IRA man who fled jail was given Royal pardon, files reveal

Donal Donnelly when he returned to visit the Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast.
Donal Donnelly when he returned to visit the Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast.

An IRA man who escaped prison more than 50 years ago was given a Royal pardon after the intervention of Margaret Thatcher’s government, a government file has revealed.

Donal Donnelly fled Belfast’s Crumlin Road jail on Boxing Day 1960 while serving a sentence for membership of the IRA during its 1950s border campaign.

Former Northern Ireland secretary Lord Hurd, part of a Conservative government scarred by republican violence, agreed to use the Royal Prerogative of Mercy in May 1985. His decision was made less than two years after the biggest prison break-out in UK history by 38 republicans and ahead of landmark political talks on British co-operation with the Irish Government.

A Northern Ireland Office (NIO) letter from the time said: “The Secretary of State has approved the recommendation ... that the remainder of Mr Donnelly’s sentence should be remitted.”

Donnelly, who was serving a 10-year sentence when he escaped, wrote a book in which he described using hacksaw blades, torn sheets and electric flex as makeshift tools. The title of the book was Escape From Crumlin Road, Europe’s Alcatraz. Afterwards he lived openly in the Republic.

Official files released by the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) reveal Donnelly petitioned three times for the remainder of his sentence to be remitted.

The use of pardons following the 1998 Belfast Agreement was disclosed earlier this year after the dramatic collapse of the trial of a man accused of the Hyde Park bombing.

Records released today shed light on the thinking of senior civil servants considering the controversial practice much earlier.

Less than a year earlier, in October 1984, the IRA targeted a Conservative Party conference in Brighton in a bombing which nearly wiped out the Cabinet.

An NIO official suggested: “I cannot help feeling that given the Northern Ireland situation, the time will never be exactly right. However the prisons are quiescent at the moment, the Maze escape is 18 months behind us and the trial of the recaptured escapers is some months ahead.

“If we hold off until the late summer we may well end up deferring action yet again rather than remit Donnelly’s sentences during, or immediately after, that trial.”

The senior NIO official said: “Generally there is agreement that the remainder of Donnelly’s sentence should be remitted.

“I would therefore propose that we should do so now in the wake of the local government elections while the prisons are generally quiet and before June 25 when the trial of the recaptured Maze escapers will focus attention back into this area.”

Current Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has revealed that the Royal prerogative was exercised in Northern Ireland on at least 365 occasions between 1979 and 2002. But the true total may well be higher as the NIO has been unable to find the records for the 10-year period from 1987 to 1997.