Thatcher said ‘Yes’ to Crumlin Road escapee, records show
Thatcher said ‘Yes’ to Crumlin Road escapee, records show


An IRA man who escaped prison more than 50 years ago was given a royal pardon by Margaret Thatcher’s government, official records from 1985 have revealed.

Tyrone man Donal Donnelly escaped Belfast’s Crumlin Road jail on St Stephen’s Day 1960 while serving a sentence for membership of the IRA during its 1950s border campaign.

Lord Douglas Hurd, Thatcher’s Direct Ruler in the Six Counties, agreed to use the Royal Prerogative of Mercy in May 1985.

Less than a year earlier, in October 1984, the IRA targeted a Conservative Party conference in Brighton in a bombing which nearly wiped out Hurd and the rest of Thatcher’s cabinet.

The pardon decision was made ahead of political talks on British co-operation with the Dublin Government.

Donnelly, who was serving a 10-year sentence when he escaped, wrote a book in which he described using hacksaw blades, torn sheets and electric flex as makeshift tools. The title of the book was Escape From Crumlin Road, Europe’s Alcatraz.

Official files released by the Public Records Office in the north reveal Donnelly petitioned Thatcher three times for the remainder of his sentence to be remitted to allow him to continue working for a multi-national company.

Now living in Dublin, Donnelly said this week: “People would probably be surprised that she was at it but she was a very pragmatic woman.”

He speculated the decision to grant the concession was likely to have served some final purpose.

“They knew that I was not involved with the Provisional or the Official IRA; effectively I was no threat to them,” he said.

He added: “The British government was probably saying yes to what I would consider small things to indicate that they were not as intransigent.

“Sending out a message that they were not pleased was saying no to what we would consider as unimportant things and another time they might say yes.”

The use of royal pardons for certain republicans was disclosed earlier this year after the dramatic collapse of the trial of a man accused of the Hyde Park bombing.

Current British Direct Ruler Theresa Villiers has revealed that the royal prerogative was exercised in the north on at least 365 occasions between 1979 and 2002, but that the records for a 10-year period prior to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement had disappeared.


Meanwhile, other records from 1985 released this week show the degree to which Tory officials of the day held nationalist politicians in contempt.

Following a multi-party round of talks in January 1985, the then head of the North’s Civil Service Ken Bloomfield described the intransigence of the current DUP leader - who was then the party’s deputy leader - in unusually glowing terms, while dismissing the risk-taking efforts of then SDLP leader, John Hume.

“Three days exposure to Peter Robinson amply demonstrated what a forceful, articulate and crafty politician he is,” he said. He contrasted Mr Robinson’s performance with that of John Hume, who he described in withering terms.

In one file, he wrote: “John Hume is normally in his element in the United States where he is widely regarded as occupying a position somewhere between Charles Stewart Parnell and Mother Teresa.

“On this occasion he gave a chilling impression of political bankruptcy, rather like a man who has lost a fortune by backing a particular number consistently at the roulette table and continues to stare at that number even though he no longer has a stake to play.”

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