The past is always with Osgur Breatnach. Forty-five years ago, his life was interrupted and he was catapulted into a nightmare from which he has never woken up.
He was abused by agents of the State. He describes what happened to him as torture, based on the UN definition of torture. He was wrongly imprisoned and his family life shattered. He was never given a proper explanation about what happened and today he is still trying to find out.
“This is not something that happened back in 1976,” he says.
“As far as I’m concerned every morning I wake up and there is no inquiry I am being told that my rights don’t matter. I don’t have rights.
"I’m an Irish citizen and I’m being told I don’t have rights. They are obliged by European law and international law through the UN to hold an inquiry.”
On 31 March, 1976, the Cork to Dublin mail train was robbed, after being stopped by a gang near Sallins in Co. Kildare. More £220,000 was taken and has never been recovered.
The robbery occurred at a time when the Troubles in the North were raging and various Republican groups were engaged in fundraising, mainly through robbing banks.
The mail train robbery was audacious and brought the fundraising onto a new level. Almost immediately some gardaí believed they knew who the culprits were, pointing the finger at the Irish Republic Socialist Party, a breakaway group from the Official Sinn Féin.
Up to 40 members of the party or associates were arrested. Pretty soon, the garda focus narrowed in on five suspects. Eventually, three of these signed confessions, Breatnach, Nicky Kelly and Brian McNally.
This was the only evidence against the three. All said that they had been beaten up in custody and signed statements that had been concocted by the gardaí. While the three were members of the IRSP (McNally was actually an ex-member at the time), there was absolutely no evidence, nor was it even suggested, that they had ever been involved in paramilitary or subversive activity.
The Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) was believed to be associated with the IRSP, but any specific relationship between the two was not clear cut. At one point during his detention, Breatnach was taken to a tunnel that ran from the Bridewell garda station to the district court next door.
“They asked me to account for my movements (on the night of the robbery) and I said I was at home with my wife. They said you don’t want to drag her into it, do you. They continued to beat me for hours, not only in the tunnel but in a locker room.
"Eventually a statement was concocted by the gardaí.
He and the others were convicted in the three-judge non-jury Special Criminal Court and sentenced to 12 years penal servitude. By then, Kelly had jumped bail and fled to the USA on the basis that he felt, like the others, he was being subjected to a sham exercise designed to confirm guilt rather than examine facts.
Breatnach’s mother was from Spain. He had family in that country. Did he consider fleeing?
"I had family in Spain and I did consider going,” he says.
“Ireland had no extradition with Spain. I believed from day one that we would be convicted. I had already initiated a civil action and I didn’t think as a human rights activist I should run so I decided to stay.
"I can quite understand though that Nicky decided he was not going to jail for something he didn’t do.”
Breatnach and McNally were imprisoned in Portlaoise, which housed those convicted of anything associated with the Northern Troubles. While in there, his son was born. “I was misinformed about the gender of the child,” he says.
“I was told initially it was a girl.
"I would have been aware of all this and obviously I missed out on the bond between parent and child in those early months.”
He also found himself spending time in solitary confinement after being accused of being part of an escape attempt.
“I hadn’t been aware of the attempt and the prisoners who were involved apologised to me after for not telling me about it because they knew I wouldn’t go as I was campaigning for my case. I was still thrown into solitary for two months. It was hard, but particularly cruel on my family who couldn’t visit while I was there.
“I had no problem with the other prisoners. I had problems with a lot of warders, not all of them, and with some of the guards who did the searches (in cells).
"Everything was thrown out onto the landing and anybody who resisted, and sometimes if you didn’t resist, you got a beating. It was an oppressive regime.”
Breatnach’s depiction of Portlaoise at the time is corroborated to thethrough other independent sources. Those who were housed on the subversive wings of the prison were the subject of some serious beatings that were not a feature of prisons in general at the time.
Whether this was attributable to local management or at the behest of the Department of Justice or central government has never been established.
The two men – Kelly was living in the USA beyond the reach of the Irish courts – pursued an appeal that took 17 months to get back into court. The appeal was delayed.
According to Breathnach, excuses for a delay in preparing the court transcripts from their trial were varied but one included that a photocopying machine was broken and this held up the process. Eventually, the court of appeal overturned the convictions on the basis that the confessions were obtained “under oppression”.
The nature of this oppression was never explored. The two men were released. They pursued civil actions and in 1993 the State settled with both of them.
Nicky Kelly returned from the USA after the court of appeal ruling but he hadn’t been part of it and was sent back to prison. Following a hunger strike, he was released in 1984 and later also received a substantial settlement from the State.
He was also given a presidential pardon as, unlike his two colleagues, his conviction had not been set aside.
Breatnach attempted to get on with his life but he found it impossible to get past what he had endured. When it all kicked off he had been 24, already married and settled into a career in journalism which he saw as a means to pursue the wrongs in society, particularly in relation to human rights.
By the end of the ordeal, his own human rights had taken a battering. The physical and psychological impact of it all was not something you could not just put to one side.
“It had health repercussions,” he says. “My health deteriorated and deteriorated over the years. I had a nervous breakdown. I am locked into an emotional response to what happened to me, not just in the Bridewell (garda station) but in the special criminal court and in jail, and so forth.
"I can’t psychologically deal with that, and not just me but no human being can until the issue is resolved and those stopping it being resolved are the Irish state.”
He also says that prior to the settlement of his civil action in 1993, he was subjected to continual harassment from the gardaí.
“The guards would stop me and sometimes I’d get so annoyed that I’d drive off and they’d come after me with sirens blaring and then say, ‘come on Osgur, give us your name’.
"Once, when a train was robbed they called to my door and asked me to account for my movements. I was blacklisted from work. At one point I had a job lined up. A journalist was leaving a local newspaper and he trained me in. There was nobody else going for the job.
"And then as soon as he mentioned my name to the editor it was no. He’s not working here.”
Breatnach has always maintained that the State is obliged to hold an inquiry on the basis that it is a signatory to the UN Convention on Human Rights and through European law which explicitly bans the use of torture. Yet at no point has any government over the last 45 years acquiesced to do so.
The official position is completely at variance with the actions of successive Irish governments in pursuing another case which involved torture while detained by agents of the State.
In 1976 – the same year in which Breatnach and his colleagues sustained serious injuries in custody in Dublin - the government took a case to Europe on behalf of “the Hooded men”.
These were 14 men detained on the first day of internment in August 1971 in the North and subjected to torture by RUC special branch men, supported by elements of the British Army. Their ordeal lasted for a week and left them severely traumatised.
The European Commission of Human Rights found that the men had been subjected to torture. The British government appealed and the judgment was amended to one of “inhuman and degrading treatment”.
The Irish government was not satisfied with this downgrading of the ruling and appealed that in a process that ran all the way to 2014 but was ultimately unsuccessful. Yet while that process was winding its way through the European justice system, successive governments did absolutely nothing about a case of alleged torture in its own jurisdiction south of the border.
“The Irish government was correct to pursue that case,” Breatnach says.
“And ironically, the hooded men are supporting my efforts and my application for an inquiry and it’s obviously totally hypocritical (of the Irish government) to do that on one side of the border and grant a de facto amnesty to all who were involved in the cover-up in our case. The Irish government’s response to torture in 26 counties has been not to talk about it, to ignore it.”
His campaign has received widespread support, including from Amnesty International.
“In 1990, Amnesty called for an independent inquiry into what these men experienced in garda custody,”
Colm O’Gorman, AI Ireland executive director said in 2019: “The serious and credible claims of garda ill-treatment in this case were never properly and impartially investigated. This remains a stain on Ireland’s human rights record.”
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) is of a similar mind. The ICCL was actually launched on the day before the Sallins robbery in 1976 because of perceived abuses of rights in relation to the Northern Troubles, including repeated allegations of assault in custody in garda stations.
The Sallins case was one of its first issues, and among those who examined it on behalf of the ICCL was lawyer Mary Robinson, later to serve as president.
Another figure who featured at that time was Breatnach’s solicitor, Pat McCartan. He went on to serve as a circuit court judge and is now retired.
He is a patron of the campaign, which also includes people like former UN co-ordinator in Iraq Denis Halliday, Christy Moore, legal academic Dermot Walsh and former president of the Law Society James MacGuill, among others.
The official response from successive governments has been no response at all. Notwithstanding the glaring hypocrisy in its attitude to the Hooded Men or its obligations under international treaties, the Sallins case has been filed away as something that happened in the other country that is the past.
This approach is not unique from government. Practically every public inquiry – and in more recent decades the model de jour commission of investigation -- set up has been done so only following political or public pressure.
As of now, pressure of that nature has not been brought to bear. Does Breatnach foresee circumstances in which it might?
“It is essentially a political decision whether to hold an inquiry,” he says. “And I’m certain that if the government has anything to do with it, they will do their best to reduce terms of reference and fudge it, but there will be growing pressure on them to respond.
"As governments change in the future and more information becomes available there will be more inclination to hold the necessary inquiry.”
He stresses that an inquiry must examine not just the behaviour of the gardaí when he and his colleagues were detained, but whether and how the whole affair was as a result of directions and attitudes emanating from the highest offices of state.
Breatnach’s next move is to petition the UN to conduct an investigation in order that it might exercise the appropriate pressure on government to fulfil its obligation.
Another avenue that may open up to him would be a change of government. Should, for instance, Sinn Féin form part of a government there may well be an appetite to hold an inquiry as the party could identify with what Breatnach and the others were subjected to at that time in the state’s history.
One way or the other, Osgur Breatnach will pursue the issue until he receives a satisfactory outcome. But what about how the state and society has moved on since 1976.
Could the same thing happen again, with all the changes we have seen, all the oversights, all the advances in human rights?
“Absolutely, 100%. If you put forward a case, and I was to pretend to be the chief super in charge of the case and I wanted to frame you using all the legislation that has been passed over the years I could bring you right through it and show you just how you could be framed.”