Hundreds of those interned without trial in the 1970 could see convictions quashed or receive compensation as a result of a ruling of the Supreme Court in London in favour of Gerry Adams.
On Wednesday, Britain’s highest court ruled in favour of the former Sinn Féin leader in a landmark judgment. Announcing the ruling at a remote hearing, Lord Kerr said the court had unanimously allowed Mr Adams’ appeal and had quashed his convictions. They were Mr Adams’s only convictions from the conflict, both for attempts to escape from Long Kesh during his internment.
The court ruled his detention was unlawful, because the interim custody order (ICO) used to detain him in July 1973 was not “personally considered” by Willie Whitelaw, who was Britain’s Direct Ruler in Ireland at the time.
Lawyer Padraig Ó Muirigh said he represents over 300 people now headed for the High Court and that his office has been “inundated with queries from former internees” since the judgment.
“The Supreme Court judgment in the Gerry Adams case is very significant and has the potential to impact on many of our cases”, he said. “We are currently reviewing hundreds of Interim Custody Orders we have in our possession to ascertain if the Adams judgment has any bearing on their case”.
Those who were involved in an escape attempt in 1974, during which republican Hugh Coney died after being shot in the back by a British soldier, will be keen to know the status of their convictions. Around 30 prisoners were involved in the escape, including current Sinn Fein Assembly member Fra McCann. All those who survived the attempt to tunnel out of Long Kesh were badly beaten when recaptured. They faced charges and imprisoned, perhaps unlawfully, as a result.
Veteran republican Ivor Bell is also among those expected to have their conviction quashed. He briefly managed to escape after swapping places with another prisoner who had been granted parole, but was caught after just two weeks. He was also convicted in 1975 of trying to help Gerry Adams escape, but with that conviction now overturned, Mr Bell’s lawyers are certain to mount a challenge.
Mr Ó Muirigh said there could be many more cases before the Court of Appeal.
The judgment “has wider implications than those ICO’s that don’t bear the signature of the relevant British Secretary of State”,” he said.
“There is the question of whether ‘personal consideration’ was given by the Secretary of State, regardless of whether the document is signed or not. I don’t see how we can resolve that issue without some verification from the authorities.
“We will be writing to the Crown Solicitors Office on that issue and we may need to issue proceedings in each case if we don’t get a satisfactory response.”
Unionists are outraged by the development, with DUP MP Gregory Campbell describing it as ‘an attempt to rewrite history’.
Mr Adams remains guilty in the eyes of UUP leader Steve Aikens, who said the former Sinn Fein had “spent more than 30 years as the public face of Sinn Fein, regularly speaking on behalf of the IRA, refusing to condemn their actions, and playing a prominent role at the funeral services of numerous psychopaths and mass murderers”.
In fact, Mr Adams now has a clear record and can claim compensation for unlawful imprisonment. He said the victory was one for his legal team, and expressed his gratitude.
“However, the fact remains that internment was a setting aside of the normal rules of evidence, of trial and justice by the British government. It was open-ended. You could be detained for as long as they chose to hold you,” he said.
“It was indefinite. 2,000 men and women were held in our time without due process, several died in Long Kesh, many suffered great hardship and privation and families were separated.”
The resulting violence, he said, had propelled the north of Ireland into decades of further conflict. He noted that the Ballymurphy Massacre and Bloody Sunday were directly linked to the policy.
“Internment, like all coercive measures, failed,” he added. “There is an onus on the British government to identify and inform other internees whose internment may also have been unlawful.”