Call for independent inquiry into justice system’s handling of Sallins case

Kerry Babies Tribunal ‘an aggressive and toxic inquisition’ by a judge then promoted

An international judicial figure should lead a fully independent inquiry into the 1976 Sallins train robbery due to "appalling human rights violations" during the investigation, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) has said.

The council is currently preparing a submission to Minister for Justice Helen McEntee on the matter.

The IRA eventually claimed responsibility for the March 31st incident in which £200,000 was stolen from a mail train near the Co Kildare town. Three men arrested soon afterwards signed 'confessions'. All had injuries they claimed were inflicted by gardaí.

At the Special Criminal Court in 1978, the late Mr Justice Liam Hamilton accepted the confessions as having been signed voluntarily by Nicky Kelly, Osgur Breatnach and Brian McNally, and deemed that their extensive injuries "were self-inflicted or inflicted by collaboration with persons other than members of the Garda Síochána".


Kelly went on the run. He was sentenced to 12 years penal servitude, as was Breatnach, with McNally sentenced to nine years. In May 1980, the Court of Criminal Appeal quashed the convictions of Breatnach and McNally after finding “the statements made by the applicants were not legally admissible”. That year the IRA claimed responsibility for the robbery.

Kelly returned to Ireland from the US In June 1980 expecting to be allowed go free but he was was jailed until 1984. He failed in all court actions taken over the intervening years before 19 judges, some the most senior in Ireland at the time.

In explaining their decisions, judges resorted to precedent and language used in the infamous 1980 UK Denning judgement which kept the innocent Birmingham Six in prison until 1991. That year it was revealed police in the UK had fabricated and suppressed evidence in the case.

Following a 38-day hunger strike in 1983, Kelly's release "on humanitarian grounds" was approved by the government in 1984. In 1992 he received a pardon from president Mary Robinson which stated that, in law, it was "as if he had never been charged or convicted" in connection with the Sallins mail train robbery.

‘Torture and mistreatment’

ICCL executive director Liam Herrick said the council had "consistently called for a full independent inquiry, led by an international judicial figure, into the role of the whole justice system in the appalling human rights violations in the Sallins Case, and in other cases where Garda torture and mistreatment of persons in custody was compounded by cover up and collusion by other State agencies".

He added: “The role of the courts and government must be part of that inquiry, as well as how gardaí connected with a number of cases of mistreatment in custody were not held to account for their actions.”

Meanwhile, NUI Galway law professor Donncha O'Connell has described the Kerry Babies Tribunal as "an abominatioin" and "State-sponsored misogyny". He also queried whether sitting judges should ever chair or be members of future tribunals.

The 1984 tribunal, chaired by Judge Kevin Lynch, was set up to investigate Garda conduct in the case where the innocent Hayes family confessed to killing an infant, though they could not have done so. It became a trial of the family and an exoneration of relevant gardaí, a result used by the force in later libel actions to suppress media investigation of the case.

Prof O’Connell described the tribunal as “an aggressive and toxic inquisition presided over by a judge who went on to become a member of the Supreme Court”.

He said that when judges preside over tribunals “they are, in effect, lending their judicial independence and credibility to the political system and, if you think about it, they’re actually lending it back to the political system that appointed them and, in some cases, that may promote them in the future”.

This, he said, was “ hardly consistent with the separation of powers doctrine held in such precious regard by both the political and judicial systems”.

A recent RTÉ TV series Crimes and Confessions focused on the role of gardaí in the Sallins and Kerry cases, as well as the 1971 murder of Una Lynskey.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times