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Gerry Adams lobbied for release of garda killers a year after conviction

State papers: British officials also raised issue of prisoner release, saying ‘life of a Garda’ could not be valued differently from that of a UK policeman

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams raised the issue of the early release of the four IRA men convicted of the manslaughter of Det Gda Jerry McCabe with taoiseach Bertie Ahern a little over a year after they were convicted for the offence.

The four men – Pearse McAuley, Jeremiah Sheehy, Michael O’Neill and Kevin Walsh – were convicted by the Special Criminal Court in February 1999 after pleading guilty to manslaughter.

Early release for paramilitary prisoners was one of the key provisions of the Belfast Agreement. The Irish government made it clear in the run-up to agreement being signed that any amnesty would not apply to the killers of McCabe. The four were then awaiting trial. The Garda detective was killed and his colleague Det Gda Ben O’Sullivan was seriously injured during the robbery of a post office van in Adare, Co Limerick, in June 1996.

Adams wrote to Ahern in July 2000 calling on him to address the release of the IRA gang. Adams informed Ahern that he had written to the British government reminding it of its obligations under the Belfast Agreement. He then turned his attention to the Irish government.

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“There are other matters which come under the jurisdiction of the Irish government. These include the whole issue of Northern representation in the Oireachtas, votes for citizens of the North in presidential elections and referendums. There is also the issue of those prisoners sentenced for the shooting of Garda Gerry (sic) McCabe. As you know these prisoners come under the Good Friday Agreement and while I am mindful of the sensitivity involved in this case it too is an issue which must be resolved.”

In the wake of the April 1998 agreement, which was endorsed by referendums the following month on both sides of the Border, British officials were perplexed at the refusal of the Irish government to release the prisoners who being held awaiting their trial, and expressed concern that the life of a garda was being valued differently than that of a British policeman or a RUC officer.

The issue was raised at a meeting of senior Irish and British officials in May 1998, with Bill Jeffrey of the Northern Ireland Office saying the British were “perplexed” at Dublin’s position. The Irish officials pointed out that the Adare robbery was apparently unauthorised by the IRA, and therefore early release would not apply.

The British side stressed the need for their legislation on prisoner release to “be clearly based on uniform principles. Pointed questions would undoubtedly be asked if there seemed to be contradictions between the British and Irish situations. There could be no question of the life of a Garda seeming to be valued differently from that of a British policeman or a member of the RUC.”

Sinn Féin continued to lobby for the release of McCabe’s killers in subsequent years. The first of the four prisoners to be released was O’Neill in May 2007 and then Sheehy in February 2008. McAuley and Walsh were released on August 5th, 2009, after serving their full sentences, with former Kerry Sinn Féin TD Martin Ferris collecting them from the gates of Castlerea prison.

In 2015 McAuley, was jailed for stabbing his estranged wife – Sinn Féin TD Pauline Tully – 13 times in a frenzied attack on Christmas Eve the previous year at the home they once shared in Co Cavan. He was released from prison in June 2022.

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