A senior police officer who was investigating allegations of IRA membership against leading republicans asked prosecutors about the fact that the suspects had a “prominent political role within Stormont”, it can be revealed.
One of the individuals being referred to was Padraic Wilson, one of the most senior IRA members during the Troubles and a figure who now has a key behind the scenes role within republicanism.
Máiría Cahill, whose allegations of sexual assault led to the police investigations – which ultimately saw Mr Wilson walk free from court after the case collapsed – said she “found it strange that such a question would be asked” of prosecutors.
Mr Wilson was recently revealed by the RHI Inquiry to have been in contact with Sinn Fein finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir about a key RHI decision last year.
Now, after reading about the evidence to the RHI inquiry that Mr Wilson’s involvement in Stormont decision-making continued up until the collapse of devolution last year, Ms Cahill has shown the News Letter a section of a Police Ombudsman report given to her in September in response to a series of complaints about how police handled the process that led to her case collapsing.
In it, the office of Ombudsman Michael Maguire said that it had examined an email dated August 13 2010 which the Major Investigation Team (MIT) detective chief inspector had sent to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS).
In the email, which related to the IRA’s internal investigation of Ms Cahill’s rape allegation, the ombudsman said that the officer had raised “the issue [of] did the PPS have any thoughts or policy upon historic [paramilitary] membership offences and that the suspects had moved to a prominent political role within Stormont”.
There is no legal provision which would make the fact that an individual had political connections a remotely relevant factor in decisions such as whether to charge them.
It has been long been alleged by many unionists and others that certain senior republicans, including the late Martin McGuinness, seem to have been protected by the system due to their political significance.
However, the ombudsman went on to find that despite raising that issue, the police officer’s action had been “not unreasonable” and that he did not believe it was inappropriate.
The ombudsman’s report went on to say: “The email certainly evidences a political awareness by the MIT detective chief inspector, but ... there is no evidence of political interference with the investigation.”
Ms Cahill, who is now an SDLP councillor, said: “I accept the ombudsman letter to myself and the findings contained within. Although the ombudsman finds that the MIT inspector did not act inappropriately and no sanction was imposed for this particular point, I found it strange that such a question would be asked of the PPS.
“Subsequently, [IRA membership] charges were directed to be brought, but I believe that police should always base their decisions on the evidence in front of them, irrespective of length of time passed, or someone’s political role.”
The News Letter asked the PSNI whether it stood over the appropriateness of what the officer had done and whether it generally takes any account of an individual’s political connections when deciding on whether to charge them with historic or current membership offences relating to terrorist organisations.
In a statement, Assistant Chief Constable Barbara Gray said: “It is routine business for the PSNI to seek advice from the PPS during an investigation to ensure that the prosecution file contains sufficient information to allow the PPS to make its decision with regards to both the evidential and the public interest tests.
“However, such considerations do not prevent the PSNI from submitting a report to the PPS, nor do they influence the police recommendation.”
She added: “All our investigations are conducted with integrity, professionalism, in a thorough manner and without fear or favour. We are not influenced by political commentary or political consequences.”
The News Letter asked the PPS whether it took any account of an individual’s political connections when taking decisions about whether to prosecute and, if it does not, whether the PSNI officer’s email had been robustly challenged.
A PPS spokeswoman said: “Our Code for Prosecutors is clear: Prosecutors will maintain absolute fairness and impartiality at all times and all decisions are taken by applying the Test for Prosecution without fear, favour or prejudice. This case was robustly and independently reviewed by Sir Keir Starmer in 2015 and no improper motivation was found.”
Bomber who joined IRA at 16 against mother’s wishes
Padraic (also known as Padraig) Wilson has for decades been among the most senior republican figures in Northern Ireland.
In 1985, at the age of 25, he was sufficiently trusted by Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams that Mr Adams invited a New York Times reporter to live with him for a period in order to write an article about life for a republican in west Belfast.
By then Mr Wilson had already served six years for possessing explosives. He had been caught with bomb-making equipment just a year after joining the IRA aged 16, a decision made against his mother’s wishes.
Mr Wilson told the paper that when he got out of jail he had joined Sinn Fein rather than the IRA. However, in 1991 he was arrested in possession of a car bomb and sentenced to 24 years in jail.
In prison, his influence continued and he became ‘officer commanding’ of IRA prisoners in the Maze Prison.
Such was his significance that the then secretary of state Mo Mowlam allowed him to be temporarily released in the belief that he could help persuade IRA members to support the 1998 Belfast Agreement. Under the terms of that agreement, he was then permanently released from prison and has maintained a relatively low profile since then.
In 2002, the Daily Telegraph reported that Wilson had travelled to Colombia as part of an IRA deal with FARC rebels to train them in bomb-making in exchange for money. A UK diplomatic source told the paper: “You don’t get much more senior [in the IRA] than Wilson. This came right from the top.”
About a decade later, he was charged with IRA membership. That charge arose from investigations in relation to allegations that he was involved in an IRA ‘kangaroo court’ which had examined allegations by Máiría Cahill that she was raped by another IRA member.
However, the IRA membership case against Mr Wilson collapsed, and he walked free after Ms Cahill and two other women withdrew their evidence. A later review of that criminal case on IRA membership found that the PPS handling of it had been riddled with errors.
Separately, in 2012, senior Sinn Fein figures protested outside police headquarters when Mr Wilson was charged in relation to another IRA investigation – that of Robert McCartney’s murder.
He subsequently walked free when that case collapsed in 2015 – again in a situation where the witnesses withdrew their evidence, accusing the PPS of bungling, a claim it rejected.