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Special Advocates and the murky role of MI5 at the expense of former Republican prisoners in Northern Ireland

I HAVE KNOWN Ciaran Collins for several years. Days before we first met at a political meeting in Dublin, Ciaran had attended the funeral of Michael Lutton in Lurgan, Co Armagh. Lutton was a member of the Continuity IRA (CIRA) who died on 1 November 2010 and received a military funeral. I had never heard the name Michael Lutton before, but Ciaran, still mesmerised by the atmosphere of the funeral kept on talking about him.

It was, coincidentally, Michael Lutton’s anniversary when I met Ciaran on a chilly All Hallows 2018: I had just arrived in Belfast from Vienna. It was almost 6:30 pm when I reached Ciaran’s house on the outskirts of West Belfast, and I was looking forward to the cup of tea in his kitchen that is usually the first thing I do in Belfast. The kettle was puffing nicely when suddenly he jumps up, throws the tea in the sink and shouts: “I haven’t produced myself today”. Before I understand, Ciaran is in his car on his way to the PSNI police station.

Ciaran is a former Republican prisoner. After four years in HMP Maghaberry, he was released on licence in September 2016 under strict terms. Although his sentence was over in 2017, he got handed an extra two years for “national security” reasons. Every single day since his release he has had to produce himself before 7 pm at the PSNI police station, he is not allowed to leave Northern Ireland, he has a list of ten people he shall not have any contact with, and he is not allowed to reside in the Greater Craigavon area. Ciaran is originally from Craigavon, his 72-year-old father, his relatives, and his partner with their three children aged one, six, and ten, all live there.

His legal representative, Darragh Mackin of Phoenix Law in Belfast says: “Ciaran is subject to the most restrictive conditions in the constituency. He has been deprived of his liberty and forced to live in isolation away from his family”.

“The Governor just came to me and said: That’s it, you are out of here”, remembers Ciaran of the day he was released from prison: “So I went to the reception desk to collect my stuff, and they told me that I could not go home. I went to my aunt in Belfast and stayed there for a while”. Ciaran is one of many former Republican prisoners with particularly harsh conditions imposed upon them. There are currently about a dozen Republican prisoners held in Roe, the separate area for Republicans in HMP Maghaberry. There are dozens who have served their sentences but face strict licence conditions. However, Ciaran’s case is different from other cases.

On 7 October 2014, Megan Lindsay wrote in a letter to the Offender Management Unit HMP Maghaberry on behalf of the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) that “the PSNI has confirmed that it does not hold any information indicating that Kieran [sic] Collins is involved in terrorism or linked to a terrorist organisation, or any information which if disclosed would be damaging to national security” (emphasis in original). The only security information provided about Ciaran in a security report dated 25 June 2014 is that he took part in an “ongoing protest/issues with Dissident Republican Prisoners in Roe”. This line refers to his participation in a series of protests by Republican prisoners demanding the implementation of an agreement reached between the prisoners and the Northern Ireland Prison Service in August 2010. This on its own would not have affected his release terms.

Based on this report from the NIO, Ciaran and his legal representatives expected his release in 2015. However, Ciaran was not released, and in autumn 2015 closed material procedures (CMP) were initiated. In CMP, also known as “secret courts”, the evidence is withheld from the accused and his legal team for “national security reasons”. Instead, a Special Advocate represents the accused during closed hearings.

This Special Advocate is not allowed to provide any information from the closed evidence to the accused and his legal team.

“I was supposed to be out the previous year”, Ciaran remembers. He only met his Special Advocate twice: “That was a guy from England. He said to me: In there, I am your eyes and your ears, you need to trust me. But I said I don’t know who you are. I never met you before’. His legal representative was told not to contact the Special Advocate. He points out that “I have never seen the full evidence against me”.

As of today, Ciaran still does not know why he was not released in 2015 despite a favourable report from the NIO the previous year. He also does not know why his release on the licence was extended for another two years despite his having served his full sentence. In addition, he does not know why the evidence was withheld from him and his legal time. In other words, he is not aware of all the allegations being made. In this way, Ciaran’s legal representatives were kept in limbo, unable to defend Ciaran.

hy did Ciaran get a Special Advocate appointed after a favourable report from the NIO was issued? Special Advocates are used sparsely in the UK justice system. In Northern Ireland, they are merely used for high-profile Republican and Loyalist cases. The use of a Special Advocate in the case of Ciaran indicates that his case is of particular interest to the Security Service.

Ciaran was convicted of unlawful possession of a gun. On 20 September 2012, he travelled in a convoy with two other men. Both cars were stopped and searched. The statement of evidence says that the “two other men were assessed by the Security Service (MI5) to be CIRA members”. However, solely Ciaran was charged and eventually pleaded guilty to possession of a weapon in suspicious circumstances.

In prison, Ciaran disassociated from his former comrades, leaving the prisoners’ support group Cabhair which supports CIRA prisoners, and became a guest of the Cogús prisoners’ support group. On 7 October 2014, the NIO cleared him from any “links to a terrorist organisation”. But his early release was blocked because the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State signed a certificate of confidential information. It was noted that confidential information within the meaning of Rule 9 (1)(e) of the Parole Commissioners’ Rules (Northern Ireland) 2009 and Rule 9(2) “would not be in the public interest”. Reinforcing this, Ciaran’s release would be “contrary to the interests of national security”.

Although Ciaran was not linked to paramilitary Republicanism, he was not released. The reasons are found in his open evidence. For it mentions that the information collected about Ciaran came from a person “providing information or assistance in confidence and disclosing evidence would make it impossible for the person to continue with providing such information”. Furthermore, the “information (was) received in confidence by the security forces (…) and intelligence agencies”. In other words, the information used to prosecute Ciaran came from within the Republican group.

Ciaran was set up for prosecution in 2012, cleared by the NIO in 2014, but still forced to serve his full sentence. Two years after his sentence expired in 2017, Ciaran is still not a free man. “My father is 72. Last year he had an operation and needed care, but they didn’t let me stay overnight. One evening, he had to be rushed to Craigavon Hospital, but I got no permission to visit him during the night. Mentally the whole situation is torture”, Ciaran says.

Ciaran is not allowed to reside in the Lurgan/Craigavon area. In this small area with significant Republican support, two other cases appeared in the past decade that provide the context for Ciaran’s situation. When Martin Corey’s licence was revoked for almost four years, the intelligence-based evidence was also not disclosed. Likewise, the cases of Brendan Conville and JP Wootton, who were convicted for a CIRA attack that killed police officer Stephen Carroll in March 2009, point to the involvement of State agents in their prosecution.

Certainly, all the evidence collected by the author confirms that both men had had no involvement in the shooting. They were innocent.

Ciaran is the fourth man from the same area whose conviction has been based on the words of a State agent. MI5 linked all four men to the CIRA. To what extent do the Security Services pull the strings within Republicanism, namely the CIRA, in North Armagh? Have North Armagh Republicans been prosecuted where for some reason that was necessary to protect State agents still operating in the CIRA?

Throughout the Troubles, The British State ran paid State agents inside paramilitary organisations. Some of them like Freddie Scappaticci were high-ranking IRA members who not only provided information but also tortured and killed other Republicans to hide their own identity; and yet they were protected by MI5. The cases of Ciaran Collins, Martin Corey, Brendan McConville, and JP Wootton indicate that obsession with protection for State agents remains the same in today’s Northern Ireland.


Dr Dieter Reinisch is an Adjunct Professor in International Relations at Webster University and Lecturer in History at the University of Vienna. He tweets on @ReinischDieter and blogs on