WBAI 99.5FM Pacifica Radio
New York City
4 April 2015
SB: We're going to Ed Moloney, the author of A Secret History of the IRA who blogs on The Broken Elbow. And we're going to talk to Ed about what I find, I'm not easily shocked by things that happen in The North, but this is a truly shocking case. This Michael Burns, he's sixty-seven years old, he's going to die in a few days or a week but the British government, through the Director of Public Prosecutions, is trying to put him on trial for something that happened way back in 1967!
And, in addition to that, they sent him a letter that said: You're not wanted. There are no charges against you. You can come home. But now, they are threatening to put them on trial. Ed, thanks very much for being with us.
EM: My pleasure, Sandy.
SB: Help us understand: Why is this happening? It doesn't seem to serve any purpose whatsoever.
EM: Well, it has to do with these “letters of comfort” as they're called that were issued by the Blair government to mostly IRA people who were on-the-run, in other words who were wanted by the police in Northern Ireland for various offences - and indeed also the police in Britain. And the letters were negotiated as part of the peace process accords by the Sinn Féin leadership and the Blair government. And they were issued to over two hundred IRA or former IRA activists and they basically said: You can return now to Northern Ireland. The police will not pursue you. You're not wanted. There isn't a warrant out for your arrest. There will be no prosecution.
Effectively delivering an amnesty - admittedly to a very select number of people – and one can imagine that to get on that list you had to satisfy certain pre-conditions as far as the Sinn Féin leadership was concerned, ie you were basically on board the peace process programme. But even so, it was regarded as a very important concession by the British government because it enabled Gerry Adams to say to these people: Look, here you are – this is one of the benefits of the peace process. The Brits will not be pursuing you and you can come back and live with your families and carry on life as normal.
And this guy, Michael Burns, was one of those. He went on-the-run in 1977 after a shooting incident, the details of which are not exactly clear at this point in time, but he went south of the border and not long after he went south of the border he was arrested and charged and convicted of taking part in an armed robbery. And he served eleven years in the Republican wing of Portlaoise Gaol. During that time, it would have been the RUC, the predecessors to the present PSNI, sent an extradition warrantsouth of the border trying to get him returned as soon as his sentence was finished. And that was refused, as most of these extradition warrants were, on the grounds that it was a political offence and there was a political exception in The South's law.
So after he was released from his prison term he stayed south of the border, quite sensibly, because he'd get arrested if he came north of the border. Then the peace process starts - then these letters of comfort are issued - and he gets one of them. And he's one of the very early recipients of the letters of comfort.
Then he moves back to Belfast. He lives in North Belfast; sixty-seven years old now. He has a disease called COPD which is a very, very serious lung disease. It's a progressive lung disease which means it gets worse with time. And essentially, the lungs cease to function in the way that they're supposed to and you know, you'll see people wandering around the streets of New York or in hospitals carrying canisters of oxygen and breathing through them – those are people who have COPD. And it's a fatal disease, essentially, and he is at the terminal stage and he is getting palliative care at the moment. (And palliative care means basically the doctors can't do anything more for you therefore they try and keep you comfortable.)
Now, back in 2014, a former IRA activist by the name of John Downey, who had also received a letter of comfort, was arrested by the British police as he traveled back and forth between Ireland and Europe, and he was charged with involvement in a quite famous bombing in London in 1982, Hyde Park bombing, famous because, although four soldiers were killed, the British public were actually much more upset by the fact that horses were also killed. Anyway, he was charged with that and then when it came to trial he produced this letter and said: Well, here you are. I've been given this promise that I'm not to be prosecuted and here you are breaking this promise. And the judge, therefore, let him go.
That created an awful stir amongst the Conservative government supporters in the House of Commons and the Conservative government led by David Cameron – which is – one has to always bear in mind that these are people who are very, very strongly under the influence of neoconservatives in their own party. There's an outfit called the Henry Jackson Society which is the equivalent of the neoconservative movement in Britain, and huge numbers of Troy MPs and also some very senior figures in the government are members of the Henry Jackson Society. It's a neoconservative society. They never liked the peace process. They thought Gerry Adams was just putting on a show and it was a great big piece of trickery – the peace process –
that Adams intended to go back to war as soon as he got concessions out of the British government and weakened the members – like “stuff and nonsense” - but then we know from neoconservatives they specialise in stuff and nonsense – I mean they got into a war in Iraq on stuff and nonsense and they had the same stuff and nonsense approach and attitude towards the peace process. And as a result of all the fuss that was created, the Cameron government has withdrawn these letters of comfort now.
Now this is like, I think, a very serious crisis for the peace process except that no one on the Republican side seems to be terribly bothered by it. They're not making a fuss so therefore it's not a crisis. But it qualifies as a crisis because here you have in negotiations a solemn promise given by the British government and a British Prime Minister to a party in those negotiations and his successors come along and say: Screw that. We're ripping these letters up. That's breach of faith and it poses very, very serious problems, I think, in the long-term for the Sinn Féin leadership even though they are, at the moment, not saying anything about it.
So this guy, Michael Burns, is a victim of this backlash against these letters of comfort and they're trying to put him on trial. His lawyers are going to argue – when it comes to court – they've got a judicial review specifically dealing with the letters of comfort - and they're going to say: Okay. The police are saying here that this letter was issued in mistake – that he was really wanted all the time. But they've known this for many years. This letter was issued to him in 2003. Why didn't they act upon it way back then?
They're only acting upon it now because there's a political fuss therefore this is “abuse of process” as they call it in law. In other words, they are twisting the legal process in order to suit their goals. And they're going to try and kill it. It's been held up because at the same time, the legal aid authorities in the British system, in the Irish system, people who don't have money, like they do in America, get public legal help. The legal aid authorities were refusing to allot the required amount of money to fight this particular issue of the letters of comfort. So it's all coming to court in the middle of this month – actually in a couple of weeks or so - and we'll see what the outcome of it is.
I broke the story on The Broken Elbow but I wasn't the first to do that – another blogger in Belfast, a former lawyer called Peter Sefton, broke it and he told me about the story and I sort of developed it a wee bit more but there's been totally media silence about it and it's quite extraordinary.
SB: What puzzles me is still: By the time this court hearing happens he could be dead!
EM: Yes, he could be. I mean his lawyer told me that they're actually surprised – or his doctors are surprised - that he's even alive now - that he's so badly ill – obviously this COPD is really very, very serious for him and they honestly – and I don't think he was exaggerating - they will not be surprised if he is dead before this court hearing in the middle of April and they're talking about him like having days or weeks to live at the most. And the fact that the prosecuting authorities are pursuing him - and also have refused to drop the case on the grounds of health - that even if they get a conviction of this guy he's not going to serve any time because he'll be dead.
It seems like a very ruthless piece of inconsiderate and almost merciless action by the authorities and that is being carried out by the son of Paddy McGrory. And you know, people who are familiar with the legal process in Northern Ireland will know that Paddy McGrory, a former IRA member himself, was a great civil libertarian lawyer who stood up and defended people when other lawyers wouldn't defend them - a political activist for sure but always on the sort of the Republican/Nationalist side - was Gerry Adams' own lawyer - and I just wonder what Paddy would think of his son now as he does this type of thing.
SB: Yeah, this is Barra McGrory.
EM: This is Barra McGrory, yes.
SB: Who's now the Director of Public Prosecutions. And what was Barra McGrory before he was Director of...
EM: He was a solicitor in Paddy's office and then when Paddy died he took over the business and he inherited a whole number of clients; one of whom was Gerry Adams. Another one was Bobby Storey. A lot of the senior Sinn Féin leadership were all represented by McGrory's law firm. Now he's Director of Public Prosecutions.
Now you know this character Michael Burns - I don't know much about him apart from what I've heard from his legal representatives - but one assumes that because he got a letter of comfort that he was not in conflict with the Sinn Féin leadership. He was regarded as a persona grata by them therefore you're not talking about some “wild dissident” that Barra McGrory's pursuing - you're talking a mainstream Republican who supported the peace process, you know?
SB: But this would seem to me, and as I've said I'm not easily shocked about things that happen in The North, but I am shocked about prosecuting a man who's days or weeks away from dying.
EM: It seems heartless to be honest with you and pointless as well because as I say, if they lose this judicial review and the letter of comfort is officially withdrawn, then the guy goes to trial – it'll take months for the trial to happen - he will certainly be dead by then. So this is being done primarily to overturn these letters of comfort that Blair...and Barra McGrory is facilitating this.
SB: But one would think that if one was a Sinn Féin politician and they were going after people who have been, at least in the past, loyal to Sinn Féin, suffered for Sinn Féin and now you have an outrageous case like this that you could use to possibly upset the whole process. Are they speaking out?
EM: Well, you see I think that's the problem. I think that's why they – I mean, they may be doing stuff privately behind the scenes – you know, I'd be very surprised if they weren't - but they're publicly - Sinn Féin are not saying a word about this type of thing for the obvious reason: Because it raises questions: Well, why did you do the deal with these people? Because, you know, if you can't trust them to keep their word what's the point in negotiating with them? And that's really – you know, that gets to the heart of the debate that has existed in Irish Nationalism for decades and centuries between physical force and constitutional methods where the physical force people are saying: You do a deal with the British - they'll betray you at some stage and here you have a classic example of that. So I don't think - you can understand from the Sinn Féin's point of view - they don't want to highlight this embarrassing example of that, you know?
SB: Well also, it would be an admission that they lost the war.
EM: Well, indeed. You see, I've argued that this whole issue of pursuing people now, by the PSNI with the blessing of the British government, is effectively resuming the war against the IRA because the conflict between the two sides was fought in very different ways: the IRA used weapons and bombs and tried to kill as many British personnel as they could - they clearly obviously didn't do very well because they killed an awful lot of civilians - but leaving that aside for the moment - that was their modus operandi. Whereas the British, while they also went out to kill IRA people, the major effort that they put in against the IRA was in the courts – was to bring IRA people in front of judges and put them through the legal process and send them to gaol for long periods of time – that's how they fought their war.
The IRA has stopped bombing and shooting. Everyone knows that and they've given up most of their weapons. But the British haven't stopped their war. They're continuing to pursue the IRA. That is a breach of the spirit of the peace process in my mind, you know? But again, it's one of these embarrassing things that no one really wants to talk about which I rather think there's been no media coverage of it.
SB: Well, if the war had even been fought to a draw – there's some people who say that the IRA won the war - but even if it was an honourable truce you know, “we'll just call it even” - you wouldn't be able to go back...
EM: ...Well, that's what it was supposed to be, Sandy. It was supposed to be a negotiated end to this conflict – everyone gave up a little bit in order to end the war. Some people gave up more than others, perhaps - but leave that to one side for another day. But in terms of like the way that the conflict ended was by mutual agreement, by negotiation, by winning and giving concessions on either side and that implies no side is going to claim victory or admit defeat. And therefore, when the British say: Well, actually we're now going back to trying to put people behind bars who were involved in this war that was ended by negotiation they're actually ripping that up and saying: We won and this is how we put our victory into practice.
SB: But when Nelson Mandela and the ANC took power – they made it unable to prosecute - they made a deal not to prosecute some of the worst agents of the white minority government. But none of their people are on trial. Their people are in government.
EM: Absolutely! Never were. And I think if Mandela and his ANC had negotiated a deal with the white government and then the white government resumed trying to put Mandela's people in gaol again the whole thing would have broken down, you know? I don't think there's any doubt about that.
No, it's implicit, in fact, almost explicit: part of the arrangements when a conflict ends in a mutually agreed way, through negotiations, through concessions that a line – you know, John Hume has this famous phrase: Draw a line through the past or under the past, alright? That's it. Over. Forget about it.
What is happening now with this Cameron government, which again as I say - strongly influenced by neocons, is that they're saying: Screw this. We're going to pursue these letters of comfort people and anyone else that we can find evidence against who was involved in The Troubles.
SB: Well, in terms of David Cameron, who is the current Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, who's up for re-election...
EM: ...Well, no - Prime Minister of Britain.
SB: Prime Minister of Britain, of course – so that makes him, in fact, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland - but he's up for re-election and everybody says that no single party is going to be able to form a government in Britain and he might be dependent on the Democratic Unionist Party.
EM: He might well,indeed - he might well, indeed – and it will be very interesting to see what the results are because there's another mathematical equation which has potentially Sinn Féin also holding the balance of power but in order to exercise that balance of power they would have to drop heir tabstentionist policy in the British Parliament and take an oath of allegiance to the Queen. And since Martin McGuinness has been dining with the Queen it seems to me a logical step that that would happen.
But that depends on the the election result. But you're quite right. It could be a “hung Parliament” as they call it – one which has no clear majority – and that Cameron will go to the DUP and the DUP will be as hard as iron on these issues. Why should they be anything else? The IRA's their enemy. And they're in government with Sinn Féin and the DUP has said this repeatedly you know that as far as they were concerned negotiations that they undertook to get into government that the arrangement of sharing power with Sinn Féin was not a permanent measure – it was a temporary measure and that at some stage in the future they'd return to majority government or majority rule, you know?
SB: Hypothetically, and it's not just hypothetical it's a very real possibility, if you've got a conservative government dependent upon the Democratic Unionist Party to stay in office, as the saying goes: You ain't seen nothing yet!
EM: Exactly. Exactly.
SB: But again, another thing that puzzles me about this case, about Michael Burns' case, about a man who's dying – a sixty-seven year old man in eminent - will die in days or weeks - and is being prosecuted. Now, that would seem to me to be a huge media story. Even forgetting the political implications that you've been going into – just on a human interest basis I would think that would be a huge story.
EM: You would think so but you know, I haven't even one call from a journalist in Ireland saying: Who's his lawyer? Can you give us a phone number? Well, I did have one contact – and you know about it - but that wasn't from Ireland – that was from New York. And there you are. That tells the story – doesn't it?
SB: But, Ed, I mean I come back to the stupid questions: You found out about the story. Through you I found out about it. I'm in New York...
EM: You phoned me.
SB: Why can't somebody sitting in Belfast find out about it the same way you did?
EM: Well you know, I've got all sorts of theories about that but that's an entirely different programme, Sandy, you know but - it's the state of the media in Ireland.
I just think that they're at the stage after thirty years of conflict and now a peace process in which the pressure has been on the media all the time to conform, to conform, to conform - not to question, not to question – is that it's worn all of them down. I mean, I know journalists there who are good journalists - very great journalists some of them - who would understand the importance of this but unfortunately they seem to be outnumbered by the others, you know?
SB: But meanwhile Michael Burns, to come back to the actual individual, seems to be a victim caught in the middle. Sinn Féin doesn't want to raise his case because that would be admitting...
EM: ...Well, at least in public. They may be doing it privately.
EM: ...You embarrass the opposition.
SB: Right. This would be an ideal case to do it with.
EM: Yes, you would think so but I think the cost of doing that is to expose weaknesses in the whole peace process strategy which they don't want to do.
SB: And the media, for some reason, doesn't want to do it, either.
SB: So we have poor Michael Burns just...
EM: ...Yeah, I mean the circumstances of this case are exactly the same as John Downey's which started this entire farce. That in both instances the police said: Ooops! We made a mistake. He shouldn't have gotten a letter because we did really wanted to pursue him. And John Downey's case created headlines and huge political controversy. But this? It's like it's been “disappeared” - to use a phrase.
SB: And meanwhile, there's a man who's going to die very soon who's going to be dragged through the courts.
EM: Yes. It's very possible.
SB: And that is what the peace process seems to translate to in reality.
EM: Well, that's where we're at – that's for sure.
SB: And you know, we were talking earlier to Christy Walsh who's on hunger strike for twenty days to try to clear his name and he emails daily to Martin McGuinness and has never heard a word back. So that seems to be where the peace process is at right now.
EM: Well, you know Sinn Féin I think have got a priority in their minds and that's to win power in The South and I think that's dominating everything, really, in their minds.
SB: Ed, before I let you go because we're running out of time – tomorrow on 60 Minutes your old friend Gerry Adams is going to be featured saying he was never in the IRA among other things.
EM: Yes, indeed, indeed. And I think the importance of this - this is not a new story for us in Ireland or for people from Ireland – I mean, it's been there on the agenda for more than a decade - nearly twenty years, in fact. But this and The New Yorker article about Jean McConville and Gerry Adams and this piece on CBS, which is also about Jean McConville and Gerry Adams, is exposing this embarrassment regarding Gerry Adams to an American audience really for the first time. And there are a lot of people in America who certainly didn't know about this and here is this horrible story coming out and it can't be something that he or his party welcomes at all in America. They don't want this sort of story. They don't want this sort of publicity in America.
SB: Well, as we say: Stayed tuned!
EM: Okie doke.
SB: And we've been talking to Ed Moloney. He's the author of A Secret History of the IRA. He blogs on The Broken Elbow.