Thatcher furious with Haughey over failure to extradite ‘mad priest’ over IRA claims

Taoiseach complained of PM’s ‘constant bickering’ after Fr Patrick Ryan arrest

File photo from September 1994 of former priest Patrick Ryan whose extradition to the UK had been sought by Margaret Thatcher’s government. Photograph: Martin McCullough/PA Wire

File photo from September 1994 of former priest Patrick Ryan whose extradition to the UK had been sought by Margaret Thatcher’s government. Photograph: Martin McCullough/PA Wire


A furious British prime minister Margaret Thatcher rounded on taoiseach Charles Haughey for delays in extraditing Fr Patrick Ryan – an Irish priest wanted in London for alleged connections to the Provisional IRA – whom she described as a “bad egg” and a “very dangerous man”.

The delays caused a furore in Britain, with attorney general John Murray being excoriated in parliament and also by the press.

Haughey’s tense hour-long meeting with Thatcher took place on the margins of a European Council meeting in Rhodes, Greece on December 3rd 1988 in the midst of the controversy.

She was highly critical of what she saw as the failure to extradite Fr Ryan in a timely manner and a lax approach to appalling attacks by the IRA. The taoiseach expressed exasperation about how all their meetings had descended into “constant bickering, attacking each other after each incident”.

He also described the case as an extraordinary one involving a “mad priest careering around Europe”.

Belgian police arrested Fr Ryan in June 1988 and found large quantities of cash and bomb-making equipment in his home. Five months later, he was flown to Ireland after the Belgian government refused to extradite him to Britain.

While the defrocked priest received treatment in Blackrock Clinic on the weekend of his return, the British authorities put considerable pressure on the State to arrest him under a provisional warrant while attorney general John Murray examined the extradition warrants.

Fr Ryan was discharged from the clinic the following Monday without being arrested. The British ambassador Nicholas Fenn complained to government secretary general Dermot Nally “the bird had flown” despite the extradition papers having been submitted three days earlier.

Thatcher told Haughey “Ryan is a really bad egg”.

“He is largely responsible for the Libyan money. Very large sums have been traced to his accounts from the Libyans – money like £700,000 and £150,000.”

Thatcher said that, when the Irish government introduced the Extradition Act in 1987, the British had reservations, which were being borne out, with the Irish authorities quibbling over commas and duplications in the British documents.

“You had three days to take out a provisional warrant and back ours. That should have been enough time for you to have been able to decide. But you didn’t.

A warrant

“Your A-G [Murray] would not take a request from ours [Sir Patrick Mayhew]. We are at the receiving end of this terrorism. Ryan is a very dangerous man.

“Your people had Saturday, Sunday and Monday – three days and did nothing,”she said, according to an account of the meeting written by government secretary general Dermot Nally.

Ryan always denied any links to the IRA, and in 1989 he stood as an independent in the European elections with Sinn Féin’s support but failed to get elected.

An anti-extradition protest during the annual Fianna Fáil Wolfe Tone commemoration at Bodenstown in October 1988. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
An anti-extradition protest during the annual Fianna Fáil Wolfe Tone commemoration at Bodenstown in October 1988. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Haughey replied to Thatcher that the authorities could not issue a warrant in anticipation of a person’s arrival in this State but must wait until he arrives.

“It is a pity that every time you and I meet we have one of these difficult issues on something that is marginal between us. We can never get to the major questions which we should be discussing, like the possibility of progress with the North, how Northern Ireland is to be governed, relations with the unionists.

“Last time it was the Garda and different intelligence. I don’t how we can get away from this constant bickering, attacking each other after each incident.”

He said Fr Ryan was now the villain of the piece and prior to his arrival in Ireland, the government had no knowledge of any reason he should be extradited. He accepted the system was not working and that both countries should go back to the Criminal Law Jurisdiction Act where a person could be tried in Ireland for crimes alleged in the UK.

Thatcher criticised the niggling nature of the Irish response to the extradition application, with “20 little requests for more information or more detail”.

She also complained that Fr Ryan, now released, might have disappeared to the US.

Haughey said the government had “never heard of this man until he appeared in Belgium”.

Thatcher expressed astonishment at this.

“You amaze me,” she replied. “From 1973 to 1984 he was the main channel of contact with the Libyans. He had meetings with at least two prominent Libyan ministers... He has had money in his accounts from the Libyans amounting to over £740,000.”

An exasperated Haughey replied “every damn case now has some twist to it. Ryan is an extraordinary case. You have a mad priest careering around Europe, arrested in Belgium and then flown to us in a military plane, avoiding British airspace!”

He accepted he had promised a review if the Act was not working properly and Thatcher was now “calling in that cheque”.

Major issue

Later, Thatcher reminded Haughey that on the day of the election in 1979, republicans had murdered her Tory colleague Airey Neave.

“Their viciousness, their savagery is unbelievable. And they torture people dreadfully. There is no substitute for worthwhile extradition arrangements.”

Summing up the meeting, Nally wrote while Thatcher had spoken “with considerable warmth on many subjects, her general attitude, in the end, was cordial. She spoke a great deal of the time more in sorrow than in anger”.

Problems with extradition was a major issue for both governments during 1988. Earlier that year, there was also scathing criticism of the government in the British media and parliament when a District Court refused to extradite Patrick McVeigh who was wanted in Britain for terrorism charges.

In the House of Commons, right-wing Tory backbencher Michael Mates alleged the taoiseach was using the attorney general to prevent extradition. Irish diplomat Richard Ryan reported that when they met, Mates had a “sneering and patronising attitude to the independence of our political and legal process”.

His description of Mates was colourful: “The personal feeling he left was of what it might be like to try dancing with an oversized but not cerebrally endowed armadillo”.

Sir Nicholas Lyell, the solicitor general, also alleged to Irish diplomats the British had evidence that many “senior Irish judges are ill-disposed towards extradition and will go to any length to find flaws in warrants”.

There was also an uneasy relationship between Murray and Sir Patrick Mayhew. They had two meetings a year previously, one over lunch in the Garrick Club in London. Murray commented that Mayhew had “sent me home with a flea in my ear” and also said the British should perhaps remember they are no longer a colonial power in Ireland.

As regards the Fr Ryan case, Murray decided later that month on December 12th not to endorse the extradition request on the basis that the material published in the media in Britain during that period would create “such prejudice and hostility to Patrick Ryan that, were he to be extradited to Britain, it would not be possible for a jury to approach the issue of his guilt or innocence free from bias”.