Padraic Wilson, a former leader of IRA prisoners at Long Kesh jail and now a senior Sinn Féin figure, was released on bail on Tuesday after the party strongly protested a court decision to remand him on IRA membership charges.
The 53-year-old was held in connection with alleged meetings of Provisional IRA members arising from the stabbing death east Belfast man Robert McCartney in 2005.
The decision to charge Wilson with membership of the IRA, and addressing a meeting in support of the IRA, was greeted with surprise in Belfast. But Friday’s decision by District Judge Fiona Bagnall to refuse him bail -- consigning him to Maghaberry prison, and the company of either loyalist killers or disgruntled republican ‘dissidents’ -- caused shockwaves at Stormont.
The charges stem from alleged meetings held following a fatal knife-fight outside a city centre bar seven year ago Mr McCartney’s family accused Provisional IRA members of being involved in the incident.
Mr McCartney’s sisters and his former partner now claim that they subsequently met an individual known to them as ‘Padraig’, who said he was a member of the IRA Army Council, and was willing to help them. They believe that they have now discovered his full identity through internet searching, and called for his arrest. He is not accused of any other involvement in the McCartney incident.
In a hand-written statement, he has denied ever being an IRA member or having any involvement in an investigation into the McCartney murder.
Although no-one was ever convicted of the knife attack in which their brother died, the sisters’ high-profile media campaign brought international political pressure for the Provisional IRA to disband. Now Wilson’s arrest, seven years later, has dramatically raised the possibility of retrospective or historical charges against Sinn Féin figures.
Hundreds of party supporters gathered to protest on Monday in defence of a man who now works for the organisation as a political manager. A number of senior Sinn Féin members attended the protests, including Bobby Storey, Sean ‘Spike’ Murray, former Stormont minister Caitriona Ruane, West Belfast assembly member Pat Sheehan and South Belfast assembly member Alex Maskey.
Sinn Féin Policing Board member Gerry Kelly described the decision to charge the 53-year-old with IRA membership as “politically motivated”. He said party members felt “palpable anger” at the arrest, but did not say he would walk away from the Policing Board, an oversight panel which regularly holds meetings with PSNI chief Matt Baggott.
“We are in there to make a difference, we are trying to make that difference, it has made it very difficult in the Policing Board and indeed on the issue of policing and that is far as I will go at this particular point,” he said.
He described the decision to arrest Wilson as “bizarre” and “political”.
“You will remember he (Wilson) was in charge in [the H-Blocks] around the time of the Good Friday Agreement,” he said.
“He was one of the key people who brought prisoners along, he continued that work when he got out within Sinn Féin and continued it right up to his arrest in terms of supporting the political process and peace process.”
Mr Kelly suggested that some PSNI members are involved in “anti-peace process activities”.
“These are the people who have been fighting against the new beginning to policing,” he said.
“Over a very long time you can see these people in the retire and rehire scandal, you can see them in their reaction to the McGurk’s Bar investigation and you can see them in terms of [controversial British police agency] SOCA and all these other anti-peace process activities.”
During a subsequent hearing at the High Court the following day, party colleague Mitchel McLaughlin argued that Wilson had played a key role in the peace process and been part of delegations that met with the 26 County, British and US governments.
Bail continued to be opposed by the prosecution, due to an alleged risk of interference with witnesses, but they admitted there was no evidence to support the claim.
Neil Fox, defending, attacked the strength of the case. “The identification process has been where Google searches took place. That in itself is objectionable,” he said.
Bail was granted by the High Court’s Justice Horner, who ordered Mr Wilson to report to the PSNI twice a week.