Decades after denials, ex-priest admits he was major IRA bomber

Former priest and IRA bomber Patrick Ryan who confessed to roles in a number of atrocities this week. Image: BBC Spotlight
Former priest and IRA bomber Patrick Ryan who confessed to roles in a number of atrocities this week. Image: BBC Spotlight
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A unrepentant former Roman Catholic priest has admitted that the Brighton bomb was among scores of IRA attacks in which he was involved – and said that his big regret is that he wasn’t “more effective”.

Tipperary-born Patrick Ryan was at the centre of one of the highest profile extradition battles of the Troubles, where the British Government believed it had evidence which could prove he was a terrorist but in 1988 the Republic of Ireland refused to extradite him to be tried in a UK court.

At the time, Ryan publicly denied that he had been a member of any organisation other than the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association.

He told the Tipperary Star: “After that I belong to no other organisation either overt or covert. So, do I belong to the IRA? I did not, never have, am not, and have no intention.”

However, based on his own words in a BBC Spotlight film to be broadcast tonight, those denials were lies.

Ryan, who is almost 90, was the critical link between Libya and the IRA as Colonel Muammar Gaddafi happily supplied guns and explosives to republicans so that they could attack their common enemy, the British.

Speaking in the third instalment of Spotlight’s seven-part series on the Troubles, Ryan is explicit about his own role in illegal activities.

Spotlight did not state whether Ryan still lives in Ireland nor did it explain why he has now decided to self-incriminate himself as has done.

During the interview with the BBC, Ryan praised the Libyan dictator who was killed in an uprising in 2011. He said: “He was a fine fella. One of the best I ever met. We got on very well.”

Ryan had been a Catholic missionary in east Africa but was back in Ireland working as a parish priest when the Troubles began at the end of the 1960s.

He said that he financially contributed “as much help as I could – some of it out of the mission boxes – to the situation up north” and then was “approached by some of the IRA leaders down here [to ask] if perchance I could work for them permanently. They asked me to travel the world and try to get help for them.”

Ryan eventually fell out with the church and left the Pallottine order in 1973.

That year he was instrumental in securing a five-tonne shipment of weaponry from Tripoli but it was intercepted before arriving in Ireland. He said that the original plan had been for a 200-tonne shipment but that at the last minute the load had been slashed by the Libyan authorities for reasons which were never explained to him.

It was Ryan who realised that a gadget used in continental Europe to remind drivers to return to their cars before their parking tickets ran out could be used as timers in bombs.

Hundreds of the Memopark timers were bought by the former priest on the continent and sent to the UK or Ireland for IRA use.

The fragments of a Memopark timer was recovered from the rubble of the Brighton Hotel bombing which almost killed Margaret Thatcher in 1984 and did kill five others, as well as injuring more than 30, some very seriously.

In a declassified government document, Margaret Thatcher was shown to have described Ryan as “a very dangerous man” who had “an expert knowledge of bombing” and had been the key conduit between the IRA and Libya for over a decade.

When Mrs Thatcher’s accusations were put to him and he was asked if he was involved in any of those incidents, he said: “I would say most of them; one way or another, I had a hand in most of them. Yes, she was right.”

Asked if she was right to link him to bombs such as Hyde Park and Brighton, he said: “Absolutely – 100%. Oh yes.”

When asked if he had any regrets, he said: “Oh, I have, yes. Big regrets. Of what nature? I regret that I wasn’t even more effective. Oh yes; absolutely. I’d like to have been even more effective than I actually was. But we didn’t do too badly, no.”

l Spotlight on The Troubles: A Secret History will be broadcast tonight on BBC One Northern Ireland and also simultaneously on BBC Four at 9pm.