By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — A plea bargain deal that saw an IRA gang beating a 40-year murder sentence for gunning down a detective in Limerick two years ago has caused uproar. And Sinn Féin demands for the killers’ early release under the prisoner amnesty clause in the Good Friday peace agreement has fueled the public outrage.
The murder trial of the four men who killed 52-year-old Detective Gárda Jerry McCabe two years ago started on Jan. 11 and was expected to last three months. But widespread intimidation of witnesses crippled the state’s case. People who had earlier given statements to gárdaí suffered amnesia, and one man, farmer Patrick Harty, was jailed for 18 months for contempt when he refused to give evidence. He was released when the gang was sentenced.
Last week the hearing in the three-judge, no-jury special criminal court in Dublin took a dramatic turn when the four pleaded guilty to manslaughter.
An accomplice also changed his plea to guilty of lesser charges.
Two days later the judges of the court, which was set up to counter intimidation of jury members by paramilitary groups, handed down sentences of 6 to 14 years.
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Pearse McAuley, 34, of Strabane, Co. Tyrone, and Kevin Walsh, 42, of Patrickswell, Co. Limerick, each received 14 years.
Jeremiah Sheehy, 36, of Rathkeale, Co. Limerick, received 12 years, and Michael O’Neill, 46, of Patrickswell was jailed for 11 years.
A fifth man, John Quinn, 31, of Patrickswell, who had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit a robbery, was jailed for 6 years.
There had already been rows in the Dáil about the handling of the case, but speculation that those sentenced may not even serve the lighter sentences led the Gárda Representative Association’s P. J. Stone to express "outrage" on behalf of his members, who, he said, were "infuriated" by the sentences.
Gárdaí are already angry that IRA men who murdered their colleagues in the past were given early release before Christmas and without serving the mandatory 40 years for capital murder that was laid down after hanging was abolished in 1990.
McCabe’s widow, Ann, showed no bitterness after the case. She thanked her husband’s Gárda colleagues for securing a conviction.
Just hours before the sentences were handed down, Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, went on RTE radio to say he believed the men will qualify for early release under the two-year amnesty terms of the Northern Ireland peace deal. This would mean they would be freed by July 2000.
While he sympathized with the families of gárdaí who had been killed, he said the matter should be approached in a "cool, calm" fashion.
"I certainly think they will qualify," McGuinness said.
Though Sinn Féin disowned the robbery when it happened, the party, during the agreement negotiations in April 1997, lobbied to have anyone convicted of the murder included in the amnesty.
Twelve days later Taoiseach Bertie Ahern told the Dáil he had specifically ruled out the release of anyone convicted of the McCabe killing during the final session of the negotiations in Belfast.
"I was asked the question. It was put to me, and I said no, I tend to think that particular murder and many others certainly were criminal offenses," Ahern said.
Fine Gael Deputy Leader Nora Owen said McCabe’s June 1997 killing, during a botched bank robbery in Adare, Co. Limerick, was cold-blooded murder with a high powered assault weapon being held at the window of the gárda car. Multiple bullets were fired at McCabe, who had not drawn his own handgun.
The dead gárda was on escort duty with a post office cash van when he was shot and a colleague alongside him was seriously wounded.
Owen said it was clear that Sinn Féin had a different understanding about amnesty for the men and she sought new assurances that this "heinous" crime would not result in their getting out of jail early.
The taoiseach immediately said he was personally glad that the killers had been brought to justice and he described them as "murderers" who had killed "in cold blood."
He said that although it had not been possible to convict them of murder, "McCabe was murdered as far as I am concerned."
He said the government’s interpretation of the agreement following legal advice was that McCabe’s killers did not qualify for amnesty. "These people will serve their sentence."
Limerick TDs Desmond O’Malley and Michael Noonan, both former justice ministers, also strongly criticized the outcome of the case.
O’Malley said all the men are members of Sinn Féin and the case had been marked by widespread intimidation.
"That party failed to condemn this murder, and I still call it murder," he said.
Noonan said he believed a deal was done. "I am very much afraid that the course of justice was put off track by intimidation.
"What kind of cease-fire have we if members of the wider republican movement can intimidate in circumstances like this?" Noonan asked.
Ironically one of the men, McAuley, had already benefited from an early-release scheme after the first IRA cease-fire in 1994.
Last December, a Dublin court ordered he be extradited to Britain on charges of conspiring to murder former brewery chairman Sir Charles Tidbury and to cause explosions in November 1990.
In 1991, he and Nessan Quinlivan shot their way out of London’s Brixton Prison while awaiting trial on charges of planning IRA assassinations and bombings.
McAuley had been sentenced to 7 years for possession of a pistol in Ireland in 1993. Gárdaí do not believe he fired the AK47 at McCabe.
In his sentencing, an incident involving the hijacking of an Englishman from his holiday home in Cavan two years ago was taken into account.
He had called at the house and demanded a ride to a hotel. In the car he told the man: "I think you have a problem" and showed him a gun. He said if the gárdaí caught him he would shoot the man’s family in England. He also threatened to kneecap him.
Walsh had received eight years for a post office van robbery in Killorglin in 1976. When he was arrested in a dawn raid on a house in County Cavan last year he had a loaded Marakov pistol and a loaded AK47 with the safety catch off.
"No regret has been expressed by him or on his behalf," the judge said when passing sentence.
Sheehy has previous convictions, including 10 years for robbery of a post office in Limerick in 1989.
O’Neill, an unemployed forklift driver, had no previous convictions.
Two other leading IRA activists are still being sought for the killing. Both are believed to have fled the country.