Northern Ireland: No political interference claimed as IRA murder charges cut

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DUBLIN YESTERDAY rejected as "outrageous" any suggestion of political interference after four men on trial for killing a garda in an IRA robbery had their murder charges reduced to manslaughter.

Amid widespread belief that intimidation of witnesses led to the altered charges, opposition parties yesterday demanded an emergency Dail debate and a statement from the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.

Their cause was bolstered by admissions last night from the head of the Irish police force who conceded that fears about intimidation of witnesses may have contributed to the controversial move. Commissioner Patrick Byrne said the intimidation dimension and concerns that capital murder charges against the gang would fail could also have led to acceptance of the plea change.

But in Dublin, senior sources flatly denied that there had been any communication between the government and the director of public prosecutions, who approved the reduction in the charges.

Irish legal experts queried the manslaughter move, arguing that use of loaded heavy weaponry in a premeditated bank robbery resulting in death should result in murder charges.

The DPP appears to have been guided by fears that the murder prosecution would fail because of a lack of evidence, allowing the accused to go free.

Mr Byrne said yesterday, however, that he was satisfied that the people pinpointed by police as responsible for killing Detective McCabe had now pleaded guilty to his manslaughter. But he stressed: "You must have the evidence to convict people. And prosecuting people, and getting the evidence is extremely difficult."

Mr Byrne said the McCabe shooting had resulted in "a very major investigation, and we had difficulty with some witnesses in relation to being available to give evidence.

"But at the end of the day, the people who are on the ground dealing with the investigation, and the advice from their legal teams, plays a major part. And these are the people to judge the whole case, judge the issues and say how far you can go and cannot go."

He added: "People should reflect that what we have are the people that we always believed killed - murdered - Jerry McCabe, admitting in court that they were the killers."

The Irish Times called the reduced charge "an insult to the memory" of a garda murdered while "discharging his duty for the greater good of society".

The Justice Minister will clarify the legal issues to the Dail when the case has ended.

The four will be sentenced before the no-jury anti-terrorist Special Criminal Court today.

Among those to be sentenced is Pearse McAuley, 34, who escaped from London's Brixton prison while awaiting trial on terrorist offences seven years ago.

The court heard yesterday of previous criminal convictions against the accused. Jeremiah Sheehy, 36, had a Special Criminal Court conviction for robbery, while Kevin Walsh, 42, was jailed for eight years in 1976 for robbery, possession of firearms and IRA membership. McCauley served just two years of a seven-year Irish sentence for arms and ammunition possession before becoming one of the first to gain early release during the first IRA ceasefire in 1995.

Michael O'Neill, 46, a father of nine, had no previous convictions, and neither did John Quinn who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy over the robbery.