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Thatcher told Haughey that Ireland's refusal to extradite IRA priest was 'a major setback'

Ireland and the UK disagreed over how to handle the case of Fr Patrick Ryan, and the US considered intervening, State papers reveal.

Charlie Haughey and Margaret Thatcher pictured in Dublin in 1990.
Charlie Haughey and Margaret Thatcher pictured in Dublin in 1990.
Image: Tim Brakemeier/DPA/PA Images

MARGARET THATCHER DESCRIBED Ireland’s decision not to extradite a priest suspected of IRA crimes to the UK as a “major setback” in a letter the then-British Prime Minister sent to Taoiseach Charles Haughey in 1989, newly released State papers reveal.

Ireland and the UK disagreed over how to handle the case of Fr Patrick Ryan, putting a strain on an already fragile relationship.

Ryan, a former priest from Co Tipperary, was suspected of being an IRA quartermaster active in Belgium and of being involved in several bombing campaigns throughout the UK.

In 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.

Last year, 1988 State papers showed that Attorney General John L Murray warned that media coverage in the UK meant that were Ryan to be extradited, “it would not be possible for a jury to approach the issue of his guilt or innocence free from bias”.

“That being so, the Attorney General is of the opinion that it would be improper, and an abuse of the process of the courts, to initiate extradition proceedings in this case.

“The initiation of such proceedings, in the face of the objective evidence before the Attorney General in the case would be to operate legislation in a manner which would violate the constitutional and fundamental rights of the person affected by its operation,” a State document noted.

The latest batch of papers show that Thatcher strongly disagreed with this stance.

In a letter sent to Haughey on 11 March 1989, Thatcher wrote: “I repudiate very strongly the assertion that Patrick Ryan would not receive a fair trial before a jury in England.

I can only say that it was a major setback when his extradition was blocked on grounds not identified in your Extradition Acts, and of which we had not previously been aware.

Thatcher also wrote that she read Haughey’s recent Fianna Fáil party conference speech and welcomed “what you had to say about the appalling nature of violence in Northern Ireland”.

repud Source: 1989 State Papers

“There are other points which you will realise I cannot agree with at all (and cannot easily be reconciled with the Anglo-Irish Agreement),” she added. 

Unique case 

The Ryan case came up in much of the correspondence between the two leaders at the time.

other point Source: 1989 State Papers

In one letter to Thatcher, Haughey wrote: “I do not intend getting into the Patrick Ryan extradition controversy in any detail but I want to make two points:

“In your letter of 19th December, 1988 you ‘repudiate utterly’ the assertion that Patrick Ryan would not receive a fair trial before a jury in England and you say that the Attorney General here ‘went far beyond the grounds’ indicated at the time of the passing of the Extradition (Amendment) Act.

“There were, however, quite unique features in this case which had to be taken into account. None of the particularly difficult issues which had to be confronted arose through the words or actions of anybody here.

In view of the uniqueness of the case and having regard to the questions that would be raised, the Attorney General took the most unusual step of making a statement spelling out in very clear terms his exact reasons for his decision.

“I have studied this statement with great care and quite frankly I agree completely with the decision which was in full accord with the obligation of the Attorney, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, regarding the matters which he must take into consideration in discharging his duties.”

In this letter, Haughey said he wanted to make another point in relation to the possible use of the Criminal Law Jurisdiction Act 1976 “to try any charges that may be preferred against Patrick Ryan for alleged offences in Britain or on the continent”.

Suggestions have surfaced on your side that witnesses may be unwilling to come here because of security worries and allegations have in fact been made that on a previous occasion witnesses who came here were exposed to a degree of intimidation and were ‘put in fear’.

“There has been correspondence on this matter between Scotland Yard and the Garda Síochána and I understand that the Gardaí were in a position totally to repudiate the allegations.

“This sort of public expression of concern does not do full justice to the thirteen or so cases which have been tried here, without incident: nor does it take into account the many instances where, in extradition and related proceedings, witnesses from the United Kingdom have been regularly coming here without difficulty to give evidence,” Haughey wrote.

US intervention

The US was keeping a close eye on Anglo-Irish relations at the time and another document shows that it considered intervening in the Ryan case.

A government briefing note on a conversation between Tánaiste Brian Lenihan and Morris Busby, Director of the Bureau of Counterterrorism in the US, stated that the US State Department was “considering instructing its Embassy here to make a demarche in support of the British extradition request; however, any such instruction was headed off following Embassy explanations of the Irish perspectives on the case”.

“Nevertheless, it may be that the traditionally anglophile State Department – with its natural sympathies reinforced by the very strong anti-terrorist attitudes currently prevailing in the US – is still briefing internally in an unhelpful manner,” the document added.

It went on to state that “extradition even between friendly states is never uncomplicated but always, and rightly, raises issues of appropriate procedures and proper protection of legal rights of the accused”.

PSNI review

In September of this year it emerged that the PSNI is reviewing admissions made by Ryan to the BBC.

Speaking on the BBC NI Spotlight series on the Troubles, Ryan admitted links to the IRA’s Brighton bomb in 1984. PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne said at the time that his staff were “looking into” Ryan’s comments.

“As you would expect, we have a specific line of inquiry we’ve now got to examine. I’ve got one of our assistant chiefs looking at that [case] … to see if there are fresh lines of inquiry that we would then need to review our decisions in the past,” Byrne said. 

He added that if the PSNI were to seek Ryan’s extradition “that’s a conversation we need to have with [Garda Commissioner Drew Harris] and his colleagues”. 

Speaking at the same conference, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said any extradition request would be considered by the Irish courts.

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