Garda muder: Garda killers both jailed for 40 years
Sergeant murdered in heroic bid to foil raiders
This month's freeing of two men jailed for murdering a Garda coincided with the 30th anniversary of their being sentenced to death.
The pair, Michael Martin McHugh, from Armagh, and Co Monaghan man Noel Callan, were convicted of killing 49-year-old Sergeant Patrick Morrissey after an armed robbery at a labour exchange in Ardee, Co Louth, in 1985.
The raiders stole almost £25,300 from the labour exchange before getting away in the manager's car and later switching to a motorbike.
The sergeant, in the area for a District Court sitting, joined in chasing the armed and masked men as they attempted to escape. He was initially shot in the leg and wounded before fired at in the face from close range by McHugh.
At the time, the murder of a member of An Garda Siochana was listed as a capital offence.
In line with other similar cases during that period, the two men later had their sentences commuted to terms of 40 years imprisonment by President Patrick Hillery, acting on the Government's recommendation.
The crime, which created shock waves on both sides of the border, is recalled in Government papers just released under the terms of the 30-year rule.
A memorandum drafted for his Cabinet colleagues by then Justice Minister Michael Noonan described McHugh - aged 23 at the time of the incident and the instigator of the robbery - as being "regarded as highly intelligent" and "reckless in the extreme when committing crime".
The minister also reported the details of the killing, confirming for the Government that Sergeant Morrissey had first been hit in the leg.
He added: "As the sergeant lay on the ground, one of the gunmen shouted at him to get up. He was unable to do so, and as he tried to prop himself up (he) shot him in the face."
The killers were arrested nearby after a search involving gardaí, the Army and the Air Corps.
Noel Callan, 22 years old when jailed, later appealed - but McHugh refused to do so.
Mr Noonan told the Cabinet: "From his defiant attitude towards the court after being sentenced, when he gave a clenched fist salute, the indications are that he is unlikely to do so."
The 40-year jail terms, substituted for the death sentences against the two men, included the stipulation that they should be served without remission.
But that condition was contested by Noel Callan earlier this year, when he claimed his entitlement to a 25pc remission.
The State contested the claim, but Callan's case was later upheld by the Supreme Court in what was regarded as a landmark decision.
McHugh subsequently benefited from Callan's action, as the two men had been convicted of the same crime.
The freeing of the two men ten years early outraged members of the Morrissey family.
The shot garda's brothers, George and Marty, declared: "These men were already shown mercy by having their death sentences commuted, and we can't agree with their early release.
"Our brother PJ died in the service of the State, and we believe his killers should serve every day of those 40 years.
"They have never shown any remorse. We don't agree with this ruling - and the law needs to be changed."
George added: "PJ's widow, Bernie, has borne an unbeatable burden over the past 30 years. She is our heroine."
The year of the sergeant's brutal killing coincided with a degree of unease about the strength of An Garda Siochana generally.
At one stage, Minister Noonan acted to increase the number of Assistant Commissioners in the force to a total of six.
At that time, there was a total of 12,000 gardaí nationwide.
The current figure is 12,800.
Ireland had abolished capital punishment for 'ordinary' murders in 1964, but the murder of a garda in the course of his duty remained a capital offence.
Capital punishment was struck from the statute book for all offences in Ireland in 1990.
The last execution in Ireland took place in 1954, when a man was hanged for murder.
The last death sentences, almost immediately commuted to 40 years imprisonment, were handed down in 1985.