Will we ever know the truth about Paddy Joe?
Re-opening the inquest of a young internee murdered by the IRA could be the first decision facing new Attorney-General John Larkin, writes Ed Moloney
By one of those extraordinary quirks of fate the newly-devolved justice and policing arrangements recently negotiated by the DUP and Sinn Fein look as though they may well face their first challenge, not from some act of violence carried out by dissident republicans, but from a ghost of the past - a spectre literally conjured up from a time when those who now lead Sinn Fein were much more interested in destroying the policing system in Northern Ireland than running it.
It is even more ironic that we have the late Brendan Hughes to thank for this state of affairs since few worked more energetically or assiduously with the current Sinn Fein leadership back in those days to inflict deadly blows on those who ran the law and order system than did Gerry Adams' former comrade and fellow IRA leader.
Among the various revelations and allegations made by Hughes in the recently-published book Voices From the Grave is the sad and distressing story of Patrick Crawford, a young man of just 22 who, according to Hughes, was hanged by IRA leaders in Long Kesh in June 1973 for allegedly being an informer.
Hughes was in no doubt that Crawford's faked suicide was nothing less than 'brutal, brutal murder', but at the time the overwhelming consensus of opinion -ranging from the prison authorities to virtually the entire spectrum of elected nationalist politicians - was that Paddy Joe, as his friends called him, had taken his own life.
That was a judgment speedily endorsed by the legal system. Just 11 days after his death an inquest jury returned a verdict of suicide and there the matter rested - until now.
Hughes is not the only republican to believe that Crawford was murdered. The hanging was witnessed by other internees who burst in on the scene.
What they saw must have been appalling. A black cloth draped an improvised gallows constructed from plastic chairs and a filing cabinet, while Crawford's lifeless body hung from a rope fashioned out of a strip of bed linen attached to a hook on the wall of the hut in Cage Five of Long Kesh.
When Paddy Joe Crawford was chosen for death, the IRA in Belfast was in turmoil. Arms dumps were being raided and key personnel arrested and interned almost on a daily basis.
Just a few weeks after his hanging, the Army delivered a devastating blow to the IRA when Gerry Adams, Brendan Hughes and two fellow Belfast Brigade staff members were pulled in along with the entire leadership in north Belfast. Like scores of young IRA members, Crawford had quickly broken when he was arrested and, it seems, had told his security force interrogators all that they wished to know.
He was no different, Brendan Hughes recalled, than many of his contemporaries. Except none of them was killed for breaking in this way.
So why was Paddy Joe Crawford killed when others were allowed to live? One obvious answer is that he was an orphan and had no family who would ask awkward questions afterwards.
He had been abandoned by his mother just 12 days after his birth and had spent his entire life in the care of nuns and priests. Fr Matt Wallace, the west Belfast priest who kept a watchful eye on orphans like Crawford once they were released from care, points out the obvious contradiction in the suicide theory: Paddy Joe had lived in institutions all his life and would be the last person to find the regime of Long Kesh so unbearable that he would choose death instead.
But, as the IRA leaders who sentenced him to death must have known, he had no mother, father, brothers or sisters to raise that inconvenient truth on his behalf.
Paddy Joe Crawford's murder was not an isolated act carried out by ambitious or vengeful fellow prisoners.
IRA rules dictated that his 'execution' had to be authorised, first by the Belfast Brigade, whose then commander was Gerry Adams, and then by the IRA's national leadership. There was a conspiracy to kill Crawford and it continued after his death.
The IRA commander in Cage Five supplied a statement to the authorities making the case for suicide and enclosed handwritten notes found in Crawford's belongings.
In the notes is a copy of a prayer which the IRA commander highlighted. It reads: 'As I lay me down to sleep I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take'. That is a common prayer taught to every Catholic child in Ireland, but the signature, 'P J A Crawford' added awkwardly beside the prayer makes it appear as if it might be a suicide note.
To the untutored eye the signature looks as if it could have been written by a different hand than the rest of the notes.
If so, then this would support the theory that it was forged to strengthen the impression that death, and suicide, was on Crawford's mind in June 1973.
Given access to the original documents a forensic handwriting expert could quickly determine the truth.
If the signature was fabricated, then the inquest verdict of suicide should be set aside and the stain on Crawford's character removed.
Which brings the story back to the devolution of policing and security. In order to examine the authenticity of the Crawford signature, the case would have to be re-opened, which effectively means a second inquest.
As the law stands, the Northern Ireland Coroner's Office does not have the power to do that.
The only person who can order a new inquest is the Attorney-General, and now that devolution of justice is upon us, that office will be held by a nominee of the power-sharing Executive, John Larkin.
Supported by both the DUP and Sinn Fein for this high office, it looks as if one of Mr Larkin's first decisions will be whether to re-open one of the nastiest can of worms produced by the Troubles.