Gerry Adams illegally held during Troubles, supreme court rules | Politics

The former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams was interned illegally at the height of Northern Ireland’s Troubles because the wrong minister approved his detention order, the supreme court has ruled.

His two convictions for attempting to escape from the Maze prison in the 1970s have also been quashed by the UK’s highest court.

The unanimous decision follows a hearing in London last year at which lawyers for the 71 year old challenged the way he was held under emergency legislation.

Delivering judgment, Lord Kerr said: “We hold that the power [to make a detention order] should have been exercised by the secretary of state and that therefore that the making of the interim custody order was invalid since the secretary of state had not himself considered it. In consequence, Mr Adam’s detention was unlawful.”

Adams, who has always denied being a member of the IRA, was taken into custody under article 4 of the Detention of Terrorists (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, which covered anyone whom the secretary of state for Northern Ireland “suspected of having been concerned in the commission or attempted commission of any act of terrorism”.

The regulations required that the Northern Ireland secretary be involved personally in making any such decision. Adams sought to overturn two criminal convictions for escaping from the Maze prison in 1973 and 1974.

Documents released to the public records office under the 30-years rule revealed that the government knew there had been a procedural irregularity in relation to the detention of Adams and other republicans who tried to escape with him from the heavily guarded internment camp.

A note dated 17 July 1974 recorded a meeting held by the then Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, called to consider “an urgent problem which the attorney general had brought to his attention”.

The note explained that “following a recent attempt to escape by four prisoners [a reference to Adams and others] from the Maze, an examination of the papers concerning those prisoners revealed that applications for interim custody orders concerning three of them had not been examined personally by the previous secretary of state for Northern Ireland during the Conservative administration.

“It now appeared that the [previous] Conservative administration had left both tasks to junior ministers in the Northern Ireland office and, according to [the attorney general’s] information, there might be as many as 200 persons unlawfully detained in Northern Ireland.” Adams’s order had been signed by a minister of state.

The supreme court was asked to decide whether it was parliament’s intention that only the secretary of state for Northern Ireland should have the power to make an interim custody order.

The director of public prosecutions for Northern Ireland, who was the respondent in the case, successfully argued in the Northern Ireland courts that the Carltona principle – based on a 1943 test case – allows that “where parliament specifies that a decision is to be taken by a specified minister, generally that decision may be taken by an appropriate person on behalf of the minister.”

Adams, who was a Sinn Féin TD for Louth in the Irish Dáil until February, was not present at the supreme court hearing in London last November.

The case was heard by five justices including the lord chief justice of England and Wales, Lord Burnett. Kerr, a former lord chief justice of Northern Ireland, presided.

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