Four Provisional IRA prisoners refused early release despite qualifying under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement have said they will not allow themselves to be used as political pawns in any new talks process.
In a statement yesterday from Castlerea Prison, the four men apologised for the killing of a Garda and the wounding of another in County Limerick nine years ago.
“We deeply regret and apologise for this and the hurt and grief we have caused the families,” the men went on. “There was never any intent to attack any members of the Garda Siochana” during the IRA operation in Adare in June 1996.
While pointing out that they qualified for release under the Good Friday Agreement, they said they no longer wanted their release to be part of negotiations. This was because the Government was “now presenting our release as an obstacle to negotiations and an agreement”.
This meant they were being used “as political pawns or hostages to undermine this process”, and they would not allow this. “We are totally committed to the peace process. . . The cause of lasting peace is too important,” they said.
The four men are Kevin Walsh, Pearse McAuley, Jeremiah Sheehy and Michael O’Neill, convicted of the manslaughter of Garda Jerry McCabe. The four men are known collectively as the Castlerea 4, but are normally described in mainstream Irish media as the “McCabe killers”.
They were sentenced in 1999 to terms of up to 14 years and are due for release on dates ranging from May 2007 to August 2009.
The release of the men had been part of discussions with Sinn Féin about a deal in the North up to their collapse before Christmas over unionist demands for symbolic ‘humiliation’ photographs of IRA decommissioning.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has made several statements in recent months regarding the men’s position, ruling the matter off or on the table in response to lingering controversy over the Adare incident.
Sinn Féin’s Martin Ferris welcomed the statement from the men yesterday, saying that while his party would continue to campaign for their release, this would no longer be part of negotiations.
“This was a difficult decision for the men and their families, particularly as the Government has twice agreed to their release. I believe their apology to the McCabe and O’Sullivan families is genuine, as is their desire not to be used as a blockage to ongoing efforts to rebuild the peace process,” he said.
A spokesman for the McCabe family, Pat Kearney, said last night their initial reaction was that an apology was very late in the day and did not alleviate the loss. “However, we are Christian people and an apology is always welcome from wrongdoers.”
The Garda Representative Association said it was outraged at the suggestion that there was never any intent to attack members of the force.
The following is the full text of the statement, issued on Sunday afternoon:
“We deeply regret the death of Garda Jerry McCabe and the wounding of Garda Ben O’Sullivan during an IRA operation in Adare in June 1996. We deeply regret and apologise for this and the hurt and grief we have caused to their families. There was never any intent to attack any members of the Garda Siochana.
“We are qualifying IRA prisoners under the Good Friday agreement. This has been confirmed by the High Court and the Supreme Court.
“The Irish Government have an obligation to release us. They have refused to do so and are now presenting our release as an obstacle to negotiations and an agreement.
“For this reason we do not want our release to be part of any further negotiations with the Irish Government.
“We are totally committed to the peace process. We will not allow ourselves to be used as political pawns or hostages to undermine this process. The cause of lasting peace is too important.”