No. 103 NAI DFA Secretary's Files S113

Memorandum from Michael Rynne to Joseph P. Walshe (Dublin)

Dublin, 30 December 1939

Re Coventry Explosion Sentences

I showed Mr. O'Donoghue, Attorney-General's Department,1 the High Commissioner's Secret minute No. 77 of the 21st December in the above matter.2

I explained that we did not consider it practicable nor desirable that the Government's case for a reprieve should be based exclusively on legal grounds. Mr. Dulanty's minute indicates, indeed, that the Government's case, (which is to be put forward by Mr. Eden in the British Cabinet), should rest solely on considerations of a non-legal character.

Mr. O'Donoghue agreed that our case must mainly rely on political arguments, it being obvious that the final authority on the various points of law and evidence involved would be the British Court of Criminal Appeal whose judgment on the issues confronting it would doubtless be regarded as conclusive by the British Home Secretary. He added, however, that if the Government felt that they should advert to various aspects of the Birmingham Court proceedings, when drafting their case for the British Government, they might thereby strengthen that case.

From such reports as are available of the Court proceedings it would appear that they could not be regarded as entirely free from bias in regard to the two men sentenced to death. Particularly unfair was the admission during the trial of the statements of the two women prisoners which on the application of their counsel were read out in full to the Court. At the suggestion of prosecuting counsel, the Judge directed that the trial should proceed against all the five persons accused, including Richards and Barnes, so that the admission of the women's statements must have undoubtedly influenced the jury in their verdict against the male prisoners. The fact that the trial judge on two occasions during the proceedings mentioned to the jury that the women's statements were not to be regarded by them as constituting evidence against persons other than the women themselves can scarcely be argued to justify the admission of the statements. The judge was surely expecting too much of a jury chosen from the inhabitants of Birmingham, (a town not very distant from Coventry and one which has suffered extremely from I.R.A. attacks), when he asked them to utterly ignore the full import of statements which were virtually directed against two of the accused men. The statements in fact contained practically all the evidence procurable to substantiate the serious charges brought against those men. Either the statements should have been ruled out by the judge or the trial of the women should have been conducted separately from that of the men.

Apart from this major objection, to which reference might be made in the Government's case for a reprieve of Richards and Barnes, there may be some other points that we could endeavour to make on the seeming partiality of the Birmingham trial. Mr. O'Donoghue considers, however, that it would be distinctly inadvisable to attempt to found any elaborate criticism of the Court proceedings on mere newspaper reports thereof. He thinks, moreover, that most of the really tenable arguments to be drawn from the conduct of the trial will be made by defending counsel at the Court of Criminal Appeal. If that Court dismisses the appeal, it will mean that even the most telling legal arguments have been tried and have failed.

I agree, therefore, with Mr. O'Donoghue's view that the Government ought not to be advised to overstress the legal aspects of their case, whether the case is to be submitted at once or whether it is to be held over until we learn that the appeal has been dismissed. Doubtless, the political case will be prepared at a very early date.

When it is in draft, I would suggest that it be submitted to the Attorney-General for the addition thereto, in an appropriate place, of a reference to the unfair admission at the Court proceedings of the women's statements as evidence.

[initialled] M.R.

1 Philip O'Donoghue (1896-1987), legal assistant to the Attorney General (1929-59), one of the drafters of the 1937 Constitution of Ireland; called to the Inner Bar (1939), appointed Irish member of the European Commission of Human Rights (1965), Judge of the European Court of Human Rights (1971-80).

2 See No. 97.

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