State Archives: 1981

Sisters smuggled appeal to Haughey

By Noel Baker

TWO Irish women serving time in an English prison for terrorism offences smuggled a letter out of jail to Taoiseach Charlie Haughey, state papers reveal.

Sisters Ann and Eileen Gillespie from Bunbeg in Co Donegal were convicted in connection with an explosion at a house in Manchester in 1974. By 1981 the pair were still more than two years away from release from Durham Prison when they smuggled out a letter pleading on Mr Haughey to plead clemency on their behalf.

The letter was sent to Haughey via then-Donegal TD Clement Coughlan, but once it reached government circles the Department of Foreign Affairs decided within days that no action should be taken. In the letter written in January 1981, the Gillespie sisters set out their case to the Taoiseach.

“You will guess as you read this letter that it has been smuggled out of prison,” it begins. “This letter is a desperate attempt on our behalf as we are sure you are aware of the consequences of being caught passing this letter out.”

As top security category A prisoners and awaiting the results of a third parole hearing they wrote that their chances of obtaining parole were “non-existent”, claiming they had been told unofficially that were they imprisoned “for anything other than being Irish and political” they would have already been released.

They claimed being in prison was “very bad physically and mentally” and that they had been administered tranquillisers, even though they wanted to avoid using them, stating it is “something we have been fighting against but have to take from time to time to maintain a level of stability which enables us to serve our sentence and remain sane”.

“The staff here will admit it is inhuman of the Home Office to have kept us here for such a length of time as ordinary prisoners serving sentences of between five years and life only serve 12 to 15 months depending on how long they feel the prisoner can take it while with us it does not matter.

“Our reasons for writing this letter is that we are so desperate that although we only have 2.5 years left to serve we feel that mentally we will not make it and feel frightened for the future.”

In a note dated January 11 to the Taoiseach’s office Mr Coughlan states: “For obvious reasons this is an important letter, smuggled out to the boss himself.

“I am genuinely concerned and I hope the boss will agree to read the letter.”

Two days later the letter had been referred to Sean Whelan at the Anglo Irish section of the Department of Foreign Affairs and by the next day a Department of the Taoiseach note outlines how “the Department of Foreign Affairs are of the view that it would not be appropriate to make representations to the British authorities urging parole for the Gillespie sisters. As they understand it the granting of parole is a matter for the parole board.”

The parole board decided they should not be released and in May 1981 the sisters wrote an official letter to Mr Coughlan. That month Mr Haughey wrote back saying he was following the issue.

He also refers to Fr Patrick Fell, a priest serving a sentence for conspiracy to cause explosions, and his request for temporary release to tend his sick father. He had not been allowed to tend to his dying mother in 1976, nor attend her funeral. He was released in 1982 and died this September.

College feared Libyan death squad targeted its student

By Noel Baker

IT was the moment a secretary at a Dublin college came face-to-face with the reality that a Libyan death squad might be targeting one of its students.

State papers have revealed that the Libyan government under Colonel Muammar Gaddafi had sent a letter to the College of Technology on Bolton Street demanding information on a student, Taher M Lamin.

The letter, sent in May 1980 to the head of the Department of Aeronautical Training by the socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahirya in London, asked what course Mr Lamin was studying and when he would finish.

Responding in July, the secretary of the college, MJ Marnane, replied: “Unfortunately, we are prevented by regulations from disclosing information on students except on the written instructions of the student. We would appreciate therefore if you could contact him directly and ask him to advise us as to the information to be forwarded to your embassy.”

Mr Marnane’s move may have saved the student’s life.

Department of Foreign Affairs documents show that staff fielded a call from Mr Marnane and advised him not to give the Libyans with information, claiming: “We might be concerned if the People’s Bureau took an over-zealous interest in Libyan students here.”

They said Mr Lamin was not government-sponsored and therefore no information should be provided.

At the time, Libyan hit squads were targeting Libyans living overseas.

An document from 1980 advised the Foreign Affairs Minister, Brian Lenihan, that heads of mission from countries such as Britain and Italy in Tripoli had been told by Libyan authorities that they should send back to Libya or expel Libyans living in their respective countries and those Libyans that “do not respond to the Libyan call to return home by 11 June at the latest, or failing that allow the Libyan Resolutionary [sic] Council to liquidate them”.

1981 documents show that Irish visa applications by five Libyans associated with the People’s Bureau in London had been refused “on the grounds that they were likely to be involved in the intimidation of Libyans resident in this country”.

In 1981 similar problems befell an Iraqi national living in Ireland. Documents from the Department of Foreign Affairs from October 1981 show “a difficult case” involving a 22-year-old studying with An Bord Altranais who contacted the Department of Justice asking to be allowed to stay in Ireland as “he was afraid he would be punished for his political views if he returned to Baghdad”.

It was not clear if he was actually asking for political asylum. An accompanying note asks that the situation be checked as they felt the Iraqis “may well show their annoyance” after an Iraq visit by minister John Kelly.

Haughey opposed South Africa tour

by Noel Baker

THE full extent of government opposition to the controversial Irish rugby tour to South Africa has been revealed in state papers. Taoiseach Charlie Haughey did not want to be involved “in any way”.

Opposition to plans for the tour had been voiced the previous year but the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) had held firm.

By early 1981 the tour had become a serious political issue, with motions being tabled in the Dáil and Seanad as the government stressed its opposition to the tour to Irish rugby chiefs.

Documentation also shows the desperate attempts to avoid Irish athletes in other sports being excluded from international competitions. In a briefing note from the political division of the Department of Foreign Affairs concern is expressed over possible sanctions against athletes from the North in the following year’s Commonwealth Games. The fear of Wales and Scotland following the Irish example and touring South Africa is also raised.

“If this happens there is the real risk of concerted African action against participants from the UK and Ireland in the run-up to the next Olympic Games. The point is that the international reaction to the tour is not likely to die down after May,” the note read.

The same letter, from February 20, 1981, also suggests that if Dáil and Seanad motions on the tour issue were not successful “I wonder if we should consider an intervention by the Taoiseach at an opportune moment,” adding that while it was “an exceptional step” it might persuade the IRFU against going ahead with the tour or at the very least would show to international opinion that the Irish government had done all in its power to stop it.

A handwritten note on the same document states: “I understand from the minister the Taoiseach does not wish to get involved ‘in any way’ in this issue.”

A draft letter from Minister for Foreign Affairs Brian Lenihan to the IRFU president Robert Ganly claims controversy over the tour was likely to intensify in the months before the tour and that there should be another meeting between the government and the IRFU.

Notes from a meeting on March 27 between the the IRFU and government said the “tour has become a major international issue” and “it is impossible to deny it has now assumed the dimensions of a very serious issue”.

The pressure on the IRFU and Ireland to pull the tour intensified amid growing international condemnation.

The saga included a failed High Court application from a private individual seeking to prevent the team from travelling. A depleted tour party finally departed from London on May 11, 1981, returning almost a month later with the UN Centre Against Apartheid and other bodies publishing reports on the tour.

Promises to Stardust victims that could not be kept

By Noel Baker

THE government of Garret FitzGerald complained that they had been left trying to fulfil the “vague promises” made to Stardust victims’ families by Charlie Haughey when he was taoiseach.

Internal documents from the Department of the Taoiseach released under the 30 year rule show the Fine Gael government of late 1981 were scornful of Mr Haughey having met with victims without any advisors present.

A fire at the Stardust ballroom in Artane on Dublin’s northside on Valentine’s Night, 1981 killed 48 people and prompted an inquiry which found that the fire was probably started deliberately.

However, a 2009 report found this was not likely.

Documents dating from 1981 show that a pledge from Mr Haughey when he was taoiseach, that re-opening part of the Stardust complex would be opposed by the state, boxed the later Fine Gael government of that year into a corner when it emerged little could be done to stop the complex from restarting business.

In a private letter from Mr Haughey to Vincent Hogan of the Stardust Relatives and Injured Committee, the taoiseach outlines how the state would oppose any re-opening until the tribunal had made its report.

The taoiseach also received a letter from a survivor appealing to him not to allow the premises to re-open.

Internal documents also show correspondence over the government’s decision not to accede to a request made by the Butterly family, who owned the Stardust ballroom, for state recoupment of their legal costs in the tribunal.

Another letter, in April 1981, from Mr Haughey to Mr Hogan outlines how a new upper limit of £7,500 had been set for mental distress and the issue of possible compensation is also raised.

After the June general election, new taoiseach Garret FitzGerald continued correspondence with victims, including the pledges made by his predecessor.

A governmental note from July 28, 1981, states: “Mr Haughey, the then taoiseach, met with this Committee initially on 14 March, 1981. Certain vague commitments were made at this meeting and as a result Mr Vincent Hogan, the chairman of this committee (whose brother was killed in the fire) wrote to the taoiseach on 3 April requesting written confirmation of what was agreed at the meeting on 14 March.”

The note outlines how “all legitimate options open to the state in order to keep the Stardust complex closed indefinitely had been exhausted”, a view shared by the then-attorney general.

Yet “an assurance was given to this committee by the former taoiseach. It was a written assurance in the form of a letter. It amounted to a considered, legally advised, assurance that the state would opposed any re-opening of these premises until the tribunal had reported.

“However, in reality, it seems little can be done legally to prevent a re-opening of the Stardust complex, assuming the Butterlys are determined to go ahead and open for business.”

A “last resort” would be to advise the Coolock gardaí that any re-opening might cause a breach of the peace, given the feeling in the area.

Plane hijacker complained to taoiseach about life in Ireland

By Ryle Dwyer

A MAN who hijacked an Aer Lingus flight on route from Dublin to London wrote to then taoiseach Garret FitzGerald from his prison cell in Paris complaining about his treatment while he lived and worked in Ireland.

According to state papers, shortly before the aircraft was due to land in London, Laurence J Downey emerged from the toilet having doused his clothes. He said it was with petrol and threatened to immolate himself if the pilot did not agree to fly the plane to Teheran. There were 108 passengers and crew on board.

The pilot flew to Le Touquet near Paris, where a seven-hour stand off ensued. Transport minister Albert Reynolds flew out to Paris to coordinate with the French authorities.

Downey was insisting on flying to Teheran as he had written a new constitution for the people of Iran. His other demand was for the disclosure of the third secret of Fatima.

He allowed one woman with five children to leave the aircraft, and then he also agreed to allow another woman to leave after she apparently became ill.

When the ambulance crew came to collect her, a handful of French security men ended the stand off by storming the plane and overpowering Downey, who was armed with nothing more than a bottle of water.

The story caused a sensation in Ireland, where Downey was depicted as a deranged former Trappist monk. He was an Australian who had studied for the priesthood with the Cistercians in Rome for four years, but was ejected as they considered him unstable and unsuitable.

“I went to Ireland thinking she was an oppressed underdog,” Downey explained.

He set up a language school in Shannon, and tried to interest SFADCO in building a 20,000 seat all-purpose stadium, but he had no money to back his ideas. People naturally began to question his mental stability.

“I tried to help in the hope that I might be accepted in the land of my ancestors, but they hated me without cause and told me not to interfere,” he wrote.

“They destroyed my business in Shannon through spite and jealousy, because they couldn’t bare to be told how to develop their land effectively and profitably. They held me up to public ridicule, they reduced me to poverty I had never known before, they refused me residence and threatened me with gaol and deportation, all because I loved them.”

He was not a legal immigrant and was refused permission to remain in the country. He went into hiding to avoid deportation. He felt the Republican cry of “Brits Out” applied to him.

“Expulsion was the last straw,” he continued. “Because I am Anglo-Irish, ‘Brits Out’ has become a personal matter and the Irish part of me has turned to anger.

“The history of all hitherto existing Irish Society is the history of conflict and division among themselves,” Downey added. “Right back to the time of Wolfe Tone angry and violent men have adopted self-destruction, individual and national suicide as the foundation stone on which to build Irish Freedom.

“The four million emigrants that left Ireland did not abandon their country, they went to build and possess an Empire which today is their rightful inheritance.

“If a handful of violent men wish to sever the branch from the vine, then they must reckon with the descendants of those four million and not the Angels alone. It’s time we all stood up to be counted.”

He essentially tried to exploit the excitement surrounding the hunger strikes. “Consistent with the national and individual spirit of suicide, I decided to fight fire with fire by faking a suicide attempt,” he explained.

“The ‘attempt’ was relatively successful from a publicity point of view because the ‘Hijack Hoax’ of the Aer Lingus Dublin-London flight on May 2nd was reported all around the world.

“What was not known at the time by the press was that I had sprinkled my clothes with water, not petrol, and the water bottle I carried in my shirt was also filled with water. I had no intention of harming anybody, much less myself. I was arrested at Le Touquet, and when the French police discovered I was unarmed they treated me courteously. I am much better off than I ever was in Ireland.”

Downey was incarcerated for a couple of years in Paris before he was tried, convicted and sentenced to five years in jail.

He was freed after a further 16 months and returned to Australia.

‘D’evil Éire’ lambasted by Churchill for offering condolences on Hitler’s death

by Ryle Dwyer

THE Government discussed lowering the Irish flag over Government buildings as a mark of respect following the death of Hitler, the state papers reveal.

Then taoiseach Éamon de Valera and Joseph P Walshe, the secretary of the Department of External Affairs, visited the German minister to express their condolences on May 2, 1945. The following day a terse statement was issued from the Áras.

Since the flags at the Áras and all Government buildings were lowered to half-mast following the death of President Franklin D Roosevelt two weeks earlier, there were questions about doing the same on this occasion.

“The official view was that the special ties of historic friendship which linked Ireland with the US did not apply to the same extent to Germany, and it appeared therefore that the half-masting of the flag immediately on the announcement of the death was not necessary,” an Áras official noted.

The file also contains scathing letters of protests. Patrick O’Reilly wrote of de Valera to President Hyde from Stratford-on-Avon: “We feel ashamed to let people know we are of the blood of people who have such as man as their leader.”

The following week, Winston Churchill launched a broadside against de Valera in his victory broadcast. Pronouncing the taoiseach’s name as if it were “D’evil Éire,” he said, “we left the de Valera government to frolic with the Germans and later with the Japanese representatives to their heart’s content”. This led to a response by de Valera in what is widely regarded as his best speech ever.

The file also reported on the riot in Dublin that same day, sparked when Seamus Sorohan and future taoiseach Charles Haughey burned a Union Jack.

Embarrassment averted after North/South Korea gaffe

By Noel Baker

OFFICIALS in the Irish Embassy in Stockholm were left red-faced after admitting they had arranged a meeting with the South Korean ambassador — only to end up hosting the representative from North Korea.

The officials had to write to the department back in Dublin to assure them that the error should not be seen as Ireland granting official recognition to Pyongyang.

Files from the Department of Foreign Affairs released under the 30 year rule highlight the gaffe.

According to the letter from August 20, 1981 from the Irish Embassy in the Swedish capital to the secretary of the department: “I wish to state that through a misunderstanding in this office, I received the Ambassador of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea at his request yesterday.

“For various reasons, we had thought that it was the South Korean ambassador who was calling, but the North Korean arrived instead, accompanied by an interpreter.”

The file does not disclose how the meeting went or whether the visiting ambassador was told that it was his South Korean counterpart who had been expected. It does state that the Ambassador had raised the issue of increased diplomatic relations between Dublin and Pyongyang and that he would like an answer. The response, suitably diplomatic, was that “we would let him know if there had been a development.

“I do not foresee any embarrassment arising out of the call,” the letter continues.

The matter of recognition of North Korea had featured in earlier documentation, also included in the new files released under the 30 year rule.

Internal department documentation from 1972 expresses the view that Ireland had “no motive in recognising North Korea at this stage” as “our contacts with that country were slight and our trade negligible”, and even if Ireland did recognise Pyongyang in the long run there would “never be any question of diplomatic representation, in view of our small contacts“.

Ireland’s official position on North Korea has not altered in the past 30 years.


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