Coveney under fire for his comments on jailed dissident

Simon Coveney
Simon Coveney

The Republic’s foreign minister is facing an outpouring of condemnation for remarks about the imprisonment of a dissident republican in Northern Ireland, saying that his detention adds to “community tensions in an unwelcome way”.

The comments from Simon Coveney are arguably the most substantial intervention yet by a senior politician in the case of Tony Taylor, a Londonderry-based paramilitary who was released under the Good Friday Agreement, then later convicted of firearm possession.

Taylor is currently in jail after his was licence revoked, and the past couple of years have seen a growing clamour to free him – with Sinn Fein, the SDLP, People Before Profit, and a Catholic clergyman all criticising his detention.

Now in remarks to the Irish parliament, Mr Coveney (a member of the centre-right Fine Gael party and deputy of taoiseach Leo Varadkar) has spoken in some detail about the case – citing the toll it is taking on Taylor’s family, the length of time he has been detained for, and the “legitimate” republican concerns about it.

His intervention has sparked a strong reaction from unionists and the Alliance Party (see below), who have all warned Mr Coveney to mind his own business.

Troubles campaign group Innocent Victims United said Mr Coveney’s comments virtually amount to a call for Taylor’s release (also below).

It has long been known that the Irish government has been keeping watch on the case.

For instance in late 2016 Charlie Flanagan (Mr Coveney’s predecessor as foreign minister) said his officials in Belfast had been told to “monitor” the case, and that he would remind the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) “of our continuing interest in the humanitarian welfare of prisoners” in general.

However such remarks are less substantive than Mr Coveney’s. In his comments to the Dail last Wednesday (which went largely unnoticed until spotted by the News Letter), Mr Coveney said his officials have visited Taylor in Maghaberry twice, including in the last few weeks.

“I am aware that Mr Taylor has publicly renounced any future engagement in dissident republican activity,” he said.

“I have received a letter from his wife, Lorraine, and I am aware of their difficult family circumstances.

“I am also aware that there is a level of concern in the nationalist and republican community in Northern Ireland about the basis for and nature of Mr Taylor’s ongoing detention. They have all been reflected in our ongoing engagement with the NIO on the matter.

“The recent indication that Mr Taylor’s new parole hearing may take much longer than expected is of particular concern as he has now been in detention for over two years without being charged with or convicted of any new offence...

“There are legal sensitivities of which we must be aware, but I understand the growing concern about this matter.

“Having been in Derry last week, I appreciate how it is contributing negatively to community tensions in an unwelcome way.”

Mr Coveney pledged to write to the Secretary of State and to broach the issue with her personally.

“We will continue to raise the concerns that have been raised in this House,” he said.

“They are legitimate.”

He then went on to essentially repeat the same comments in the Dublin Parliament’s upper house, the Seanad, on Tuesday this week.

The NIO said it would not discuss individual cases, but that it is up to independent Parole Commissioners to review cases and decide if a decision to revoke a licence was correct.

FROM TUV TO ALLIANCE, POLITICIANS TELL DUBLIN TO BUTT OUT:

The News Letter approached all the main unionist parties and Alliance for their views on Simon Coveney’s comments.

The DUP issued a statement from Foyle MLA Gary Middleton, which accused Mr Coveney of “flexing political muscles he cannot exert”.

It said: “I would caution Mr Coveney about overstepping the mark. This is interfering in matters which are for Her Majesty’s Government and our judicial system.

“The Parole Commissioners concluded that Mr Taylor posed ‘a risk to the public’ when his licence was revoked.

“I agree with the process in place to consider such matters. It is not for me to second guess their work. It is certainly not for Simon Coveney to second guess them either.

“He should focus on dealing with matters for which he has responsibility.

“He should help the Kingsmills families find truth about the cross-border activity that led to the slaughter of their loved ones.”

A statement from Ulster Unionist justice spokesman Doug Beattie said: “Simon Coveney should let the Northern Ireland Justice system do its job and not intervene in a separate jurisdiction.

“There are serious and ongoing problems in Londonderry with regard to ongoing republican violence and attacks on the families of police officers.

“If Mr Coveney has the time to devote attention to events in that city, I would suggest he would be better served by supporting efforts to protect the law-abiding citizens from what can only be described as a gang of fascist thugs wedded to violence.”

Leader of the TUV Jim Allister said: “The Tony Taylor case is none of Mr Coveney’s business. Taylor wasn’t some innocent, like so many victims of his organisation. He was seeking to use the bomb to murder and maim when he himself injured [in 1994].”

The Alliance Party issued a statement from its ex-justice minister David Ford, which noted that campaigners have often referred to Taylor’s ongoing incarceration as “internment”.

“Alliance opposes internment, but this is not internment,” he said.

“It is the revocation of a licence... If there any changes in circumstances or other concerns about the case, it can be reviewed at any time.

“While justice minister, I did not intervene in any due process and I would advise other politicians to do the same, instead respecting the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement.”

By contrast, Adam Moore of the NI Conservatives issued a fairly low-key statement, noting that it “is not the first time the Irish government has commented publicly on this case”.

Referencing other statements made in his Dail address, he said: “I welcome Mr Coveney’s acknowledgement that this issue needs to be dealt with sensitively and appropriately.

“It is important not to make statements which risk inflaming community tensions.”

‘DUBLIN SHOULD FOCUS ON THEIR OWN FAILINGS’

Kenny Donaldson, spokesman for Innocent Victims United (IVU) has said that the Republic’s government would be better focussing on the failings of his own state in relation to terror.

He said Mr Coveney’s intervention in the Taylor case – which he dubbed “the most senior to date” – will be seen by Troubles victims as the Dublin government effectively adding its voice to a “pan nationalist/republican front”.

His IVU group is an umbrella organisation for a raft of smaller bodies supporting people hurt by the Troubles, which together encompass well over 10,000 people.

Mr Donaldson said: “For Minister Coveney to suggest that Tony Taylor should almost be released on the basis of his saying that he will not become embroiled in future dissident republican activity borders on the ridiculous if it weren’t so serious.”

He said the Republic had “systematically failed to deal with the legacy of PIRA’s terrorist campaign along the border”.

He cited links between individuals in the Irish security forces and the IRA, plus the state’s “aggressive and intransigent” opposition to extradition, as being among failings in the Irish state.

“Minister Coveney and the Republic of Ireland state have much to convince the innocent victims/survivors of PIRA terrorism of,” added Mr Donaldson.

“Do they actually care about their quest for justice, truth and accountability?

“Or will that state continue to cherry pick and support campaigns which are the preserve of the wider nationalist/republican community?”

WHO IS TONY TAYLOR?

Before the first IRA ceasefire, Tony Taylor was convicted in relation to what is often described in press reports as a “premature explosion” in Londonderry.

He was given an 18 year sentence some time in the mid-90s, but was freed in 1998 under the Good Friday Agreement.

According to a report in the Irish News, the blast for which he was convicted occurred on January 27, 1994.

It said “the force of the explosion knocked down a wall, and in a follow-up operation police recovered a mark 16 mortar which appeared to be in the process of being set up to be fired”.

Taylor went on to join dissident pressure group the Republican Network for Unity before being detained in August 2011 and accused of possessing a semi-automatic rifle.

In January 2014 Taylor (by then aged 44 and with an address given as Bishop Street, Londonderry) changed his plea to guilty.

The court was told he admitted having the rifle, which was found in the boot of a car, on the basis of ‘second limb possession’, in that he was holding it for someone else intending to endanger life or cause serious injury to property.

He was sentenced to three years in jail followed by five years on licence.

However he was free again soon after, having already spent years in jail on remand before the sentence was handed down.

In 2016 his licence was revoked by the Secretary of State and he was returned to prison.

Campaigners have claimed there was a lack of due process involved, with Taylor never having a chance to challenge the basis for why his licence was revoked.

A 2016 Radio Free Eireann interview quotes Michael Doherty, one of the organisers of the Free Tony Taylor Campaign, as saying Taylor had adhered to the terms of his licence when freed.

He added that Taylor “continued to peacefully agitate on issues regarding prisoners’ rights... while remaining Republican and opposed to the political regime here”.

Despite Martin McGuinness’ famous pronouncement that dissidents were “traitors to the island of Ireland”, Sinn Fein (including McGuinness himself) have spoken out strongly against Taylor’s current detention.