In an exclusive interview, Creeslough based John Downey who was at the centre of a political storm after his recent release from prison, has told the Donegal Democrat he has no idea why he was arrested at Gatwick Airport in May of last year and backs calls for an international truth commission. He says he is a republican who wants to go forward in peace and harmony with the unionist community.
This is the interview as it appears today in the Donegal Democrat:
John Downey - “There are victims on all sides” in this conflict
John Downey’s home is located off a leafy lane on the outskirts of Creeslough village which lies under the sweeping shadows of the Seven Sisters mountain range.
His greeting is open and warm and on entering his home you are quickly seated at the kitchen table for tea by his wife.
His family home, adorned with photographs of family and pets, is comfortable and warm. The quiet spring evening is only broken by the shouts of excited children on a trampoline outside.
In the comfort of his home, it is difficult to equate John Downey with the man whose recent case threatened to shatter the Northern Irish peace process.
John Downey’s life changed dramatically when he was arrested on May 19, 2013.
He was charged with the Hyde Park bombing of 1982, an atrocity which cost the lives of four soldiers.
Two weeks ago the 62-year-old walked free from court after his legal team produced a letter from the British Government which stated that he wasn’t wanted by the PSNI or any other police force in the UK.
The revelation of the letters which gave assurance to “on the runs” pushed the Northern Ireland assembly to the brink of collapse and threatened the peace process – a process that John, a convicted member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), welcomed from the very beginning.
John was raised in a very Republican home. Both his parents, Stephen and Mary were Republicans.
“I was born into a very Republican family in Kilrush in County Clare and my father, Stephen, had been a member of the IRA since he was sixteen when he joined up to fight the Black and Tans in 1920. He later fought against the ‘free Staters’ in the Civil war. He believed that Ireland should stay united as it always was at the time. I took a lot of my value and my beliefs from my father as I grew up and my mother, Mary, and her uncles were also involved in the war against the black and tans.”
As a teenager he watched images of the turmoil which took place during the civil rights marches in North on a black television, he decided he would have to do something to help his fellow Irish people in Belfast and Derry and he became an active member of the IRA in the struggle.
“I felt that I could not ignore the situation in the north and pretend that my fellow Irish men and women had nothing to do with me. I could see, at that time that time, that nothing was going to be accomplished by peaceful means and we had to fight fire with fire,” he recalls.
He quickly points out that at the time the main aim of the IRA was to defend the nationalist Irish people who were under attack by British Unionist Forces.
In 1974, he was jailed for IRA membership.
“From all sides war is ugly. I became involved in the strategy, when it became apparent that our political aims could be achieved through peaceful means.”
Downey became a ‘persuader’
John became a ‘persuader’ on the ground and his dedication to the peace process was exemplified in his court appearance, when references, which supported and recognised his work in the peace process, were handed in by organisations across Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland.
“I want to thank those organisations for writing to my solicitor, Gareth Pierce, and detailing the work that I have been doing in relation to the peace process,” he said.
During the course of the pursuit for peace, John has shook the hands of people he would have viewed as enemies in the past.
“It is of prime importance that the peace process isn’t destablised in any way. I believe that our two different traditions can live in equality based peace and harmony. My goal is the same as it always was and I want to see my country united, by consent, because it was divided by threat of force, it wasn’t divided democratically,” he said.
John shakes his head when asked why his arrest and subsequent proceedings took place in London – he still feels at a loss as to why it happened and how it was allowed to happen.
The father of three had travelled back and forth from airports in England and states that he had never been stopped by authorities. He received his ‘letter’ in 2007 and had already been allowed to travel to Canada in 2008, after which he claims the Canadian authorities were told by the British authorities that they had no issue with him.
“I am told that the reason for my arrest was that I had come up on the Police National Computer (PNC). I had been in and out of Birmingham airport on numerous occasions. I’d also been in Stansted and then on that last day they decided to arrest me. I refuse to believe that if I was on the PNC that I would have gone through all those airports including Derry and Belfast, because that is within their jurisdiction, without being picked up,” he said.
He added: “The letter states to me that I am not wanted by the PSNI or any police force in the UK.”
Former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain says he was “astonished” that John Downey was arrested in the first place, after the case against him was thrown out.
Speaking on the The Telegraph website, he said: “The procedure agreed under the peace negotiations deal was that those people who had been carefully checked by the police and the authorities, suspected of crimes, yes, but whether they could be proved or not was an open question, especially committed a long time ago, and those people who were cleared, like John Downey got a letter from the Northern Ireland office and therefore were not wanted by the authorities. He got that letter. He should have been in the clear like dozens of others who had gone through the same pain-staking process.
He added that he “was astonished” that John Downey had been arrested because John Downey was in reciept a letter from the Norther Ireland office.
He said that the idea that people who had been in that “predicament” could then be arrested “would turnover the whole of the process that had been agreed at the highest level amongst the legal authorities as well as in Government.
Unionists knew about the deal - Downey
However, John Downey insists that the “Unionists” knew about the deal.
“As far as the Unionists saying that they didn’t know about the letters, of course they knew. I got the letter in 2007, having applied through Sinn Féin in 2003, four years later the application was granted as part of an ongoing process,” he said.
He added that he received his letter a few days after the Northern Ireland assembly was set-up.
“As far as the letter is concerned this was an arrangement between the British and Irish Government and my arrest was a breach of the agreement reached between the British and Irish government,” he said.
John feels that the peace process is now more important than it ever was and believes that everything that can possibly be done, should be done to move the peace process along. “We need to move forward peacefully together,” he said.
He added that there were victims on all sides: “There are victims on all sides, you know there are a lot of Republican graves throughout the north as well and I think the biggest thing we can do, as far as to the people who were killed are concerned, is to move forward and leave it in a way that it never happens again.”
He reiterated the fact that his homecoming was never to add to the hurt of anybody was bereaved. The story of the homecoming created a media frenzy - making international headlines.
“Where was the media when I was working with the peace process? When I was meeting Loyalists and former enemies? I have to ask the question, why were they not interested in that part of the story, when everyone was striving towards a better good?
John now aims to find closure for all those who suffered bereavement during a struggle that witness tragic deaths on both sides of the divide and is calling on the establishment of an international truth commission.
“At the end of the day, I am a Republican who wants to forward in peace and harmony with the Unionist community. I recognise that in order to gain a united Ireland, Republicans have to persuade Unionists and that can only be done in an atmosphere of equality and trust.” John thanked his family, everyone who supported him adding a very special thanks to his solicitor Gareth Pierce.