This weeks edition of the RTE series Crimes & Confessions traces the origins of the allegations of a Garda heavy gang to the Sallins train robbery in 1976. There were calls as far back as 1977 from Amnesty International for the government of the day to hold an independent inquiry into the allegations of ‘maltreatment carried out systematically by detectives who appear to specialise in the use of oppressive methods in extracting statements’ from suspects (Amnesty Report 1977). In response, the State appointed judge Barra O’Briain to recommend certain safeguards for people in custody and to protect Gardaí from false allegations. In 1978, the Committee made 28 recommendations. The government did nothing.
In this episode, the four men accused of the Sallins train robbery – Arklow man Nicky Kelly, Osgur Breatnach, John Fitzpatrick and Brian McNally – tell a harrowing story of their treatment at the hands of some detectives in the Bridwell Garda station and their fight to clear their names and get justice. 46 years on, these men are still suffering and want outstanding questions answered by the State. Viewers who watched the first episode will notice similar patterns between this case and the interrogations of the three men accused of the murder of Una Lynskey in 1971.
The episode gives context to the reason allegations of a Garda heavy gang persisted after the Una Lyskey case in 1971. We cannot forget the political situation at the time of the Sallins train robbery in 1976. The troubles in the North had come south. The State believed it was under siege by paramilitaries and responded by giving Gardaí extra powers to arrest and detain suspects. As one of the former detectives says in the programme, “Guards, judges, everybody… we were all targets.”
If your blood was boiling watching last week’s episode, you might need someone with you watching this one to calm you down. This time, it’s not just a few rogue Gardaí that Nicky, Osgur, John Fitzpatrick and Brian McNally have to deal with. They face a sleeping judge and a court system that appears to accommodate these Garda in convicting them. And then there’s the question of the response of the State; despite acquittals, a Presidential Pardon and compensation payouts, the Sallins four still want justice.
The Sallins case created a unique opportunity for the State to address a real problem, but the political circumstances at the time took precedence and allegations of forced confessions persisted for almost a decade longer. Innocent people continued to go to jail.
Crimes & Confessions, RTÉ One, Monday 17th January at 9.35pm and on the RTE Player here