Sallins case and Special Criminal Court

Sir, – In his letter on the Special Criminal Court (February 14th), the Irish Council for Civil Liberties director Liam Herrick's called for a review of this court.

This is in line with Ireland’s international legal obligations. The continued use of this non-jury court has been the subject of national and international criticism, including Amnesty International and the UN Human Rights Committee.

The Sallins mail train robbery case, conducted by the Special Criminal Court in 1978, has long been accepted as Ireland’s greatest miscarriage of justice of recent times. It remains “unresolved” and the injuries in Garda custody were never satisfactorily explained even by the Court of Criminal Appeal, which overturned the men’s convictions. How did it come to pass that three innocent men (including my brother Osgur Breatnach) admitted to a crime they did not commit, ending up with prison sentences totalling 33 years?

The case “involved serious ill-treatment, potentially amounting to torture, of those men while in custody” (ICCL/Amnesty International joint-statement of July 2019).


In 2007, nearly 30 years later, Supreme Court judge Adrian Hardiman delivered a paper to the Judicial Studies Institute Journal, entitled “Weasel Words and Doubtful Meanings”. (The JSI is a body established pursuant to section 19 of the Court and Court Officers Act, 1995 to organise training, seminars and study visits for the judiciary). In it, he criticised our justice system’s failure to learn from the lessons of the past: “Twenty years ago . . . Irish society was gripped by the fate of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven . . . the fact is that, during much the same time as these miscarriages of justice were unfolding, so too, in Ireland, was the Sallins mail train robbery case which led to massive settlements and grave damage to the reputation of our policing and criminal justice systems. But we have never, as a country or as a community, internalised the lessons of that event or of the other declared miscarriages of justice which have taken place since . . . wrongful convictions, of which we have had our fair share in modern times, inflict appalling damage on individuals and their families. They also debase the entire criminal justice system”.

Patrick McCartan, now a retired judge, was the solicitor who defended the accused in the District and Special Criminal Courts. He described the trial in the non-jury court as “the most serious miscarriage of justice that has occurred in my lifetime” in RTÉ’s Documentary On One “The Whistleblower”, first broadcast in July 2019.

Both the ICCL and Amnesty International reiterated their calls in July 2019 for an independent public inquiry into the Sallins case and the State remains obligated under international human rights treaties it has ratified to guarantee the disclosure of truth, justice and reparations for victims of past human rights violations. Sadly, the Government refuses to act in this case and has ignored the victims’ and their families’ calls for an apology. Special courts and special powers do not enjoy any place in a democracy. If not abolished, at the very least we need a comprehensive review of the Special Criminal Court, and a commitment to hold an inquiry into the Sallins case. – Yours, etc,




Co Wicklow.