Justice and the Irish way

Nicky Kelly skipped the country after he was wrongly charged of involvement in the Sallins mail-train robbery in the 1970s. He tells Justine McCarthy about his time on the run, his abuse at the hands of gardaí, his political ambitions and his severe allergy to Clairol hair dye



One of the sorest lessons Nicky Kelly learned while he was on the run in Europe and America – convicted in his absence of involvement in the Sallins mail-train robbery and sentenced to 12 years' penal servitude – was that, “I have a severe allergy to Clairol.” Travelling on a false passport under the alias “Barry Ryan”, he regularly applied liberal doses of red dye to his hair and beard to maintain his disguise, his skin erupting in a stinging rash after each treatment. To exacerbate his plight, no matter how diligently he followed the manufacturer's instructions to rinse thoroughly, budget-hotel pillow slips in Paris, Amsterdam, Toronto and Baltimore bore the incriminating auburn stain of his recent presence.

The Clairol quip has the fluency of a well-worn diversionary tactic, sounding honed from years of jocularly cutting conversations off from voyeuristic sallies into Councillor Kelly's past as a fugitive from Irish “justice”. Not that he shows any reticence once he decides to reminisce about that time.

His quandary is that his whole other existence as a local politician in Wicklow since the early 1990s continues to be overshadowed by the state's reluctance to investigate and punish those of its servants who framed him. A new book by Irish Times religious affairs correspondent Patsy McGarry, entitled While Justice Slept: The true story of Nicky Kelly and the Sallins train robbery, powerfully contrasts the Irish authorities' enduring complacency about Kelly's case with the British and American investigations which, respectively, followed the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four miscarriages of justice and the human-rights abuses in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Nicky Kelly, whose name seeped into the consciousness of a generation by the osmosis of ubiquitous “Free Nicky Kelly With Every Packet of Cornflakes” graffiti, quit Official Sinn Féin to become a founding member of Seamus Costello's Irish Republican Socialist Party in 1974. As such, he was regarded as a prime suspect by gardaí investigating the most lucrative armed robbery up to that time (official estimates put it at £221,000 but one of the real robbers claims it was closer to £1m). Four other men charged in connection with it were also IRSP activists.

No forensic or circumstantial evidence placed Kelly at the scene. His conviction solely depended on his signed “confession”, produced after sustained and repeated beatings by gardaí while in custody in Dublin's Bridewell. It was the hey-day of the Heavy Gang, set up by former Garda Commissioner Ned Garvey and unofficially licensed to torture detainees. Between 1975 and 1979, 20 people died in Irish prisons and in Garda custody. Each death was recorded as suicide.

As for the Sallins investigation, not one of the 16-member IRA gang who carried it out was ever held or questioned about it. In his book, McGarry quotes one of the gang leaders declaring the innocence of Nicky Kelly and the other two men who were convicted, Osgur Breathnach and Brian McNally. “I can guarantee you the state, the government, everyone with the slightest interest, knew Kelly didn't do it,” said this man, using the pseudonym Frank. “Kelly and the rest couldn't have robbed a chip van.”

Even now, Kelly occasionally encounters some of the guards who assaulted him in the Bridewell (46 members of the force gave remarkably similar rebuttal evidence about the assaults during two criminal trials). He mostly bumps into them at football matches and pleasantries are exchanged in the vein: ‘Sure, everyone makes mistakes... no hard feelings.' That attitude enrages him.

“It's the old Irish solution to an Irish problem. It's the Irish way of dealing with injustice and corruption,” he says, “and it goes all the way up to our government. I'd prefer if they said nothing at all than say that.

“There are very few people left who won't accept my innocence. After the Morris report there can be few people who don't know the truth about what goes on. In Donegal, most politicians on the health board thought McBrearty was making it up. Ireland doesn't have a great record of human rights. There's no currency in it. No votes.”

Despite a conviction in Wicklow district court last month on car tax, insurance and careless-driving charges resulting from a crash a year ago, Nicky Kelly is expected to get the Labour Party's second nomination in the constituency (deputy leader Liz McManus has already been selected) for next year's general election. He sustained injuries to his spleen, ribs, chest and legs, having to be cut free from the Mercedes he was driving.

First elected to Arklow urban district council in 1994 and to Wicklow county council in 1999 as an Independent, his chances of election to the Dáil have been enhanced by the retirement announcements of Fianna Fail's Joe Jacob and the Independent TD Mildred Fox. He only lost out to Fox by 19 votes, after an eight-day count in the 2002 election. Kelly fancies the justice portfolio in government, an ambition articulated without a whiff of humour.

“A lot of people in this part of the world say I'm more entitled to it than Michael McDowell,” he makes his pitch, “and I'd probably understand it better than in terms of glib soundbites and gimmicks.”

His faith in the criminal-justice system expired the weekend before the verdict was due to be handed down in his trial in 1978. On leaving court that Friday evening, a friend thrust £8 into his hand and said: “Put that to good use now.” Others had already been exhorting him to do a runner. “I came to the conclusion that I was not going to be sentenced for something I didn't do,” he remembers. And so he assumed the identity of overweight, red-haired, bearded Barry Ryan, staying first in friends' houses in Dublin and Clare, before moving on to Paris, Amsterdam, back to Paris, Brussels, Toronto, Baltimore and New York.

“I nearly got caught [by US immigration officials] three or four times trying to get across the border from Canada and had to turn back,” he recalls. “Then one day at Niagara Falls I got talking to a group of US sightseers. It turned out they were Mennonites going to a religious conference. I went with them to the conference and came back on their bus. I told the leader on the way back I was trying to get into the US illegally. I thought I was finished when they all got off the bus and started praying on the side of the road but they got back on and said they'd been praying for guidance and God had told them to help me.”

During his 18 months on the run, Kelly spent the first solitary Christmas of his life, alone in a New York apartment on enforced holidays from his job as a truck driver. “It was very lonely. I'd honestly and genuinely say my Christmases in jail were better than that one.”

It was while in the US that the public Nicky Kelly campaign began to sprout. Accounts of the Garda beatings and forced confession surfaced in influential newspapers, such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times. Kelly started to hope that he could return to a chastened Ireland ready to put right the wrong it had done him. On one occasion, he found himself sitting in the front row at a function addressed by the Irish ambassador to Washington, convincing himself that what he perceived to be an absence of eye-contact betokened official Ireland's impulse to turn a blind eye to his disappearance.

When it was reported that the other two men charged with him, Breathnach and McNally, had been released from jail, he informed the Irish consulate that he intended returning home. He was met at Shannon Airport by four gardaí, handcuffed and driven to Portlaoise prison, where he stayed until 17 July 1984.

In Portlaoise, he went on hunger strike, lasting 38 days. He was transferred to the army hospital in the Curragh and placed inside a steel cage which was specially built for him. At a wedding some years ago, a stranger approached him and apologised. Why? Kelly wondered. Because, this man explained, he was one of the soldiers who used to stand guard outside his cage with a loaded machine gun trained on him.

After coming off the hunger strike, a posse of prison warders came to his cell one afternoon, grabbed him and frog-marched him down the corridor. As he was being bundled into a car, he was followed by a clamour of prisoners beating their cell doors triumphantly. It was only in the car, when the news bulletin came on the radio, that he understood why. He was being released.

In 1992, he was invited to Áras an Uachtaráin to receive a presidential pardon from Mary Robinson, one of the lawyers who unsuccessfully attempted to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights. The parchment scroll of pardon now lies locked in the safe of a solicitor's office. It is, says Kelly, too precious to hang on a wall.π