Patrick Ryan

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Person.png Patrick Ryan  Rdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
(priest, “terrorist”)
Father Patrick Ryan.jpg
Fr Patrick Ryan, "Quartermaster of the IRA"
Born26 June 1930
IRA quartermaster, priest turned terrorist.
Grand Hotel Brighton: morning of 12 October 1984

Father Patrick Ryan, an Irish Catholic priest, was born in a small farming town in County Tipperary on 26 June 1930. He went to the local school and then joined the Pallottines, an order of Catholic missionaries, who ordained him as a priest in 1954. Fr Patrick Ryan spent the next eleven years in Africa and then in the United States before becoming the assistant curate of a small church in east London.

By the early 1970s, Ryan had evolved into an Irish republican activist and went on to become the quartermaster of the Provisional IRA. In that role, he travelled extensively in Europe in search of weapons and bomb-making equipment. On one of his trips to Switzerland, Ryan is thought to have obtained the sophisticated long-delay timer that triggered the bomb which nearly killed UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the Grand Hotel in Brighton on 12 October 1984, during the Conservative Party conference.[1]

On 30 June 1988, Ryan was arrested by Belgian police who seized a quantity of bomb-making equipment and manuals, and a large sum of foreign currency. The UK quickly sought Ryan's extradition from Belgium to face charges in Britain but, after five months of legal argumentation, Belgium instead transferred Ryan to Dublin on 25 November 1988. The Irish Government took three weeks to reject Britain's request for Ryan's extradition saying "the chances that he would receive a fair trial in Britain had been irredeemably prejudiced by reports in the British press and statements in Parliament."

On 14 December 1988, Margaret Thatcher repudiated the assertion that Ryan would not receive a fair trial and said the Irish decision was a "great insult to all the people of this country." Amid angry exchanges in the House of Commons, Opposition Leader Neil Kinnock said Mrs Thatcher "blew" the possibility of Ryan's extradition by her "performance." Mrs Thatcher said in response that "you don't put your weight behind trying to secure the extradition of Ryan."[2]

Initial Operations

Until the mid-1960s, Fr Ryan had shown no great interest in politics beyond a basic resentment of the British role in Ireland. Now, as the civil rights movement gathered speed in Belfast, Ryan's behaviour in London for the first time showed signs of a new course. One of his jobs was to collect money for missionary work in Africa but, despite his hard work, his superiors noticed that he was sending less and less. They challenged him and he declared quite openly that he was sending the cash to a better cause – the Republican movement in Ireland. He defied their request to stop and then gave them further cause for alarm by wooing a timid young woman named Catherine, a regular church-goer who lived with her parents and worked with mentally handicapped children. Catherine fell deeply in love with the charming priest and his chatty ways.

Leave of Absence

By 1972, Ryan’s church superiors were so worried that they suspended him from normal duties and then gave him six months leave of absence. He became more outspoken than ever and caused a minor scandal on a trip to Rome in the summer of 1973 when he told Italian priests that he hoped the IRA bombed the centre of London. This was not mere talk. During his leave of absence, he had gone to Dublin where he had cemented his links with the Republican movement, offering them the priceless asset of his clean record and his respectable front. The Provisional IRA put him to work on what was then their worst problem – their chaotic supply lines. They had no shortage of men on the ground in Belfast but they were unable to maintain the steady flow of money and arms which were needed to keep them busy.

Libyan Contact

So it was that after scandalising his colleagues in Rome, Patrick Ryan discreetly boarded a flight to Libya and, still wearing his priest's robes, made contact with Libyan military intelligence in Tripoli. During the autumn of 1973, the break with his old life became complete. As he shuttled back and forth between Dublin and Geneva, opening bank accounts and transferring funds from his new friends in Libya, the Catholic Church formally suspended him. Weeks later, he transferred several thousand pounds from Geneva through Frankfurt to Dublin – the beginning of a flood of money which he was to direct into the IRA Army Council's coffers.

Le Havre Base

Early in 1974, Fr Patrick Ryan set up a base in Le Havre, staying in a tourist hotel and working around the clock to set up the IRA’s new supply lines. There were bank accounts in different names all over Europe, particularly in Luxemburg and Switzerland. There were couriers in Brussels and Paris, stewards on the cross-Channel ferries, lorry drivers who rode the routes between Dublin and the continent. And there was one fatal flaw.

Unknown to the errant priest, his behaviour had caught the eye of a quick-witted Canadian tourist who was staying in the next room to him in his Le Havre hotel. The Canadian could hear him tuning in to a short-wave radio every morning as if he was trying to pick up a signal, and he noticed him down in the docks, asking about cargo vessels travelling to Ireland. The hotel told the Canadian that this man was Patrick Ryan, a seaman. The Canadian wondered how a humble sailor could afford the string of international phone calls which Ryan made.

After several days, Ryan checked out to go on one of his numerous trips round Europe. The Canadian slipped into his room and seized the contents of Ryan's waste paper basket. The next day he was on a ferry to Southampton. Hampshire Special Branch did not know quite what to make of this excitable tourist clutching a handful of waste paper. But when they examined the paper, they found phone numbers of known IRA contacts in Dublin and Europe and, mysteriously, of a council flat in east London – Catherine.

Ongoing Surveillance

From this moment, Father Ryan was never alone again. The Metropolitan Police Anti-Terrorist Branch embarked on an operation which was eventually to embrace the police Special Branch, the Security Service, MI5, the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the intelligence agencies of most of the countries of Western Europe, an extraordinary transnational manhunt.

At the beginning it was focused on Le Havre where French police agreed to keep an eye on Ryan and to report his movements to Scotland Yard. British undercover teams, supplied through MI6, took up station in Le Havre and watched as Ryan built his empire. They were there in January 1975 when Joe Cahill, an IRA veteran, and Eamonn Docherty, then the IRA's assistant chief of staff, travelled to Le Havre to meet their priest. They followed the three men as they journeyed to Paris to meet a notorious arms dealer, known as Max.

The surveillance teams watched as Eamonn Docherty came back again and again to Le Havre, often travelling on to Switzerland to check the latest banking arrangements. They watched, too, early in 1976, when the IRA's chief of staff himself, Seamus Twomey, came with Docherty to meet Ryan for the most important mission of all – the striking of an alliance with Muammar Gaddafi. The three men travelled to Libya together and spent a week there arranging the details of their mutual aid before flying back to Paris for a further week of discussion among themselves.

The teams watched also as Ryan's romance continued with the shy English spinster, Catherine. Ryan had begun to exploit the innocence of the besotted woman. He needed an English driving licence in a false name, so he spun her a story about how he could not get one in his own name while he was living in France. Catherine got it for him and smuggled it through Customs in her girdle. She carried bundles of cash back to London for him and sent them to a bank in Ireland. He said the money was for the dream home where they would eventually live together. It was really for Maurice Prendergast, then the IRA's director of finance.

Quartermaster of the IRA

By 1976, Fr Patrick Ryan had become a pivotal figure in the IRA. In less than two years, he had pumped nearly one million pounds into IRA bank accounts, most of it from Libya. He had supplied pistols and bullets concealed in the doors of lorries, and had smuggled nitroglycerine in loads of lemons from Italy.

Memopark Swiss timer

Fr Patrick Ryan bought 400 Memopark Swiss timers

Crucially, Fr Ryan had discovered a device called a Memopark Swiss timer. A Memopark timer is a gadget for motorists: you park your car, turn the dial on your Memopark so that it rings in your pocket when the time on your meter has expired.[3]

The IRA discovered they could attach a metal arm to the top of a Memopark timer so that when it rotated, instead of ringing a bell, it completed an electrical circuit – the perfect bomb timer. Fr Ryan found a novelty shop in Zürich which sold the gadgets and, in May 1975, he bought out their entire stock of 400 Memopark Swiss timers. Over the next 18 months, those Memoparks were traced at the scene of 185 different explosions in Northern Ireland. They were also found in a bomb factory in London.

Extract from page 106 of the book "Combating Terrorism in Northern Ireland":[4]

"The Swiss-made Memopark parking meter timer is worthy of further mention. It consisted of a high specification clockwork mechanism that would normally be attached to a keyring and kept in one's pocket. It was very small, highly reliable and required little modification. The first one was used in Northern Ireland in 1971 although the Provisional IRA were not the first terrorist group to use them. They appeared in limited numbers until the mid-1970s when the PIRA began to purchase them in bulk from Switzerland. The small and innocuous Memopark timer became a regular feature of PIRA devices up until the ceasefire in 1997. By the time the PIRA declared its ceasefire the security forces had classified 18 different types of Timer and Power Units (TPU). While certain components were removed or substituted, the principle behind the TPU never changed. Some TPUs incorporated long-delay electronic integrated circuits, like the one used in the Brighton bombing."

1976 Arrest

The operation against Ryan had been striving to find evidence which would justify his arrest. In the summer of 1976, as Catherine arranged to meet Ryan in Zürich, the British persuaded the Swiss authorities to mount a joint surveillance in an effort to find evidence to justify making an arrest. The couple were followed for a week. As Catherine flew back into London on July 25 she was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. In the Pradier Square in Geneva, Ryan was picked up on the pretext of a minor motoring offence.

After days of questioning, Scotland Yard accepted that the tearful Catherine was merely an innocent dupe. In Switzerland, Ryan denied everything until he was confronted with his diary – a painstaking record of his movements. Then he admitted that he was the European Quartermaster of the IRA and threatened that unless he was released the IRA would attack Swiss Embassies in Dublin and London. His threat was taken seriously.

Scotland Yard, however, were playing a losing game. They had no evidence that Ryan had committed an offence on Swiss soil. The only evidence they had was of IRA activities which would be deemed political by the Swiss courts and, therefore, outside the terms of the extradition treaty between the two countries. After ten days in custody, Ryan was released and, despite frenzied diplomatic efforts, he was able to move a small fortune in IRA funds out of Swiss bank accounts before the police could freeze them.

Since then, Ryan kept working while on the run. He was arrested and released all over Europe – France in December 1976, Italy in February 1977, Luxembourg in March 1977. He was kept under surveillance in Spain for months. While police in Britain had accumulated evidence of his continued involvement in supplying funds and arms for the IRA, they had never been able to beat the extradition laws to get him back to London for trial. Nor had other European forces been able to prosecute him for offences in their jurisdiction.

1988 Arrest

On 1 May 1988, three off-duty British servicemen were assassinated in the Netherlands. On 30 June 1988, acting on a tip-off, Belgian police went to the home of an IRA sympathiser and arrested Ryan, who was believed to be acting as quartermaster of the IRA active service unit in Belgium. Upon his arrest, the police seized a quantity of bomb-making equipment and manuals, and a large sum of foreign currency. The British authorities provided substantial evidence in support of a request for Ryan's extradition from Belgium to face charges in Britain. Legal argument between the two countries ensued over the next five months and, following a three-week hunger strike in protest against his possible extradition to Britain, Ryan was instead transferred to Dublin on 25 November 1988.[5]

European Court Ruling

On 30 November 1988, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Britain was in breach of European law for permitting the detention for up to a week of people suspected of connections with terrorist groups. UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher reacted angrily to the court ruling and to Britain's failure to secure the extradition of Fr Patrick Ryan, who was wanted on charges of helping the outlawed IRA.

Mrs Thatcher told the House of Commons: "We shall consider the judgment carefully and also the human rights of the victims and potential victims of terrorism."[6]

Extradition Demand

Upon his transfer to Ireland, Britain formally demanded Ryan's extradition.

On 29 November 1988, Conservative MP Michael Mates called at Prime Minister's Questions for the immediate extradition of this "terrorist". Mrs Thatcher responded:

"The failure to secure Ryan's arrest is a matter of very grave concern to the Government. It is no use governments [of Belgium and Ireland] adopting great declarations and commitments about fighting terrorism if they then lack the resolve to put them into practice."

The next day in parliament Tony Benn MP raised with the Speaker the following point of order:

"It is clearly a misuse of privilege to use the protection of the House of Commons to make such an allegation. Father Ryan is wanted on a serious charge. It could hardly be more serious. It is in accordance with the practice of British courts that anyone charged is presumed innocent until convicted. Therefore, when a senior Member of the House says, and it is confirmed by the Prime Minister, that that person is a terrorist, it is impossible from that moment on for that man to have a fair trial. The BBC broadcast those remarks and every newspaper has highlighted them. Yesterday, the House of Commons became a lynch mob, headed by the Prime Minister, whose remarks are bound to prejudice any jury or judge if Father Ryan is brought to this country."[7]

Michael Mates MP was the next to speak:

"Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker, I am grateful to the Rt Hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Benn) for the courtesy of telling me that he was going to raise this matter. I used the phrase yesterday solely in the context of my outrage at the fact that that person was not being brought here to face trial. It was not intended to be an intimation of guilt. Strictly, I should have said, 'Ryan is the man the security forces most want in connection with serious offences.' I am happy to make that plain."

On 1 December 1988, the Attorney General, Sir Patrick Mayhew, asserted that the extradition paperwork sent to Ireland was in order and the government's claim to have Ryan extradited should be acceded to. However, Fr Ryan said that he would rather die than face a British tribunal as he believed Irish people could never receive justice through the British legal system.[8]

Thatcher's "double standards"

Patrick Haseldine accusing Mrs Thatcher of "double standards on terrorism"

The extradition controversy was heightened by the publication of a letter in The Guardian of 7 December 1988 from Patrick Haseldine, a British diplomat, accusing Mrs Thatcher of "double standards on terrorism". The headline on the front page read:

FO official calls Thatcher stance 'self-righteous'
A Foreign Office official has accused Mrs Thatcher of "self-righteous invective" by criticising the Belgian and Irish handling of Britain's request for the extradition of Father Patrick Ryan (writes Richard Norton-Taylor). In a letter to today's Guardian, Mr Patrick Haseldine, of the FO information department, refers to a 1984 decision to allow four South Africans charged with arms embargo offences to leave the country after a South African embassy official agreed to waive diplomatic immunity and stand surety for them. The embassy gave assurances they would return to Coventry magistrates court for their next hearing. They did not do so. (Letters, page 22)
The double standards on terrorism
It is all very well for Mrs Thatcher to inveigh against the Belgians and the Irish with such self-righteous invective. Naturally, she would not care to admit it but in the not too distant past her allegations of being soft on terrorism and allowing political considerations to override the due legal process could have been levelled at Mrs Thatcher herself.
Remember the Coventry Four? These were the four (white) South Africans brought before Coventry magistrates in March 1984 and remanded in custody on arms embargo charges. Rumour has it that Mrs Thatcher was rather annoyed with the over-zealous officials who caused the four military personnel to be arrested in Britain. Rightly, she refused to accede to the South African embassy's demand for the case to be dropped but she was keen for the Embassy to know precisely how the legal hurdles governing their release and the return of their passports could be swiftly overcome. Thus the First Secretary at the Embassy stood bail for the Coventry Four, having declared in Court that he was waiving his diplomatic immunity. (The Embassy did not, however, formally confirm the waiver.) Then a petition to an English Judge in Chambers secured the repatriation of the four accused.
Clearly, Mrs Thatcher wanted the four high-profile detainees safely out of UK jurisdiction, back in South Africa and off the agenda well before her June 1984 talks with the two visiting Bothas (P W Botha and Pik Botha).
Strange that Pik Botha, the Foreign Minister, was able to find an excuse for not allowing the Coventry Four to stand trial in the Autumn of 1984.
Stranger still that Mrs Thatcher failed to denounce Mr Botha's refusal to surrender the four "terrorists" (cf declaration by U.S. Governor Dukakis that South Africa is a "terrorist state").[9]
P. J. Haseldine
Information Department
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
London SW1 [10]

Extradition Refusal

The following week, amid exchanges in the House of Commons, Neil Kinnock, the opposition leader, said Mrs Thatcher "blew" the possibility of Fr Ryan's extradition by her "performance."

On 13 December 1988, the Irish Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, announced in the Dáil Éireann (Irish Parliament) that the serious charges levelled against Ryan should be investigated by a court in Ireland and, because of prejudicial remarks made in the House of Commons, Fr Ryan could not expect to receive a fair trial in Britain.

On 14 December 1988, in an interview with The Tipperary Star, Fr Ryan said that he had raised money both inside and outside Europe for victims on the nationalist side in the troubles of Northern Ireland, but insisted he had "never bought explosives for the IRA or anybody else", and had never been requested by the paramilitary group to do so.[11]

Decision not to prosecute

In October 1989, the Director of Public Prosecutions in Ireland announced that he had decided not to initiate proceedings against Father Patrick Ryan.[12]

1989 European election

Capitalising on the publicity afforded him by the extradition denial, Ryan contested the European Parliamentary elections in 1989 in the Munster constituency as an Independent with Sinn Féin support. He failed to be elected but received over 30,000 votes.[13]

1993 Criminal trial

In 1993, Ryan was tried in Ireland's Special Criminal Court, a court normally reserved for paramilitary and gangland-related trials, on charges of receiving stolen goods.[14]

2019 BBC interview

Patrick Ryan speaking to the BBC in 2019

Patrick Ryan was interviewed for the BBC's "Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History" (Series 1: Episode 3), broadcast on 24 September 2019.[15] Ryan detailed his trips across the world where he moved money and sourced weapons on behalf of the IRA. He spoke openly to BBC Spotlight for the first time about his visits to Tripoli to meet Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi, sourcing tons of weaponry and high grade explosives from the regime. He described the Libyan leader, who was deposed and publicly executed in October 2011, as "a fine fella, best I ever met."

He also boasted about sourcing a more stable timing device while travelling through Europe and said he realised the timer could be utilised during a period when IRA members were blowing themselves up with their own bombs. The small pocket sized 'memo park' timer was widely used across Europe to remind motorists when their parking ticket was about to run out:

"I spotted these things, these little timers, it rang a little bell to remind you, you better get back to your car, your money had ran out.
"That was foolproof against any Ra man, even if he tried he couldn't kill himself planting a bomb, and that became extremely successful. Most of them never knew where it came from, they just took them and used them."

The interviewer Jennifer O'Leary said remains of a 'memo park' timer was discovered in the rubble of the 1984 Brighton bomb when the IRA attempted to murder the top tier of Margaret Thatcher's government in the Grand Hotel during the Tory party conference and also in the remains of the Hyde Park bomb.

When asked about Margaret Thatcher's description of him having a hand in a number of bombing missions, Ryan told the BBC:

"I had a hand in most of them ... she was right, absolutely 100 per cent.
"I have big regrets, I regret I wasn't even more effective.
"But we didn't do too badly."[16]

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