Gerry Adams’s historic prison escape convictions overturned
UK Supreme Court rules former Sinn Féin leader’s detention in 1970s was unlawful
Former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Former Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams has welcomed a British Supreme Court ruling that that his convictions for attempting to escape from the Maze Prison in the 1970s were unlawful.
Mr Adams had claimed his two 1975 convictions for escaping from internment were unsafe because his detention was not “personally considered” by a senior government minister.
As lawyers consider the import of the Supreme Court decision Mr Adams said, “There is an onus on the British government to identify and inform other internees whose Internment may also have been unlawful.”
Mr Adams thanked his legal team and also the Pat Finucane Centre in Derry which in 2009 uncovered information that gave him strong grounds to take his successful case.
The centre found communications from July 1974 where the then British Director of Public Prosecutions had provided a memorandum to the British Attorney General saying that Mr Adams “and other detainees” were held under orders which were not signed by the secretary of state and that they have been “unlawfully detained”.
Mr Adams said he understood that the issue was discussed with the then British Labour prime minister Harold Wilson in July 1974 and that his “unlawful detention was known by the most senior level of the British system”.
Mr Adams, 71, attempted to escape from the Maze - also known as Long Kesh internment camp - on Christmas Eve 1973 and again in July 1974. He was later sentenced to a total of four-and-a-half years.
At a hearing in November, Mr Adams’ lawyers argued that, because the interim custody order (ICO) used to initially detain him in July 1973 was not authorised by the then secretary of state for Northern Ireland Willie Whitelaw, his detention was unlawful and his convictions should be overturned.
Announcing the Supreme Court’s judgment at a remote hearing on Wednesday, Lord Kerr - the former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland - said the court had unanimously allowed Mr Adams’ appeal and had quashed his convictions.
The judge said Mr Adams’ detention was unlawful because it had not been “considered personally” by Mr Whitelaw.
Lord Kerr said: “The making of the ICO in respect of the appellant was invalid since the secretary of state had not himself considered it. In consequence, Mr Adams’ detention was unlawful, hence his convictions of attempting to escape from lawful custody were, likewise, unlawful.”
Lord Kerr added: “The appeal is therefore allowed and his convictions are quashed.”
The judge explained that Mr Adams had been detained under an ICO made under the Detention of Terrorists (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 and that “such an order could be made where the secretary of state considered that an individual was involved in terrorism”.
Mr Adams has consistently denied being a member of the IRA. In the court’s written judgment, Lord Kerr said the power to make such an order was “a momentous one”, describing it as “a power to detain without trial and potentially for a limitless period”.
He added: “This provides an insight into Parliament’s intention and that the intention was that such a crucial decision should be made by the secretary of state.”
In a statement after the ruling Mr Adams said that internment was never lawful because “it set aside the normal principles of law and was based on a blunt and brutal piece of coercive legislation”.
He added, “I have no regrets about my imprisonment except for the time I was separated from my family. However, we were not on our own. It is believed that around two thousand men and women were interned during its four and a half years of operation.
“I consider my time in the Prison Ship Maidstone, in Belfast prison and in Long Kesh to have been in the company of many remarkable, resilient and inspiring people. Internment like all coercive measures failed.”