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Once in never out

It is an old Republican principle. But it could also be applied to the attitude the authorities have taken to Ireland’s longest serving political prisoners, Paddy McCann and Colm O’Shea. Jailed for the killing of two Gardai during a bank raid in Roscommon in 1980, as the peace process reached its final stages they were asked to sign up to the Good Friday Agreement. They subsequently put their names on the dotted line. That was ten years ago. So why have they not been released in the meantime, like dozens of other former Paramilitary activists? In an extraordinary, confessional interview, PADDY MCCANN makes his case against the State.

Jason O'Toole, 03 Feb 2009



Paddy McCann and Colm O’Shea are the two longest-serving political prisoners in Ireland. They have been incarcerated since 1980, when they were sentenced for the murder of two Gardai during a botched armed robbery.

They are also the longest-serving Irish-born prisoners. Only two others have been in jail longer in Ireland – the Englishmen, John Shaw and Geoffrey Evans, imprisoned since 1976 for the brutal rape and murder of two women.

McCann and O’Shea were members of the small but highly effective paramilitary organisation Saor Éire at the time of their arrest and not the INLA as was subsequently reported. At the height of The Troubles, Saor Éire conducted a series of armed bank robberies to raise money to provide arms, training and funding to Nationalists in Northern Ireland.

Both of these men are quite happy to admit they were in the thick of this action, carrying out armed robberies right across the country. They were accompanied by a third republican paramilitary on a bank robbery on July 7, 1980 in Roscommon. As the three absconded with the money from the raid, they crashed into a car driven by two Gardai, John Morley and Henry Byrne. A shoot-out took place, in which the two Gardai were killed. Both McCann and O’Shea were arrested close to the scene. After a dramatic search for what became known as The Fugitive, a third man, Peter Pringle, was picked up two weeks later.

It is a capital offence to murder a member of the Gardai. All three were found guilty of the murders and were sentenced to death by hanging. This sentence was reduced to 40 years by the then President, Patrick Hillary. The effect of this Presidential decision is a matter of controversy. “When the Attorney General handed this sentence down, he added that it should be 40 years without remission,” Paddy McCann, now 62 years of age claims. “However, Patrick Hillary never put this clause in when reducing the sentence.”

Pringle always protested his innocence and was released 15 years later. Both McCann and O’Shea are still in the high security E1 Wing of Portlaoise Prison. They are now planning various legal challenges to secure their release. They make a convincing case that they should have been released under the Good Friday Peace Agreement. As evidence of this, Paddy McCann sent me copies of documents he signed as part of the agreement. In the documents, he agreed to “comply strictly with any conditions attached to any parole which I may be granted.”

McCann and O’Shea also argue separately that they should be granted remission because, as the Citizen Information Board points out, “Prisoners in Ireland have a right to remission of one-quarter of their prison sentence.”

For the purpose of a media campaign, McCann and O’Shea have now banded together with a member of the INLA – Mick McHugh – who was convicted of murdering Garda Paddy Morrissey back in 1985. “We want to be known as the Portlaoise Four,” says McCann, originally from Waterford. However, the fourth man referred to has told Hot Press that he does not wish to be associated with the current campaign.

Unusually, Paddy McCann states that he has enjoyed his time in prison. Perhaps his formative years prepared him for life behind bars. In his youth, according to a member of his family, McCann suffered from polio and spent over eight years in a Dublin-based hospital. Having recovered, he went to the south coast of England, before heading to London. There he joined the British Army.


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