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UK Supreme Court quashes Gerry Adams' 1970s convictions for attempted Maze Prison escapes

Adams attempted to escape from the Maze on Christmas Eve 1973 and again in July 1974.

Image: PA Images

Updated May 13th 2020, 10:01 AM

FORMER SINN FÉIN president Gerry Adams has won a UK Supreme Court appeal against two historic convictions for attempting to escape from the Maze Prison in the 1970s.

The former Sinn Féin leader had claimed that two 1975 convictions relating to his attempts to escape from the Maze Prison during the early 1970s are unsafe because his detention was not “personally considered” by a senior government minister.

Lawyers for Adams, aged 71, argued that because the interim custody order (ICO) used to initially detain him was not authorised by the then secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Willie Whitelaw, his detention was unlawful.

Welcoming the judgement, Gerry Adams said in a statement that “internment, like all coercive measures, failed”.

Of course internment, later described as detention by the British, was never lawful. In fact it set aside the normal principles of law and was based on a blunt and brutal piece of coercive legislation.

“I have no regrets about my imprisonment except for the time I was separated from my family,” he said.

He added that he was in the company “of many remarkable, resilient and inspiring people” while in the Prison Ship Maidstone, in Belfast prison and in Long Kesh.

The attempted Maze Prison escapes

Adams attempted to escape from the Maze, also known as Long Kesh internment camp, on Christmas Eve 1973 and again in July 1974.

The former Louth TD was first detained in March 1972, but was released in June that year to take part in secret talks in London before being rearrested in July 1973.

In 2018, the Court of Appeal in Belfast heard that, on Christmas Eve 1973, Adams was among four detainees caught attempting to break out of the Maze.

The second escape bid in July 1974 was described as an “elaborate scheme” which involved the kidnap of a man who bore a “striking resemblance” to Adams from a bus stop in west Belfast.

The man was taken to a house where his hair was dyed and he was given a false beard, then taken to the Maze where he was to be substituted for Adams in a visiting hut, the court heard.

However, prison staff were alerted to the plan and Adams was arrested in the car park of the jail, the court was told. He was later sentenced to a total of four and a half years.

The judgement

2.9551881 Willie Whitelaw was secretary of state at the time. Source: PA Images

Announcing the Supreme Court’s judgment at a remote hearing this morning, Lord Kerr – the former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland – said the court had unanimously allowed Adams’ appeal and had quashed his convictions.

The judge said Adams’ detention was unlawful because it had not been “considered personally” by Whitelaw.

Lord Kerr said: “The making of the ICO in respect of the appellant was invalid since the secretary of state had not himself considered it.

“In consequence, Mr Adams’ detention was unlawful, hence his convictions of attempting to escape from lawful custody were, likewise, unlawful.”

Lord Kerr added: “The appeal is therefore allowed and his convictions are quashed.”

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The legal arguments

At a hearing in November, Adams’ barrister Sean Doran QC said his client’s appeal had been “prompted by the obtaining of materials under the 30-year rule”, under which government papers are made public.

Doran said those documents revealed there had been “considerable debate within the Northern Ireland Office and the Home Office” about whether Adams had been lawfully detained.

He said a legal opinion requested by Northern Ireland prosecutors before Adams’ trial concluded that an ICO had to be personally considered by the secretary of state to be valid.

Doran continued that there was also a note of a meeting in July 1974 held by then prime minister Howard Wilson, which he said “confirms that the secretary of state himself did not personally consider the appellant’s case”.

He added that the attorney general at the time, Samuel Silkin QC, told the meeting “there might be as many as 200 persons unlawfully detained in Northern Ireland” as a result of junior ministers authorising ICOs under the previous Conservative government.

Tony McGleenan QC, representing the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland, argued that the minister of state who signed the ICO “had the power to do so”.

He said that the power to make ICOs was designed “to deal with a situation of civil emergency”.

McGleenan added: “It would have been impractical or even impossible for the secretary of state to give personal consideration to every request for the making of an ICO.”

The barrister accepted that Adams’ convictions should be quashed if the Supreme Court ruled in his favour. 

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