imitation uniforms. Check patterns or denim is safe enough. Even coloured underrwear is taboo. No parcels of food or cigarettes are allowed in. These, and the wood which inmates use to carve harps and the like must be bought at the prison shop. On occasion, blocks of wood which prisoners use for crafts have been sawn open during searches in order to ensure there is nothing inside.

Visitors are carefully checked. Visiitors must write to the governor, then take two photos to a garda station and have them identified and authenticated by a garda signature. Ironically, the political nature of the situation is recognised in the visiting procedures. Visitors from the North need not go to the RUC but must get their local parish priest to authenticate the photos and write a letter to the governor.

The visit itself is heavily supervised.

Prisoners are seated at the far side of a counter. There is a fine mesh wire at each side of the counter, rising up to the ceiling. There is a perspex shield at each side of the counter. There is a prison officer at the end of the counnter, in a cage which allows him look down along the counter. He takes notes of everything that is said. If the prisoner or visitor speaks in a 10 w voice he or she is told to speak up. Refusal cart mean that the visit is brought to an abrupt end. The visit can be brought to an end if prison conditions are discussed or for any other reason which the officer thinks correct.

There is no physical contact. This is understandable from the authoriities' point of view but it is a major cause of tension among prisoners. They tell of one man who received weekly visits from his wife and threeemonth-old daughter. The child was killed in a car accident on the way home from a visit to the prison. The prisoner was allowed out for the funeral and the only time he ever touched his daughter was when she was dead. Such restrictions do not apply in such Northern prisons as Long Kesh, although the security needs are if anything greater.

Visits from a solicitor necessitate a strip search of the prisoner before and after.

The strip searching involves a complete strip with, sometimes, an inspecction of the hair and the anus. Such searches are carried out regularly in the prison, sometimes on a mass scale more often with just several prisoners selected. Many prisoners refuse to take off their clothes and the prison offiicers do the stripping. When they get the prisoner down to underpants there is sometimes a struggle. At one time such searches were carried out first thing in the morning, when prisoners were naked anyway. Many prisoners found searches at that time less deegrading, though they were still resenttful. When searches are carried out later in the day, often after 8.30pm when the prisoner has been locked away for the night, there is extreme resentment. Since the prisoner is going to be locked in the cell alone for twelve hours, anyyway, argue the prisoners, searches at that time are not based on security needs but on a desire to humiliate prisoners.

It is often such searches which proovoke violence, with the prisoner strugggling and some warders responding with a beating. There are many alleegations of such beatings and they have been backed up by allegations from prison officers.

As well as the prisoners the cells are also searched regularly. Four offiicers enter the cell, two for the cell and two for the prisoner. Sometimes the cells are searched when the prisooners are at recreation. Some prison officers are scrupulous in their duty and search the cell thoroughly, reeplacing things as they find them. For instance, searching a jar of coffee they will shake it and poke through it with their fingers or a spoon. Others are less sensitive. They simply empty out the coffee and leave it there. They overrturn tables or mattresses and scatter belongings around the cell.

There are massive security headdaches in running Portlaoise prison, many of them created by the nature of the prisoners. There is also a large political element in this, as the authoriities are fearful of being caused politiical embarrassment by a breach of security. The result is a ruthlessness which takes no chances with security gaps - but which takes enormous chances not only with the dignity of the prisoners but with the resultant build-up of tension within the prison.

In 1976 Agnes Kinsella travelled from her home near the border down to Portlaoise prison to visit her son, Michael. When she arrived, after her journey of a couple of hours, she was told that Michael wasn't there he was in the military hospital at the Curragh. Michael had SOme health problems. Since then she has on occaasion gone down to Portlaoise to be told that Michael was up in the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum: They first started sending him there in October 1977.

No one seems to know just what kind of mental problems Michael has, but everyone knows he has them. On his first visit to Dundrum he was kept for three weeks.

Michael Kinsella comes out of his cell and leans on a barrier. And stands there staring. For hours. Sometimes he doesn't come out of his cell, just stays in there for days. Sometimes he goes down to collect a meal and brings it back and he might eat it. Or he might leave the dessert. Two days later he might eat the dessert for breakfast.

He talks to no one. If anyone comes up to talk to him he walks away.

He goes out into the yard, sits down on his own. After a while you can see his whole frame shaking as he laughs away to himself. Sometimes he does this just walking down the corridor. No one thinks it's funny.

The second time they sent him to Dundrum they kept him for four months. The next time it was just for one week. Then it was two weeks.

Then another two months. Another two weeks, and then another three weeks. By the end of 1982 he had spent a total of 38 weeks in the mental hospital.

They give him a lot of medication, drugs. He walks up and down the corridor, bumping into people. There's times he'll say hello, no more than that. Then weeks will go by and he won't open his mouth. He sits and watches TV sometimes, just sitting there on his own watching the test card for hours.

He doesn't play football or handdball along with the others, doesn't play any games, do any crafts, read, talk or join in the cameraderie. Someetimes the prisoners play jokes on one another. A young prisoner from Bellfast didn't know the score with Kinnsella. He put a jug of water above Kinsella's cell door. The joke worked, Kinsella exploded. They had to keep the kid away from him for a long time.

They sent him to Dundrum in 1983 for a total of 22 weeks. He's been back and forth this year as well.

Relatives and friends who visit Kinsella say he mostly doesn't recoggnise them. Sometimes he recognises his sister Pearl. She tells him about friends who got married or had kids or moved away and he doesn't recoggnise or acknowledge the names. He just sits there. Across the counter, through the wire and perspex, his mother could smell him.

Michael Kinsella doesn't wash. He doesn't clean out his cell. Other prisooners help him out. When he's away from the cell they go in and clean out the place, scrape the dirt away, take the rotting and shrivelled oranges and apples from under the bed, sweep out the bits of bread. The prisoners keep their own cells clean, wash them down as often as they like. Kinsella hasn't done it for years. Sometimes the authorities put him in a second cell and fumigate the first.

He coughs up phlegm, spews it regardless, on another prisoner, maybe, or on food. The other prisoners are sympathetic but someone is going to lose his rag someday and belt him.

He sometimes won't eat. Believes someone is trying to poison him. Once he became convinced that he would be poisoned or that gas would be released into his cell. A prisoner went to his cell and talked to him. Kinsella didn't answer. He seemed to listen, he seemed to be taking it in as the prisoner calmly argued him out of his fears. It took a couple of hours, then Kinsella was nodding. It was okay, he believed the prisoner. As the prisoner rose to leave the cell Kinsella said, "But when are you really going to do it?'.'

There's an activity known to prisooners as "working your ticket". Say you're in Mountjoy and you want to get across the road to the Mater hospital. Maybe because you figure you have a better chance of making an escape from there, maybe because you want to wink at a nurse and you've nothing better to do with your time. You develop a pain. Another way of working your ticket is to concoct a set of circumstances which will cause the authorities to give you an early release.

It is quite possible, to those viewing the case from the outside, that Michael Kinsella is working his ticket. Republiicans have over the years achieved enorrmous feats of personal courage in pursuit of their goals.

To do that he would have had to fool a lot of prisoners over a long time. He would have had to subject himself to seven years of eccentricity, filth, drugs and loneliness, cutting himself off from every other person in the prison and everyone who came to visit. He would have had to fool the doctors who keep sending him to Dundrum mental hospital.

Michael Kinsella's case has been handled by Dr Charles Smith, Clinical Director of the Central Mental Hospiital. Dr Smith has submitted reports to the Department of Justice on Kinnsella's case. Dr Smith is prohibited from discussing the case without the permission of his patient. His patient, he says, is not in any condition to give such permission.

It is known that when being exaamined by psychiatrists Michael Kinsella has refused any cooperation. He doesn't trust authority and will not answer questions, just sits there. Sometimes he smiles, sometimes he displays beliigerance. According to members of Kinsella's family the doctors at Dunndrum told them that they have asked that Kinsella be released to a mental hospital and said that he should not be in Portlaoise.

Last December Kinsella was exaamined by Dr Ivor Browne, Chief Psychiatrist of the Eastern Health Board. Kinsella refused to cooperate and Dr Browne could not diagnose a definite psychiatric illness but conncluded that Kinsella was "quite deeply disturbed", according to a letter which Dr Browne sent to the Department of Justice. He said that Kinsella was "unable to fully control his behaviour or to act other than in the way he does." He added, "It is my considered opinion that at this stage the public interest would be served by a proogramme of conditional release for this man," beginning with a transfer to St Davnett's mental hospital in Monaghan. Dr Browne estimated that Kinsella's extended visits to Dundrum and the 24-hour surveillance which they entail are costing the state a quarter of a million pounds a year. Since neither Dr Browne nor Dr Smith nor any of the other psychiatrists involved are free to discuss Kinsella's case the extent of their disquiet about the case has to be deduced at second hand. It is clear, however, that medical opinion is that Kinsella should not be in the prison. It is equally clear that the determining factor in Kinsella's case is not medical but political.

While there is no evidence of who fired the shot that killed Senator Billy Fox there is no doubt that Michael Kinsella was among the band of armed men whose actions cost F ox his life and that Kinsella's consignnment to Portlaoise was in accordance with the spirit and letter of the law. Kinsella received the punishment due under that law. The punishment decided by the court, however, did not indicate the incarceration in a highhsecurity prison of a mentally disturbed man.

The killing of Billy Fox provoked outrage and bitterness within Fine Gael. Many of those who preside over the fate of Michael Kinsella knew and admired Billy Fox. Any concession to one of his killers would run against the grain. Such a concession is cerrtainly unlikely to be made in the face of a campaign such as that which led to Nicky Kelly's release. An objective assessment of Kinsella's case would need a setting aside of bitterness and prejudice and the making of a decision strictly in accordance with medical opinion.

Fears have been expressed within the Department of Justice that if Kinsella was released he might evenntually return to the Provos. In March 1983 Kinsella left the Provos and moved from Landing 3 to the "dissiident" landing. The Provos have indiicated that they would not accept him back into membership. However, the deep-rooted paranoia which underlies the running of Portlaoise and the fear of embarrassment at making a mistake has not only led to a severe regime in the prison but wariness at taking action to relieve the plight of even an obviously sick man.

Eddie Gallagher, the man sentenced to Portlaoise for the kidnap of Dr Tiede Herrema, last month initiated a constitutional action, asking the courts to release Michael Kinsella or commit him to a mental hospital. The action has since been taken over by Kinsella's family. The decision on Michael Kinnsella's fate, after ten years in prison and seven years of psychiatric treattment, will remain a political one. •