Call for an independent inquiry into the justice system’s handling of the Sallins case


An international judicial figure should conduct a fully independent inquiry into the 1976 Sallins train robbery due to ‘appalling human rights abuses’ during the investigation, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) has said ).

The council is currently preparing a submission to Justice Minister Helen McEntee on the matter.

The IRA has finally claimed responsibility for the March 31 incident in which £200,000 was stolen from a mail train near the town of Co Kildare. Three men arrested shortly after signed “confessions”. All had injuries they claimed were inflicted by gardaí.

At the Special Criminal Court in 1978, the late Mr Justice Liam Hamilton accepted the confessions as having been signed voluntarily by Nicky Kelly, Osgur Breatnach and Brian McNally, and found that their serious injuries “were either self-inflicted or inflicted in collaboration with persons other than members of the Garda Síochána”.

Kelly fled. He was sentenced to 12 years of penal servitude, as was Breatnach, and McNally was sentenced to nine years. In May 1980, the Court of Criminal Appeal overturned the convictions of Breatnach and McNally after concluding that “the statements made by the applicants were not legally admissible”. That year, the IRA claimed responsibility for the theft.

Kelly returned to Ireland from the United States in June 1980, expecting to be released, but he was imprisoned until 1984. He was unsuccessful in all legal actions in the intervening years before 19 judges, including some of the oldest in Ireland at the time.

To explain their rulings, the judges resorted to precedent and language used in the infamous 1980 British Denning Judgment which kept the innocent Birmingham Six in jail until 1991. In that year it was revealed that the British police had fabricated and suppressed evidence in the case.

After a 38-day hunger strike in 1983, Kelly’s release “on humanitarian grounds” was approved by the government in 1984. In 1992, he received a pardon from President Mary Robinson who declared that, in right, it was “as if he had never been charged or convicted” in connection with the theft of the Sallins mail train.

“Torture and ill-treatment”

ICCL executive director Liam Herrick said the council had “systematically called for a full independent investigation, led by an international judicial figure, into the role of the entire justice system in the appalling human rights violations the man in the Sallins case, and in other cases where Garda torture and ill-treatment of those in custody was compounded by the cover-up and collusion of other state organs”.

He added: “The role of the courts and the government must be part of this investigation, as well as how the gardaí linked to a number of cases of ill-treatment in custody have not been held accountable for their actions.”

Meanwhile, NUI Galway law professor Donncha O’Connell has described the Kerry Babies Tribunal as “an abomination” and “state-sponsored misogyny”. He also questioned whether sitting judges should ever preside or be members of future tribunals.

The 1984 tribunal, presided over by Judge Kevin Lynch, was set up to investigate Garda’s conduct in the case where the innocent Hayes family confessed to killing a child, despite being unable to do so. It became a lawsuit by the family and an exoneration from the relevant gardaí, an outcome forcibly used in later libel actions to suppress media investigation of the case.

Professor O’Connell described the tribunal as ‘an aggressive and toxic inquisition presided over by a judge who became a member of the Supreme Court’.

He said that when judges preside over courts, “they actually lend their judicial independence and credibility to the political system and, if you think about it, they actually lend it to the political system that appointed them and, in some cases, who can promote them in the future”.

This, he said, was “hardly compatible with the doctrine of the separation of powers held in such precious regard by the political and judicial systems”.

A recent RTÉ television series Crimes and Confessions focused on the gardaí’s role in the Sallins and Kerry cases, as well as the 1971 murder of Una Lynskey.


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