independent

Thursday 15 November 2018

Wrongly jailed for train heist

Nicky Kelly
Nicky Kelly

IMPRISONED for a crime he didn't commit - you'd expect Nicky Kelly to be consumed by bitterness.

Instead, the former politician has moved on and in fact believes that the events of the 1970s, '80s and '90s have presented him with opportunities he may not have had access to had he not been falsely accused of the Sallins Train Robbery.

A recent RTE Scannal programme focused on the false imprisonment of Kelly and the subsequent 'Free Nicky Kelly' campaign.

After the robbery, which occurred on March 31, 1976, Kelly, a native of Graiguenamanagh, Co Kilkenny, and three others, all members of the Irish Republican Socialist Party, were arrested.

During garda interrogation Kelly and his co-accused Osgur Breatnach and Brian McNally, who all said they had been beaten by gardaí, signed confessions.

The trial of Kelly, McNally and Breatnach in the Special Criminal Court became the longest-running trial in Irish criminal history, at 65 days, before it collapsed due to the death of one of the three judges, Judge John O'Connor.

During both trials, medical evidence of beatings was presented to the court but the court rejected this evidence, finding that the beatings had been self-inflicted or inflicted by the co-accused.

Nicky told the court that his head was rammed off lockers, put down the toilet and spat on. He also claimed he was hit in the back with a chair, kicked, kneed in the groin and boxed in the ears.

In the middle of the second trial, Nicky who had moved to Arklow when he was a child, saw the writing on the wall and knew a guilty verdict - although wrong - would be forthcoming.

Three days before he was due to be sentenced, he skipped bail and fled to America rather than be jailed for a crime he didn't commit. In his absence, he was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment, as were McNally and Breatnach.

Having successfully appealed their convictions from prison, McNally and Breatnach were freed in May 1980 and, in anticipation of a similar successful appeal, Kelly returned home, arriving in Shannon airport in June 1980.

However, justice was a cruel mistress and he became a national and international figure from his cell in Portlaoise Prison.

'When I came home, the whole country was expecting a different legal outcome and it's since been said that 17 of the country's most senior judges got it wrong.

'I never even appeared before a jury, yet I served four-and-a-half years in jail.'

While in prison, Nicky started a hunger strike on May 1, 1983, a strike that was to last 38 days.

'It was tough but it was mind over matter. I sound flippant now but it was hard. Every day you are locked up with the best of food but couldn't eat it. You reach a stage around day 30 and that's when it all starts going downhill. Not to be grotesque about it but the body starts to turn on itself. I spend the last 20 days of the hunger strike under military guard in the Curragh listening to the guard saying "the sooner you die, the better". One prison chaplain told me I was going to hell.' He ended the strike only after the European Court of Human Rights agreed to hear his case on an emergency basis.

Time in prison is hard time and Kelly said that for him it was particularly hard. 'It's very hard to come to terms with imprisonment. When you are jailed for something that you did do, you have a deadline, but when you are jailed for something you didn't do, it's totally unreal. You never accept it. You are fighting it every day you are there.

'In a way, the happiest times I had there, and happy is the wrong word, was the time I spent in solidarity, simply because there was nothing left for them [the prison guards] to take from me.'

However, outside the prison there was a huge campaign calling for his release with singer Christy Moore even penning a song, 'The Wicklow Boy', calling for his release.

On July 17, 1984, Nicky Kelly was in his prison cell when 'guards burst in with black bags and told me I was being moved. I wanted to know where I was going but they grabbed me and carried me out.'

His release had been ordered by the then Minister for Justice, Michael Noonan, on 'humanitarian grounds'.

'When I came out, it took a while to adapt. People meant so well and there was so much good will. I didn't realise the campaign had been so big internationally.

In 1992, Nicky was granted a presidential pardon by the then President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, and received £1 million in compensation.

He went on to become a county councillor and also served as Mayor of Arklow. Kelly came tantalisingly close to a Dail seat in 2002, losing out to Mildred Fox by a margin of just 19 votes. He lost his seat in the 2014 local elections.

Despite his miscarriage of justice, Nicky denied he is haunted by it. 'I've always said there's no use in dwelling on it no matter how tormented I was. You could be bitter but I think it would do me more harm and gain nothing. What does torment me is the hypocrisy of various governments of the day which have all reneged on promises to hold an inquiry into how it could have happened.

'But the truth will emerge one day, whether I'm around to see it or not is another story but these times they are a-changing.'

Wicklow People

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