By Patrick Markey and Jack Holland
An alleged former INLA member who was part of a dramatic Maze prison breakout in 1976 is fighting deportation from Philadelphia to Northern Ireland, where he is facing murder charges dating back to a shooting more than two decades ago.
John Edward McNicholl, who was allegedly an active INLA member at the time, has been charged with the 1976 murder of an RUC constable in South Derry, said James Orloy, McNicholl’s attorney. McNicholl is also facing an attempted-murder charge related to the same incident, Orloy said.
McNicholl and another man Seamus O’Kane, were arrested soon after the shooting but escaped, along with seven other republican prisoners, when they tunneled their way out of the Maze prison in May 1976. It was the first successful major breakout in the prison’s history and sparked a diplomatic incident between the Irish Republic and Britain when a van load of plainclothes British soldiers, some armed with pump-action shotguns, were apprehended on the southern side of the border. They were said to have been searching for the escapees, all but two of whom eluded the dragnet.
The case has already sparked a furor in Philadelphia’s Irish American community, where one group has rallied to McNicholl’s defense. At a meeting last week, the city’s Federation of Irish Societies released a statement questioning why McNicholl was facing deportation when the U.S. attorney general had suspended deportation proceedings against seven other Irish republicans — known as the "deportees" — living in the U.S. The federation has already established a Philadelphia Family Defense Fund, to aid McNicholl’s family and defray legal costs.
"There is a hawk circling our community. It is trying to take one of our own. We are not going to stand silently and let it happen," the federation’s president, Tom Conaghan, said.
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"At time when folks are being released over there, it seems like the wheels are turning backwards over here. We think this is detrimental to the Good Friday agreement."
McNicholl’s attorney also said he could offer no reason why his client is facing deportation now.
"Maybe this is a process that got started years ago at the request of London or Belfast and is just now making its way through the system," Orloy said.
Although American officials are reluctant to discuss the details of McNicholl’s deportation proceedings, Orloy said several RUC officers and British soldiers are named on the witness list of those who were to appear at yesterday’s hearing in Philadelphia. The trial is scheduled for the next two weeks.
A spokesman from the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Philadelphia said the federal agency did not comment on individual cases. But a spokesman for the immigration court administration said only that McNicholl’s deportation proceedings stem from 1995 charges of entering the United States without inspection.
The shooting with which McNicholl’s attorney says he is charged took place on July 26, 1976 when Constable Robert McPherson and another RUC officer were called to examine a vehicle said to contain a bomb in Dungiven, South Derry. As the RUC men approached, two INLA volunteers opened fire, killing McPherson and wounding his colleague. The gunmen were quickly encircled by British soldiers but managed to escape, taking with them the dead constable’s weapon. McPherson was the second member of the security forces to die at the hands of INLA, which had been formed by disillusioned members of the Official IRA in December 1974. South Derry was at the time a stronghold of the new organization. The INLA had claimed its first victim among the security forces there on May 24, 1975, when a booby-trap bomb killed Constable Noel Davis near the Glenshane Pass.
The South Derry INLA became known for its often audacious attacks, including one in August 1976 when an INLA gunman armed only with a shotgun ambushed a British army patrol and killed a soldier. That shooting also took place in Dungiven. The INLA killings in South Derry signaled the beginning of a violent campaign that would include some of the worst incidents in the history of the Troubles.
Among the more prominent victims of the INLA were Billy McMillen, commanding officer of the Official IRA in Belfast; Airey Neave, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s mentor and chairman of the Conservative Party; loyalist leader John McKeague, and the founder of the Loyalist Volunteer Force, Billy Wright.
After his escape from the Maze, McNicholl fled to the Republic, where he lived in Donegal for several years working as a fisherman before coming to the United States.
He settled in Philadelphia, where he worked as a pipe fitter. During the late 1980s his Derry-born wife, who is a naturalized American citizen, returned to Ireland to secure a visa for McNicholl. He later joined his wife, but ran into difficulties getting through the paperwork and returned to the United States, his lawyer said.