When police tried to interview John Downey in his cell about the Hyde Park bombing following his arrest last year, he put a pillow over his face and refused to say anything.
His name had been in the frame for more than 30 years for the attack but Mr Downey has always denied involvement, and pleaded not guilty at The Old Bailey. In a 2008 letter to the Canadian authorities seeking a temporary visa to visit his son and grandchild, Mr Downey wrote: “I was named in some British newspapers as being responsible for the Hyde Park & Regents Park bombings in 1982, which I strenuously deny.”
He added: “I have strongly supported the peace process from the very beginning of the talks and I believe that the only way forward for all people on the island of Ireland north and south is in peaceful co-operation and mutual respect and understanding for each other.”
He was allegedly identified from fingerprints on a parking ticket used for the bombing. Within two months of the attack, his photofit was released by police and his name appeared in subsequent newspaper reports about the attack. In one, he was allegedly linked to IRA bomber Sean O’Callaghan, the former head of the IRA’s Southern Command.
In his book about how he became the most highly placed informer within the IRA, O’Callaghan named Downey as a member of the England group involved in bombings on the mainland. O’Callaghan wrote that Downey had been “active periodically” in England.
He first came to the notice of the authorities in 1971 as a member of the Provisional IRA in Donegal. He also appears in a file in relation to the murders of two members of the Ulster Defence Regiment, Alfred Johnston, 32, and James Eames, 33, killed by an IRA remote controlled bomb hidden in an abandoned car and detonated when their patrol approached at Cherrymount, near Enniskillen in 1972.
Downey was never arrested or charged in connection with this incident and yesterday his legal team and Sinn Fein both decline to comment. Two years later he was convicted by an Irish court of PIRA membership and served time at Portlaoise prison, though in a later trial he was found not guilty of a separate charge of membership of a prescribed organisation.
Police files from 2004 said that they believed Mr Downey was linked with up to six incidents – including the Hyde Park and Enniskillen bombing – and confirmed he remained wanted in “relation to a number of serious terrorist offences”.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams called him as a “passionate advocate of peace” who had worked for more than two decades in securing that goal. “He has stood against those who would seek a return to violence,” he said in a statement to the court during the trial.
Mr Downey, described as an influential member of Sinn Fein, was involved in face-to-face reconciliation meetings with loyalists and claimed to have travelled with Irish police to Northern Ireland to support the peace process. He also met security forces in 2012 and 2013 to convince them that former Republicans were serious about taking the gun out of Irish politics.