The extradition of Irish nationalists to stand trial for crimes committed in Britain has never been an easy decision for the Irish government. Public sympathy in Ireland for the cause of Irish unity and widespread sentiment that British justice cannot be trusted with the lives of Irish defendants has sometimes hindered cooperation in criminal procedures between London and Dublin.
But Ireland's chief legal officer broke with precedent this week when he officially refused to extradite Patrick Ryan to London because of a lack of confidence in the British jury system and the unusual publicity in the Ryan case. Mr. Ryan has been described by some Conservative members of Parliament as an ``alleged terrorist'' who was among the most wanted men on the government's list of anti-British nationalists in Northern Ireland.
The decision by Irish Attorney General John Murray cited public attacks on Ryan's character which were ``often expressed in intemperate language and frequently in the form of extravagantly worded headlines'' in the British tabloid press. Such ``highly improper'' media stories and leaks from official sources in London about the case made a fair trial for the accused in Britain an impossibility, he concluded in a 16-page brief.
It was a decision which could not have been more provocative for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her legal advisers. Mrs. Thatcher was furious and denounced in Parliament the assertion that Ryan could not get a fair trial as ``an insult to all the people of this country.'' She criticized the extradition arrangements with Ireland as ``inadequate'' and called on Irish Prime Minister Charles Haughey to honor his pledge to reexamine them.
Other members of Parliament agreed, while the opposition Labour Party accused the prime minister of adding to adverse publicity in the case by her criticisms. Labour leader Neil Kinnock said Thatcher ``blew the possibility of extraditing Ryan'' when she accused Dublin two weeks ago of making ``fine sounding speeches'' opposing terrorism which ``don't always seem to be backed up by the appropriate deeds.''
Ryan, formerly a Roman Catholic priest, has been charged by Britain with conspiracy and a series of terrorist offenses dating to the early 1970s. A request for his extradition was sent to Ireland on Nov. 26, the day after he was returned from a Belgian prison. Belgium had also denied Britain's extradition request.
In refusing to extradite Ryan, Attorney-General Murray went beyond the rules of Ireland's 1987 Extradition Act, which permit him to determine whether the charges warrant prosecution and whether Britain actually intends to hold a trial. Instead, Murray ruled on what he said were broader constitutional grounds. He concluded that, because of publicity and the presumption of guilt by politicians and the British news media, an unbiased jury could not be found to give Ryan a fair trial.
British lawyers said such conclusions are contradicted by many previous cases in which juries had acquitted the accused, even after they had been previously convicted of felonies in publicized trials. Judges are required to instruct jurors to disregard pretrial publicity and convict only on testimony presented in court.
There are no reasons to suppose that the Ryan case was any different, they say. They also argue the Ryan case was unlikely to come to trial for at least a year, when publicity about him would have faded.
Murray recommended that Britain prosecute Ryan in Irish courts under its 1976 Criminal Jurisdiction Act since the accusations against Ryan carry serious penalties in Ireland as well.
Thatcher has not ruled out that possibility but she said that it could be difficult to protect witnesses testifying in Ireland and that if the trial failed for lack of evidence he could not be tried again according to Irish law.
Ryan appears determined not to stand trial and has said he would stage another hunger strike, as he did in Belgium, if the Irish authorities prosecute him.
The row over Ryan's extradition has brought Anglo-Irish relations to their lowest point since an agreement between London and Dublin was signed three years ago last month. The agreement pledged cooperation in restoring confidence to the administration of justice in Northern Ireland and in improving security along the Irish border. Some British parliamentarians say the treaty should be abandoned. But Thatcher insists it provides for useful consultations aimed at achieving a long-term solution to the problems of Northern Ireland.