Belfast judge: IRA veteran can't get royal pardon

March 2, 2012 - 12:15 PM

DUBLIN (AP) — A Belfast judge rejected an Irish Republican Army veteran's bid Friday to receive a pardon from Queen Elizabeth II in a case that highlights an unsolved issue in Northern Ireland peacemaking: the fate of IRA militants on the run from British courts.

Gerry McGeough, 54, had appealed the terms of his 2011 conviction for his attempted murder of an off-duty British soldier in 1981.

McGeough's lawyers argued he shouldn't have to serve any prison time because of British commitments to the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party following the Good Friday peace accord of 1998. They also argued that his eight years in prison for other IRA offenses in the United States and Germany should qualify him for a royal pardon.

But Justice Seamus Treacy ruled that McGeough's year-old appeal had no basis in law and ordered him to remain in Northern Ireland's Maghaberry Prison.

Britain did publicly pledge in 2001 to provide an amnesty to a few dozen IRA members, including McGeough, who had been charged with crimes but fled Northern Ireland before they could face trial. That plan faced hostility from the province's Protestant majority and never became official.

McGeough did return home anyway and in 2007 campaigned publicly for election to the Northern Ireland Assembly on a hard-line Irish republican platform critical of Sinn Fein. McGeough opposed the IRA's 2005 decisions to disarm and renounce violence and Sinn Fein's 2007 decisions to begin supporting the police and enter a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland.

McGeough was arrested outside a vote-counting center immediately after he had learned of his failure to win an assembly seat. He did win bail. In February 2011, he was convicted of attempted murder, weapons possession and IRA membership and received a 20-year sentence.

However, he is expected to win parole early next year under the terms of the Good Friday accord. It permitted more than 500 convicted members of the IRA and other truce-observing groups to walk free from prison from 1998 to 2000, and militants subsequently convicted of pre-1998 crimes have generally won parole after serving only the first two years of their sentences.

The man whom McGeough tried to kill, Sammy Brush, was in court to welcome Friday's judgment.

Brush in 1981 was a part-time member of the British Army's locally recruited unit, the Ulster Defence Regiment, as well as a postman. McGeough's IRA unit ambushed him as he was delivering mail. Despite being shot multiple times, Brush was able to return fire with a handgun and wounded McGeough, too.

"I will carry my injuries to the grave. There's still shrapnel in my chest," Brush told reporters outside the court. "While he's serving a two-year sentence and whinging and whining, I have to get on with my life. It's more than two years for me, it's a life sentence."

McGeough fled to the United States, where in 1982 he tried to buy ground-to-air missiles for use against British Army helicopters in Northern Ireland. The arms dealers with whom he was negotiating were actually FBI agents, but he eluded the sting.

He went to Germany, where he took part in IRA attacks on British soldiers and bases there. German police caught him crossing the Dutch border carrying assault rifles. He spent four years in prison there before being extradited to the United States, where was convicted for his role in the IRA missile conspiracy. The U.S. deported him to Ireland in 1996.

McGeough was elected to Sinn Fein's executive board in 1999 and cemented his status as a hard-liner at that year's party conference. The IRA was supposed to surrender its weapons stockpiles as part of the Good Friday deal. Sinn Fein activists applauded McGeough's speech denouncing the demand.

"We were prepared to bite the bullet, not give it away!" he told the conference to cheers.