Adjournment Matter. - Imprisonment of Irish Priest.

Wednesday, 23 November 1988

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 121 No. 7

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Mr. Ferris: Information on Michael Ferris  Zoom on Michael Ferris  I thank you for allowing me to raise the very important and serious case of Fr. Paddy Ryan of Rossmore, Goolds Cross, County Tipperary, who is at present in the prison of St. Gilles in Brussels awaiting a decision from the Belgian Minister for Justice to a formal request from the British Government for Fr. Ryan's extradition on the by now infamous charge of conspiring to murder persons unknown. If it is in order, my colleague, Senator Tony McKenna from North Tipperary, has intimated that he wishes to be associated with supporting this motion and I hope there will be sufficient time to allow him to speak about this case.

As a result of this request from the British authorities, Fr. Ryan decided, after careful consideration, to go on a hunger strike in the knowledge and the belief, and from public references to similar charges preferred against other Irish citizens in Great Britain, that the likelihood of his receiving a fair trial on such an emotive charge was very slim indeed. It does not please me, as somebody who abhors everything the Provisional IRA stand for, to have to put that type of comment on the record of this House. It is a fact, and anybody who has read all or even part of what has been published by the English media since this case began in Belgium, will realise that there would be a very slim chance of Fr. Ryan getting a fair trial if he is extradited to Britain on this type of charge because already he has been found guilty by some of the English Press and media on facts which are not sustainable.

Fr. Ryan's family, in particular his brother Joe Ryan and his wife, and Fr. Paddy's sister, have visited Fr. Ryan in this Belgian jail. Visiting there is extremely restricted because Fr. Ryan has been in solitary confinement for up to 22 hours a day since he was imprisoned. I want to place on the record of this House my appreciation of the help that has, at my request been extended to the Ryan family, by the Minister and by officers in his Department of Foreign Affairs who have helped, by their intervention, and ensured that Fr. Ryan's family had proper facilities for a personal visit to Fr. Ryan to discuss with him in detail the full implications of continuing his hunger strike. Fr. Ryan has accepted the consular assistance offered to him by our Embassy in Belgium. It is appropriate that credit should be given to the Department for their interest and their recognition of the seriousness of this case involving an Irish citizen.

I am extremely concerned that Fr. Ryan's hunger strike, which today is entering its 21st day could lead to a very serious deterioration in his health and could lead eventually to his death, particularly as this priest is already suffering [785] from malaria which he contracted during his 15 years in the service of the foreign missions in Africa. I am told by his brother that he has lost up to two stone in weight, and because of that his age and the fact that he is suffering from this dreaded disease contracted on the missions while he was with the Pallotine Fathers, I am extremely conscious of how important every day is.

During his time as a missionary in Africa, he was identified with political leaders, with the poor, the needy and the oppressed. We know that oppression in parts of Africa can be economic and political. We are all acutely aware of the level of political oppression in parts of Africa. It came as no surprise to anybody in Tipperary when this priest returned to Ireland to retire after an extended period in the missions. He visited the North and he saw at first hand the deprivation caused for families when the breadwinners are jailed for political offences. The political situation in the North has led other strong Church leaders to appeal in this case, and they have even criticised the system which leads to deprivation for the dependants of people who are imprisoned for long periods. Every other day we have comments from leading Church figures like Fr. Wilson, and as late as this morning when on our national airwaves Fr. Faul gave a lengthy interview dealing with prisoners and their dependants in the North.

It is nothing new for a priest, particularly a priest who like many of us considered himself a Nationalist, to have an interest in people who are underprivileged and oppressed politically. These are the same people Fr. Ryan would have given his time, and had given his time, to help by funding them and by fund raising for them in Ireland and throughout Europe. I am sure he has often condemned the British authorities in the North of Ireland in particular and many of the sentiments he expressed have been echoed by all of us and by many other people in all political parties [786] in the south of Ireland in particular. None of these comments would ever, we consider, warrant a request from the British jurisdiction for our extradition.

All of us would admit that if Fr. Ryan has been guilty of anything it is of issuing statements in condemnation of the British authorities for some of the actions in the North of Ireland. These statements would be re-echoed by many of us and, certainly, by all the political parties in this country. None of these statements, we would consider, would warrant a request by the British Government for our extradition. We must bear in mind also that a previous Irish Government made funds available through the Houses of the Oireachtas to help the very same people for whom Fr. Paddy Ryan has been fund-raising.

However, he was arrested in Belgium on 3 June for offences which, to my knowledge and my information, have been dropped by the Belgian authorities. We would contend, and have argued — and he has agreed — that if the Belgian authorities believed that he had a case to answer for offences committed in Belgium, Fr. Ryan was prepared to stand trial in that country on them. When he was arrested and these offences were read out against him, both the British and Irish authorities at that time stated publicly that they had no interest whatsoever in Fr. Paddy Ryan. Then, three months after his arrest the British authorities sought extradition on conspiracy charges based on suppositions and generalities.

I saw a copy of the original extradition warrant and the grounds that were shown on that warrant were associé des malfaiteurs which, translated roughly into English would mean “associating with undesirables”. Any of us who know anything about the role of a priest in difficult circumstances know that they all deal with undesirables of one kind or another, whether they are drug addicts, alcoholics, drop-outs or whatever. I do not think any of us could condemn a priest for being [787] involved with people, particularly those in need. However, he was represented, when the case was presented, by three eminent Belgian lawyers, Georges' Henri Beauthier, Jacques' Hamaide and Luk Walleyn. He was also represented by Martine Schemama from Paris, Lord Gifford and Michael Fisher from England and Mr. Elio Malocco from Dublin. Quite a number of eminent lawyers have taken on his case on the basis and the principle of common justice and they have, I think proven their case through the actual procedure, which is not a legal procedure in the Belgian context, but is a type of forum which considers the application from another member state of the European Community.

To my knowledge this forum recommended a particular course of action in the case of Fr. Ryan. The original application has since been changed by the British Government to a charge on which it is most difficult to prove one's innocence and that is the charge of conspiracy to murder persons unknown. The panel which have considered this British request have refused Fr. Ryan political asylum. I believe that they have recommended to the Belgian Minister for Justice not to accede to the British request for extradition. I now respectfully request, and hope that the House would agree with me, that the Minister should use his good offices with the Belgian Government directly to intervene and express our wishes in this very serious case. I am suggesting this type of formal action because it is not a court procedure and would not be considered as intervening in the jurisdiction of another country since the decision finally about Fr. Ryan on the application will be made at a political level in the Belgian Parliament.

The wishes that I have expressed here have been subscribed to by all political parties in South Tipperary and by elected representatives from North and South Ridings in Tipperary at a recent joint [788] meeting of the two county councils and all other local authority bodies in the area. Unless Fr. Ryan is charged or found guilty of an offence committed in Belgium — for which we accept he should stand trial — we want this Irish priest freed and returned home to his family and his friends. I hope the Minister can assure this House that he will try to assist us in our efforts. I have used every possible means at my disposal to forward this cause. This week the International Secretariat of the Labour Party, which is associated with the Socialist group in Europe, are using their good offices to try to intervene at that level; but I think it is more appropriate that Government-to-Government communication should take place about our wishes for the return to Ireland of Fr. Paddy Ryan from Rossmore, Co. Tipperary. With that I will allow my colleague, Senator McKenna, to contribute.

Mr. McKenna: Information on Tony McKenna  Zoom on Tony McKenna  Very briefly I want to support Senator Ferris on this motion. He has outlined in detail the history of this case so far and the plight of Fr. Paddy Ryan and I am not going to go into details again. I want to reiterate his expression of thanks and gratitude to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister of State and indeed the Department of Foreign Affairs for the interest that they have taken in this case to date and the efforts they have made to resolve this tragic situation. If only on humanitarian grounds I think it is very important that this situation would be resolved as quickly as possible. That a priest should be on hunger strike for such a long period of time must be a worry to everybody. As Senator Ferris quite rightly said, the people of Tipperary, both north and south, are very concerned about it. I would like to add my voice to urge the Minister and the Department of Foreign Affairs to do everything in their power to resolve this problem.

As Senator Ferris has said, the big difficulty in relation to the extradition [789] sought by the British is that it would appear that he has already been tried in the British media. It is extremely difficult to counter that type of propaganda. As he quite rightly says, if there is a case Belgium, then let it be so. It is extremely important that every effort be made as soon as possible to try to remedy this tragic situation.

Mr. W. Ryan: Information on William Ryan  Zoom on William Ryan  I wish to say a word also simply because Fr. Ryan comes from my area. I know him and all his family. I endorse what has been said by the other speakers. I feel satisfied that our Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Department of Foreign Affairs have done as much as anybody could possibly do in this case. I feel that eventually what has been done by Foreign Affairs will bear fruit. There is a lot of talk about the British wanting to extradite him but, as I understand it, he has first to be charged by the Belgian authorities with some offence that he is supposed to have committed there; until that is dealt with the British move for extradition cannot go ahead.

We condemn British justice, but after all, Britain and Ireland are about the only two countries where people are innocent until they are found guilty and keeping people in prisons for maybe a year or two or three years without trial is most unfair. I hope that does not happen in the case of Fr. Ryan. I hope that the man will have sense enough to go off the hunger strike because while he is on hunger strike he is not going to get very much sympathy. A lot of people think that by going on hunger strike you get the sympathy of the people; you do not any more.

Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Mr. Calleary): Information on Seán Calleary  Zoom on Seán Calleary  First, I would like to thank Senator Ferris, Senator McKenna and Senator Ryan for the manner in which they have put their case and for the opportunity that it gives me to reply. As Senator Ferris has stated, Fr. Ryan is an Irish citizen, was arrested [790] in Belgium in June. Our embassy in Brussels have been informed by the public prosecutor in the case that he faces charges in Belgium of forming part of a criminal association, the use of a false passport, public use of a false name and breach of the laws on explosives. Unlike Senator Ferris, my information is that these charges have not been dropped. We understand also, as mentioned by Senator Ferris, that the British authorities have sought Fr. Ryan's extradition to the United Kingdom to face charges in that jurisdiction. Both issues are under consideration by the relevant legal authorities in Belgium.

The Department of Foreign Affairs have been aware of this case since Fr. Ryan's arrest and have provided him and his family with the normal consular assistance. Is such cases our principal consular responsibilities are to ensure that an Irish citizen facing criminal charges has, if he requires it, access to a diplomatic or consular mission, is aware of the charges being brought against him, has an opportunity to take legal advice and to have legal representation, is brought to trial without unnecessary delay and is aware of appeal procedures and has access to them. Our embassy in Brussels has taken steps to ensure that these responsibilities have been discharged in Fr. Ryan's case and to this end they have maintained contact with the Belgian Ministry of Justice, the prison authorities and the public prosecutor. They have also provided the necessary assistance to Fr. Ryan's relatives and to his legal representatives.

Could I place on record my appreciation of Senator Ferris's remarks on the efforts of the Department's officials both in Dublin and in Brussels in this case. The First Secretary at our Embassy in Brussels visited Fr. Ryan yesterday. As Senators will be aware, Fr. Ryan has not taken solid food since 3 November. This was referred to by all the Senators who spoke. I understand that he is seen by a [791] doctor each day and that in the circumstances he is in reasonably good health.

Members of Fr. Ryan's family have also visited him in recent days. As I have already indicated, the legal issues in this case are under consideration by the relevant Belgian authorities. In so far as the charges in Belgian law are concerned, I understand that an investigation has been completed and that the relevant court will now consider whether or not to proceed to a criminal trial. A decision in relation to this is not expected for some time.

In so far as the request for extradition to the United Kingdom is concerned, I understand that the relevant court has prepared an option for the Minister for Justice and his decision is awaited. However, in the meantime Fr. Ryan's legal representatives have lodged an appeal in the Belgian courts in connection with the form and procedure of the United Kingdom extradition request.

[792] Senators will be aware that the legal issues in this case are matters of Belgian law and fall within the competence of the Belgian legal authorities. In the light of this, the Government do not consider that it will be appropriate to intervene in the Belgian legal process, as suggested by Senator Ferris. I would like to assure Senator Ferris and all Senators that all appropriate action will be taken to ensure that Fr. Ryan's rights in this case are protected.

Mr. Ferris: Information on Michael Ferris  Zoom on Michael Ferris  I thank the Minister. I have just learned the sad news that Fr. Ryan is going on hunger and thirst strike from 8 o'clock tomorrow which makes his situation most precarious. I plead with the Minister to make the direct contact I have referred to in line with the procedures laid down as it is now even more urgent than when I began speaking.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.45 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 24 November 1988.

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