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'A mad priest careering around Europe': Haughey and Thatcher clash over IRA clergyman

Father Patrick Ryan was suspected of being an IRA quartermaster active in Belgium.

Image: PA Archive/PA Images

TAOISEACH CHARLES HAUGHEY suggested to UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that a priest suspected of IRA crimes could be put behind bars in Ireland rather than extraditing him to the UK, newly released 1988 State papers reveal. 

Fr Patrick Ryan was suspected of being an IRA quartermaster active in Belgium and of being involved in several bombing campaigns throughout the UK. 

In late June 1988, he was seized by Belgian police who found bomb-making materials and a sum of foreign currency when they arrested him. 

The British Government immediately sought Ryan’s extradition to the UK, issuing a warrant for his arrest.

When Ryan was later repatriated from Belgium to Dublin, however, Irish authorities failed to arrest him, much to the annoyance of British authorities. 

In a meeting between Haughey and Thatcher, the Taoiseach suggested enacting an old law to ensure Ryan went to jail in Ireland to help “avoid these constant rows” between the two leaders.

Five months after Ryan’s arrest – a period when the priest went on hunger strike in Belgium to protest his possible extradition to the UK – he was transferred to Dublin on 25 November 1988. 

At a 55-minute European Council meeting in Rhodes, Greece on 3 December 1988, Thatcher got “straight to the point” with Haughey, criticising the Belgian court’s decision to extradite Ryan to Dublin and not to London. 

‘A really bad egg’

“Ryan is a really bad egg,” Thatcher told Haughey before reading from an official memo. 

She said he was “largely responsible for the Libyan money” and that “very large sums” had been traced to Ryan’s account. (Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi supported IRA activity throughout the 1980s.)

“He has also been caught with bombing devices of the sort that were nearly used on 11 of our seaside towns,” says Thatcher.

“We stopped that. That was one of our successes.”

Thatcher herself was nearly killed in the Brighton Bombing in October 1984 when the IRA targeted the Conservative Party conference. 

Two days before the leaders met in Rhodes, British Attorney General Sir Patrick Mayhew said that Britain’s call for Ryan’s extradition should be granted by the Irish government. 

“We are at the receiving end of terrorism. Ryan is a very dangerous man,” Thatcher continues. “Why do you not take him, either under your legislation or back our warrant?”

“I do not know what will happen in Knightsbridge or Oxford Street at Christmas. People like Ryan with contacts with Libya, with expert knowledge of bombing – they can skip – I feel so strongly on this and feel so badly let down.”

Throughout the meeting Thatcher vents her frustration at the lack of cooperation by Ireland’s Attorney General’s office. 

Crime - Terrorism - IRA Mainland Bombing Campaign - Grand Hotel - Brighton - 1984 Aftermath of the IRA Brighton Bombing in October 1984. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

But for Haughey, this was besides the point. He argued that “this constant bickering” and “attacking each other after each incident” was harming progress and diplomatic relations. 

“At the moment, Fr Ryan is the villain of the piece,” Haughey tells Thatcher, before venting his frustration about the complexities of extradition.

“The whole process is just not working.”

Haughey goes on to say that he’d asked his then-Tánaiste Brian Lenihan to have a word with then-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Tom King and suggested that “we go back” to an old law. 

Under the old Criminal Law Jurisdiction Act, “something like 14 out of the 15 cases have succeeded” Haughey tells Thatcher. 

The Irish government could “be caught out” on judicial technicalities around extradition but by using the old law, Haughey suggests, “there could well be no particular difficulty in putting [Ryan] away”. 

“If we did this, we could avoid these constant rows.”

Thatcher, however, quickly dismisses Haughey’s suggestion saying the old Act could not be used in Ryan’s case. “I have checked it out.”

“No matter what we send your people object,” Thatcher tells Haughey, who dismisses her complaints saying he “really thinks” the old law should be enacted.

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“It may be the way out.”

‘An extraordinary case’

When Thatcher disagrees, Haughey rebukes her once more by saying that Irish authorities had never heard of Ryan until he arrived in Belgium where British authorities asked that he be kept under observation. 

“You amaze me,” Thatcher responds, before listing off instances of Ryan’s alleged crimes. 

Due to British press coverage around this time and parliamentary statements made against Ryan by MPs, including Thatcher two days before the Rhodes meeting, the possibility of Ryan being extradited to the UK became less likely. 

When Thatcher insists on Ryan’s extradition to the UK, Haughey says that “every damn [extradition] case now has some twist to it.”

“Ryan is an extraordinary case. You have a mad priest careering around Europe, arrested in Belgium and then flown to us in a military plan, avoiding British airspace!”

At the end of the meeting, Haughey attempts to placate Thatcher by saying that he’d write to her.

The British PM dismisses him. “There can be no substitute for worthwhile extradition arrangements.”

On 13 December, Haughey announced in the Dáil that the Irish government rejected the British government’s request for extradition because it believed Ryan would not receive a fair trial in the UK. 

State papers have previously revealed that disagreements over Ryan’s case were a low-point in Anglo-Irish relations during the Troubles.

Opposition Leader Neil Kinnock later said that Thatcher “blew” any chance of Ryan being extradited to Britain through her “performance” in the House of Commons where she effectively branded Ryan a ‘terrorist’. 

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