State Papers – 1977: Duo’s death sentence sparks huge protests

THE death sentence of a couple for shooting dead a garda sparked protests in 14 countries, occupations of buildings and the dumping of sheep’s heads at an Aer Lingus office.

Noel and Marie Murray, in their 20s, were convicted of the capital murder of Garda Michael Reynolds following an armed bank robbery in Killster, Dublin in 1975.

They were sentenced to death by the Special Criminal Court in June the following year.

In protest of the death sentence, there was an “invasion” of Italian anarchists at the offices of the Córas Tráchtála (Irish Export Board) in Milan, Italy, on July 19. Protesters demanded to talk to the Irish embassy in Rome and “threatened serious reactions”.

Up to 30 protestors occupied the office demanding a retrial for the Murrays. Protestors hung slogans from windows speaking to supporters outside.

But police were called and protesters left peacefully. The ambassador reported that if the executions went ahead, there was a threat of violence. Advice was sought about police protection for embassy residencies.

Three days later, the Irish embassy in Paris warned the Department of Foreign Affairs at Iveagh House of a “growing number of protests”.

One of the Paris’ police chiefs advised embassy staff on security. Discreet police surveillance of various Irish offices in Paris at night was discussed.

The ambassador told Foreign Affairs that police had said extreme protesters were of a “sinister disposition… criminal anarchists”, some “mentally unbalanced” with a desire for publicity, who became “possibly even dangerous as the date of execution drew nearer”.

But 24 hours later, police duty around the embassy was stepped up after French media reports appeared about the death sentences.

At home, Iveagh House was warned of security concerns at its own building.

By August 1976, the Irish embassy in Bonn, Germany, increased security after protests by students from Cologne University.

On August 5, protesters arrived at the offices of Aer Lingus in Munich. The embassy in Germany reported: “Eight young people, apparently all German, walked in and placed two sheep’s heads on the counter. Besides these they put a sign bearing the caption ‘Ireland — a Murder State’.”

By October, Amnesty International was seeking a meeting with members of cabinet, including Taoiseach Jack Lynch. It emerged then Finance Minister Richie Ryan was an Amnesty member.

Memorandums reveal by late October protesters had occupied Ireland’s offices at the UN in Geneva.

“Analogies [about Ireland] are also made between the judicial process used and that of fascist states past and present,” said the department about protesteors’ statements.

Protesters worldwide included a Nobel prize winner, religious groups and trade unions.

For months, there were pickets every Saturday night outside the embassy in London.

Five months after the death sentences of Noel and Marie Murray were announced, protests had taken place in Sweden, France, Britain, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, France, Australia, Portugal, Austria, Belgium, Ireland, the US and Italy.

The death sentences were eventually commuted and both given life imprisonment.

The death penalty was removed from statute books in 1990 and replaced by a mandatory 40-year sentence for capital murder.

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