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Secret files: 'Astonishment' at Soviet Union's concern for jailed Provo killers' human rights

Previously classified state papers from 1988 have been published under the 30/20 year rule

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 30/12/2015

The funerals of Tullyvallen Orange Hall victims James and Ronald McKee in 1975
The funerals of Tullyvallen Orange Hall victims James and Ronald McKee in 1975

The Soviet Union voiced concerns about alleged abuses of republican prisoners' human rights in Northern Ireland in the 1980s.

The regime - one of the world's worst abusers of human rights - requested information on a series of "political prisoners".

Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe was "astonished" after being personally handed a list of eight men that Moscow had taken an interest in.

They included John Anthony McCooey, convicted in connection with the Tullyvallen Orange Hall massacre in 1975.

Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, apparently referring to Northern Ireland's Diplock courts, said he could not understand how people could be imprisoned without trial by jury.

The Soviet regime sent millions of people to Gulags during decades of oppression.

The bizarre intervention came at a meeting between Sir Geoffrey and Mr Shevardnadze in Moscow in February 1988.

A note of their discussion is included in files released today by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

It states: "I have just heard from the [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] that during the Foreign Secretary's meeting with the Soviet Foreign Minister in Moscow yesterday, Mr Shevardnadze expressed concern about the alleged abuses of human rights in Northern Ireland, apparently arguing in particular that the absence of jury trials was a basic infringement of individual freedom."

Mr Shevardnadze handed over a list of names of eight republican prisoners, translated into Russian.

Seven of the eight were convicted of murder, including:

  • Paul Martin Creighton, serving life for the murder of a man during an IRA feud in November 1975;
  • Michael Culbert, jailed for 16 years for the murder of a police photographer in 1978;
  • Joseph Gibson, who shot dead a UDA man in Belfast in June 1976;
  • Thomas McGrath, who killed two men during a shooting in Annaghmore, Co Armagh, in 1976;
  • Kevin Gerard Christopher McNally, who was serving life for two murders, and 15 other serious offences.

The most high profile prisoner was McCooey, who was convicted in November 1977 over the Tullyvallen murders.

IRA gunmen attacked the remote Co Armagh hall in September 1975, killing five Orangemen.

McCooey was also jailed for the separate murders of two UDR officers.

The memo adds: "The Foreign Secretary indicated that he was astonished by this demarche and firmly rebutted Mr Shevardnadze's allegations."

Sir Geoffrey stressed that no one was imprisoned for their beliefs in Northern Ireland.

A letter sent from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office the week after includes a copy of the eight names presented to Sir Geoffrey.

The writer, Timothy George, advises: "I hope the list includes a fair proportion of violent offenders with whom no-one could have much sympathy."

Another memo states this was the first time Mr Shevardnadze had taken an interest in Northern Ireland affairs.

"The Soviet Government had received representations about many who were serving terms under sentences which they believed were illegal and contrary to their rights," it continues.

"The Soviet Union did not understand how trials could be held without juries."

In a further rebuttal, an official from the Soviet Department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised stressing that the eight names put forward by Mr Shevardnadze were "genuine villains".

It said: "We need to show the Russians that we have taken their expression of concern about Northern Ireland seriously, and examined the list carefully.

"This reminds the Russians that we expect a no less careful response to our own representations about human rights and individual cases.

"At the same time we need to make very clear to the Soviet authorities that the particular cases they have raised bear absolutely no comparison with the refuseniks, religious believers, psychiatric prisoners or others on our own list.

"They should be left in no doubt that we consider Shevardnadze's remarks a pretty blatant propaganda ploy."

The memo also refers to advice issued if the Russians mentioned Gibraltar, where three IRA terrorists had been shot dead by British special forces, or the ongoing investigation into an alleged shoot-to-kill policy by the RUC and SAS.

Mr Shevardnadze's intervention was surprising given the Soviet Union's human rights record.

Millions of men and women were transported to camps in Siberia and other parts of the Soviet empire during decades of tyranny.

They had to endure sub-Arctic temperatures, undertake heavy labour at gunpoint and avoid starving to death.

Between 1929 and 1953, the year of Joseph Stalin's death, 18 million people passed through the Gulag system - many never returned.

Mr Shevardnadze, who died last year aged 86, was a senior figure in the Politburo.

He was appointed foreign minister of the Soviet Union in 1985 under reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev. After its break-up, he became leader of his native Georgia, now an independent country.

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