Northern Ireland news

State papers: Gerry Kelly's royal pardon given 'reluctantly' by officials

Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly. The image was released by the RUC after he escaped from the Maze prison in 1983
Michael McHugh

A BRITISH official agreed "with considerable reluctance" to a royal pardon for Maze prison escapee Gerry Kelly rather than see him freed in Holland, state files from 1989 reveal.

The future Sinn Féin Stormont minister was arrested in the Netherlands in 1986 – about three years after the biggest prison escape in UK history – and extradited back to Northern Ireland to face charges relating to the attempted murder of a prison officer.

Conditions set by the Dutch meant he could not face charges relating to London bombings for which he had already been convicted and was serving life sentences, leading the British authorities to cancel the sentence.

Declassified state papers also reveal another IRA prisoner Brendan "Bik" McFarlane, who oversaw the hunger strikes inside the Maze, was also to be given a royal pardon for explosives charges.

The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) 1986 correspondence was released by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI).

A senior NIO official wrote: "With considerable reluctance, however, I accept that the balance of advantage overall lies in our taking Kelly on the conditions offered rather than refusing to take him with the prospect of his then being released in the Netherlands."

The Maze housed some of Northern Ireland's most notorious paramilitary prisoners during the Troubles.

Mr Kelly, now a Sinn Féin MLA for North Belfast, had been jailed for life in 1973 for the Old Bailey and Scotland Yard bombings.

He was among 38 IRA inmates who fled the Maze in Co Antrim in September 1983. They used smuggled guns and knives to overpower prison staff before hijacking a food lorry and driving to the main gate.

After his capture in Holland, a court prohibited Mr Kelly's extradition on grounds of his life sentences for explosives offences, permitting it only on the charges of attempting to murder a prison officer, causing grievous bodily harm and certain others.

The NIO official described it as "difficult", saying: "If we accept him on the conditions set out by the Dutch Supreme Court, I assume action will be necessary under the royal prerogative to remit his life sentences."

He acknowledged there were genuine reasons for the Dutch not extraditing Mr Kelly on the bombing convictions.

"Nevertheless, the use of the royal prerogative to set aside Kelly's (and McFarlane's) life sentences will be extremely controversial and it is quite likely to be widely misunderstood, misinterpreted and misrepresented: London bomber given royal pardon etc, in the headlines," he said.

The royal prerogative of mercy allows changes in sentences without the backing of or consultation with parliament.

The measure was also considered in extradition proceedings against McFarlane, another Maze escapee.

McFarlane was convicted of a bomb attack on a pub in the Protestant Shankill Road area in 1975.

He was the officer in command of the H-Block prisoners during the 1981 hunger strike over conditions in the Maze.

Following his capture in Holland, he faced extradition proceedings along with Mr Kelly. Mr McFarlane was not permitted to be extradited on his conviction for three explosives offences.

An official wrote: "I agree that we should accept McFarlane on the conditions set out by the Dutch Supreme Court which provide for him to continue to serve his life sentences for murder and to face charges for certain less serious offences in connection with the Maze escape.

"I assume action under the Royal Prerogative will be necessary to implement this decision, ie to remit his sentences for the three convictions for explosives offences for which he is held to be not extraditable."

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