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.
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.
“This is before the war in Ireland. When I was young I was a prodigy,” he says unselfconsciously. “I was a mathematical genius. And I was a genius at chess. In the early days, (British) intelligence thought it was great if you could get a chess prodigy and give them jobs as intelligence officers in deciphering and ciphering code. That’s how my career started. I was a genius – I did the Rubik’s Cube on my first shot. It took me a few seconds to do it. It’s just a facility, you know what I mean? Some people have a knack for some things and some haven’t.”
Some years later, McCann came back to Ireland to sign up to the Republican movement. He was, he insists, a soldier. And as such he did whatever was deemed necessary – including, he openly admits, “robberies; heists; killings; shootings; kidnappings; intimidation; burnings”– to further the Republican cause. Not unlike a lot of others, you might say, who are walking free today.
However you view his actions in the past, it may indeed be that Paddy McCann is right and that he is entitled to early release. At the very least, his extraordinary story is well worth hearing…
JASON O’TOOLE: What’s the situation with you and the Good Friday Peace Agreement?
PADDY MCCANN: Long ago I signed up to the Good Friday Peace Agreement. That’s the story. So, my question is: why am I still in jail? I signed a form, which the governor presented me with, which asked if we agreed to sign up to the principles of the Good Friday Peace Agreement. Why won’t the Irish government keep the Good Friday Peace Agreement with me? They are treating me with great contempt. They have given me no excuse. They didn’t even have the courtesy to say ‘no’. We agreed to abide by the Good Friday Agreement – to be released on parole. We signed an agreement with words to that effect. We’re still locked up while every political group – like the Continuity IRA, the Real IRA and the INLA – which is against the Good Friday Peace Agreement has walked free. There were Provos who got the same sentence as me – a Provo who had a death sentence reduced to 40 years – and he’s out and running around the place. Why are we still locked up in jail?
Why do you believe you haven’t been released?
They were going to let us out. But the Provos – as soon as they were out – killed Jerry McCabe down in Adare. That moved the goalposts. After this they wouldn’t let us out. There might be some interest there. I don’t know. This is the most corrupt and immoral government possible. The guy who killed Jerry McCabe didn’t even get 40 years! He got done for manslaughter and is out now!
How come you haven’t spoken out on this until now? After all, the Good Friday Agreement was back in 1998.
I have nothing to complain about – I was guilty of what I was involved in, the murder of the Gardai. I’m guilty. I was hoping to be released under the terms of the peace agreement, but then I decided to do my time and get remission. I got 40 years. I was waiting until my whack was up – it’s nearly up – which would be 30 years. So, I should be out on remission now.
What are you planning as your next course of action?
I’m getting lawyers. That’s my plan now. I’m trying to get cases going in court. I’m just wondering if I can put pressure on the Irish government. I want my case brought to their attention. I want it known that they are out of order. I want a tribunal of enquiry into all my activities. In the 1960s; the 1970s; the 1980s; the 1990s; and since 2000. In jail as well as when I was outside.
What activities are you talking about?
Since I’ve come to prison I’ve killed more than I killed when I was outside. I have been actively involved as the intelligence officer for Saor Éire, and that role included ordering executions and everything else associated with the operations of a military organisation, in pursuit of our political goals. I was a notorious terrorist in my day. Some terrorists have become Republican heroes since. I haven’t quite made that category yet.
You are confessing now to ordering the murder of people. Why?
Why not? The more trouble the merrier. I’m sick and tired of being in jail. Sure, they can only keep me in jail – they can hardly hang me now! Anyway, they are all liars. They broke the Good Friday Peace Agreement – so fuck ‘em. I’ll tell on everyone! I want a tribunal to enquire into my activities. I’m going to say everything…
What do you mean by “tell on everyone”?
I’d like a tribunal and I’m going to confess to everything I did, and confess about everyone that was involved in it. Some of them are in Dail Eireann. Some of them are sitting on benches as judges. I know all sorts of things about all sorts of people. I was in the (British) army when I was younger. I’m trained in military intelligence. I’m telling you, if they don’t keep the Good Friday Peace Agreement with me, I’ll have to find ways to get out – and the only way seems to be to get into a (witness) box, get a stack of bibles and swear the truth on it about everything I fucking know from the last 40 years. And that wouldn’t be any good for anyone, I can tell you.
Can you tell me any of these stories?
Anything I have to say I will say it in public, in a witness box, and say it on a stack of bibles. You can get Ian Paisley to stand beside me and I can prove what I say. I can confess to all. I can vouch for everything.
You are saying that you were still “active” inside prison?
Of course I was. Do you know we’ve been killing people for years?
So you were still calling the shots from behind bars?
Some shots, in some areas! There mightn’t have been much guns firing. There’s other ways of killing off those cunts! Fellas can get heart attacks!
Why has Sinn Fein or any other wing of the Republican movement not been helping you with this?
Because I’m not in fucking Sinn Fein!
But is there not an element of “we are all in the same boat”?
You can put that to Gerry Adams! I wrote to different figures and none of them have answered me. Martin Ferris and all used to know me. They just think, sure, I’m a fucking lunatic! I’m that hippy! I’m a bit of an eejit and a hippy or I’m away or I’m often annoyed or I’m on drugs! I don’t come under the good and nice category. They have a problem with me. The factions and splits in the movement – the IRA – are deep seated and long lasting. So, they are not going to do anything for me. I’m Saor Éire, not the Provisional IRA. I was the intelligence officer for Saor Éire.
Do you regret signing up to the Good Friday Peace Agreement?
No, I don’t regret signing it. I really agree with it fully. But is there any chance that the State might keep it with me? I was sentenced to 40 years. The President reduced our death sentence to 40 years in prison. And the attorney general jumped in and added the no remission bit, which my lawyers tell me is illegal. I should get out on the Remission Act, at least, now. I’m nearly 30 years in jail.
If you were released, what would you do with your life?
I’d have a lot of considering to do. My first plan would be to get the fuck out of Ireland as soon as I could – the first fucking road out of here. That’s what I’d do.
Bernice Morrissey, the widow of Sergeant Patrick Morrissey, in whose killing Michael McHugh was involved, said that 40-year sentences were, in her view, “non-negotiable”. Doesn’t she have a valid point?
I believe that I’m entitled to a quarter remission (of my sentence), you know? I don’t think it’s a question of negotiating with widows – that’s not how society is run, is it? We’ll negotiate with the State and the judiciary. I really think you should leave widows out of it.
Most would argue that robbing banks and killing members of the Garda was not a patriotic act…
Oh, they would. I was sentenced in the Special Criminal Court. They said I was in the INLA and they said I was in the IRA. I was treated as a political prisoner when they were going to hang me. But they have moved the goalposts now alright.
But that doesn’t answer that question, which is, that robbing banks and murdering two Gardai is not a patriotic act?
I’ve been involved in the deaths of loads of people. Why are you talking about two Gardai?
Two members of the Garda died in the shootout you were arrested for. How was that a patriotic act?
Yes, there was two Gardai. It wasn’t a patriotic act. In fact, it was an accident, right? If you want to just talk matter of fact – it was an accident. There was no intention to kill Gardai. It wasn’t on the cards. In fact, it was in a traffic accident – they came around the bend in a blind spot, on the wrong side. And everything else sprang out of that. The Gardai fired first. They blasted out the window. And anything that’s been said about the job after that is right. But the truth is that one Garda killed one Garda and members of the gang killed another Garda.
But weren’t you convicted in 1980 – along with Colm O’Shea and Peter Pringle – for the murders of John Morley and Henry Byrne, the two Gardai who were shot at the scene?
Look, the truth is that one Garda killed one Garda! The bullet ricoched in the car – he had a machine gun; he was firing it in the squad car with all the windows closed. They had the photographs with the front windscreen blown out on the bonnet because he fired from the inside out. I pleaded guilty to it, right? But it wasn’t an intentional act of going out and killing Gardai. It makes no difference to me. I can tell the truth. I have done my time for it. I’m entitled to remission.
Did you pull the trigger?
No, I didn’t, as a matter of fact. But I’m not trying to say I’m innocent or anything now – don’t be printing that angle. I take full responsibility. I don’t think I can tell a lie on that one either. There was a number of people involved, (but) it wasn’t me anyway. But that’s not to say I wasn’t involved. I was the leader of the gang, right? I was the OC of the squad. I took them on the raid and the raid went wrong. The shooting broke out in a traffic accident. It was over in a second or two. One of our crew murdered one of them. Shot one of them. They were firing machine guns and we were firing shotguns. It was self-defence, if you want to say that. There was two Garda dead. That was the breaks. The luck of the draw.
What was your initial reaction to your sentence?
I was involved with the offences for which I was charged. And I was content with the sentence. I thought the sentence was fair. I have no grievance about it. If I have to do 40 years, I’ll do 40 years. But then the Good Friday Peace Agreement came along, which makes it a different story. But there’s a question of remission, anyway. You can’t give a man such a sentence and then change it to ‘without the right to remission’.
Peter Pringle was later picked up for being part of this gang and, after serving 15 years, was exonerated. Did you know him?
I can’t talk about Peter Pringle. You’ll have to talk to Peter Pringle about Peter Pringle!
I heard Peter Pringle is bringing out a book?
Well, yeah… But I’m not Peter Pringle! I’m not interested in these conflict of interest things that go on.
Do you have any remorse?
I have no remorse for the crime I was involved in. None whatsoever.
But do you have any sympathy for the two Gardai, killed while carrying out their duties?
That’s my private business. That’s a private affair.
You are not coming across as a sympathetic or remorseful person…
I don’t want to come across that way. I signed the Good Friday Peace Agreement – I want out. And I’m sorry about the Gardai. I didn’t mean to kill members of An Garda Siochana. They were some of my best friends when I was out there. It isn’t a question of remorse, the Gardai were my buddies when I was out there. I had my fingers in many pies!
Did you ever contact the victims’ families?
Do you not think that I have more manners than to do that?! I certainly did not. I wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing. Would you not think it would be grossly insulting for somebody to be writing to their wives?
There were also reports that you were not paramilitaries, but rather a criminal gang? The Irish Press carried a statement from the Gardai that the trio were “lone wolves preying on Irish society whose motives were purely criminal.”
That’s nonsense. Ah, sure, they’d say anything. They’d say mass backwards if they knew the Latin!
It was also reported that many members of Saor Éire believed that the organisation had been taken over by gangsters and was losing sight of its original objectives.
Don’t they always say that? What can I say to that? It’s nonsense. It’s just some people talking. They speculate when they are sitting at home in front of the TV or in the pub or something. They don’t really know anything about the inner workings of Saor Éire.
According to media reports, you were a member of the INLA at the time of the bank job?
Ah, sure they said many different things. They said I was in the INLA and they said I was in the IRA. It’s not quite correct, no. I’m not in the INLA. The thing is that they’re all going to deny me. It was a bit complicated at the time. We were associated with them – from time to time.
Wasn’t Saor Éire officially disbanded in 1975. So for the next few years until your arrest, you had to be working for other political organisations.
No – they never disbanded. There were a load of factions – the Cork ones, the Dublin ones, and so on. They were all infighting. It split the group.
So you are saying that you were an active member of Saor Éire at the time of your arrest?
Once in, never out. It’s the old tradition of the IRB. Once in, never out.
One Republican publication, the Starry Plough, alleged you were going to use the money from the bank job, which they report as a sum of between £35,000 and £41,000, to invest in a pub or a nightclub in Dublin. Is that true?
(Laughs) That’s the first I’ve heard of that! I didn’t even know what money I’d get from the bank job. That is ridiculous. It’s nonsense.
It’s also been alleged that you’d made arrangements with a Dublin-based Belfast massage parlour operator to invest £10,000 in a half ownership of a nightclub, at the rear of TCD – a place which they say was being frequented by the criminal underworld?
That’s the first I’ve ever heard of that. This is getting better as it goes on!
Did you use the aliases of Michael Burke and Patrick McGill?
Yes. I had various aliases over the years. Yes, they were some of them.
What type of activities did you participate in during your time with Saor Éire?
I used to be an intelligence officer. All sort of activities – robberies; heists; killings; shootings; kidnappings; intimidation; burnings – I burnt a lot of places in my time. You know, lots of things don’t get into the paper. I’m a solider.
Can you remember how many people you have killed?
I can. I can – I remember all of them. I have a good memory. I have a photographic memory.
We won’t go into that here, will we? Ah, you’re the sentimental kind. You’ll think I’ve done too many (laughs). I don’t want to scare you off! Man, I’m not going to come out and shoot you. Stop worrying!
Did you rob many banks?
I robbed loads of banks. Did you have many dinners? Did you get many pay cheques? Do you see where I’m coming from?
What motivated you to get involved in the Republican movement?
When The Troubles broke out in the North – Bloody Sunday and all that – I came to Ireland to join the IRA. It’s a long story. I was in Limerick with the Official IRA. I had a lot of adventures with them. And then I discovered that they thought I was a British agent rather than a genuine Republican. I had been in jail in England. British intelligence were getting people in. There was one parachuted in and he was killed immediately. I found all the others were trying to kill me as a British agent! There was a list of accusations – all untrue by the way – but that’s beside the point because once someone pulls the trigger you’re dead. People were being killed all over; it was the early ’70s. You probably weren’t even born then. It was before your time, I’m afraid. We were fighting for old Ireland’s cause. Fighting for a united Ireland.
Do you believe there will ever be a united Ireland?
I wouldn’t think so. We’re getting on grand without being united. Any chance we’d ever have a free Ireland? Any chance you’d ever legalise hashish? Any chance you’d ever stop fucking bringing in CAB and grab? Is there any chance you’d get morality in Ireland? Is there any chance of getting hit by a holy book or something? Is there any chance of just stop being such fucking awful eejits in Shannon, facilitating fucking torturing in fucking Cuba? Any chance of those fucking Irish idiots standing up for humanity or something? That’s my question for you.
Did you meet Charlie Haughey’s brother Jock in London before the arms trial?
I don’t want to talk about anything like that. I don’t want to talk about my personal life in the past.
But isn’t it true that Saor Éire met with him in London?
Yes. That seems to be well known. That seems to be a fact. I don’t want to talk about Charlie Haughey and Jock Haughey. Or anything like that.
Did you go gunrunning with Charlie Haughey?
(Laughs) This is all ancient history! What do you want to know all them things for? Do you want to write a book as well?! No, seriously, what do you want to write a fucking book for? There’s no need to be writing stupid books, believe you me. You should read a good book instead of writing a lousy book. I’ll tell you something about Charlie that no one knows! He was the greatest fucking Irishman since Brian Boru. Charlie was a gentleman. Charlie was my hero. I’d rise and follow Charlie anytime.
Were you involved in the arms trial?
I was involved in everything that was going on in Ireland in the ’60s and ’70s. Yes. I was involved in everything. Listen, I wasn’t holding Charlie’s hand or walking in public (with him) at all. In fact, I was a spy for several different organisations – and I had to spy on him at times.
But did he help fund your operations?
Now, now – what do you want to know all that stuff for? Don’t put that in. Don’t be putting that shit out. I’m looking to talk here about the Good Friday Peace Agreement. I don’t want to be talking about him. Have you no respect for the dead?
It’d be great if you’d give me a straight answer!
Charlie Haughey helped all of Ireland. He helped everyone in Ireland. Is that any good to you? Now come on – be diplomatic. I don’t want to hear a bad scandal about Charles Haughey. Charlie’s my hero – if I hear anybody saying anything bad about Charlie I’d be reaching for my pistol! No, I’ve signed up to the Good Friday Peace Agreement and I’ve promised not to kill any more cunts, right? Is that any good to you?
Do you feel your life has been wasted?
I certainly do not. I’ve had more fun in one fucking week in here than all you fucking bunch of yahoos outside! Come here, listen, I’m not a fucking victim, I can assure you. I’m not a victim; this is not a victim talking to you.
But surely you must have missed the outside contact with your family?
What I’ve done in jail is my business. I’ve done a lot of things in jail. I wrote books. I’ve had a wonderful time in jail. But I think the Irish government is behaving shamefully. They are constantly at it, in so many ways, I’ve now decided to embarrass them – I’ll get a tribunal enquiring into my activities done. That would be more interesting than anything you’ve ever heard about Charlie Haughey. Much more interesting.
Did you ever suffer bouts of depression?
You are going on like one of the therapists out of the Drum (Dundrum Mental Hospital)! No, I didn’t. I didn’t suffer depression. I take Es; acid; mescaline; coke; hashish; ganja and anything I can get to avoid depression. Drugs do work! Do you hear that? Do you know that song? “It’s Christmas Eve in the drunk tank!”
Why do they send you to a mental institution?
Because I’m a bit of a hippy. I smoke hash. I have the craic around the place. Dancing! And playing music out loud. Doing crazy things – according to these! But I’m locked up in a fucking concrete box – I’m going out of my head – so I need to take hash and everything else. They say, ‘You’re mad and off to the Drum!’ Up in the Drum they fucking give you every type of drug that would fucking tranquilise a horse! They even gave them to me against my will! They keep putting me in the mental hospital. I was put there at least 10 times. I’m not mad! I’m having a good time. I’m partying. I’ve managed to do that as well.
But I’m gathering you won’t get drugs every day in prison…
Ah, now – this is Portlaoise prison! I could tell you things about here! We have better parties here than you ever had outside! We had Es before anybody else when they first came out! Before John Daly came into jail. He was an innocent skin and he rang up a radio show with his mobile telephone and as soon as he got out of jail he had to be ‘bagged’. Do you know what I mean? He was a pest. He ruined everything.
People have said you’re a bit eccentric?
Of course, eccentric, yes (laughs)! That’s right, they do say that. One man’s eccentricity is another man’s sanity, if you know what I mean.
I also heard that you became spiritual in prison?
I’m a Hindu! I’ve always had an interest in religion and stuff. I thought: the Catholic church is not for me. I’ve studied a lot of books and read a lot on religion while in jail. In 1975 I became a Hindu. I’m a white Hindu as well, which is even worse (laughs)! And I drink and I smoke and I take drugs as well. I do real things – things that people think you shouldn’t do! I chant and say mantras and that. I like incense: I’ve candles lighting all over the place. In fact, morning, noon and night. They take them out and burn them when I’m over in the Drum. I’ve been treated with an awful lot of contempt these last number of years in here. I learned Black Magic and Voodoo – so, I’ve stayed young. I’m only 13 really! I learnt magic. You can do things like that. Did you know that? Are you religious?
You’re undecided?! Man, you’re an idiot! Stop being an atheist. Cram up on some shit. You must have read the name of some god or other by now? Read a good book.
What do you miss most?
I don’t miss anything in particular. Honestly,