THE Patrick Ryan controversy is but the latest in a series of episodes whereby Anglo-Irish relations have suffered because of questions over the administration of British justice. Last summer Britain had sought the extradition of Patrick Ryan from Belgium, that he might be tried for terrorist offenses alleged to have been committed on British soil. But the Belgian government overruled the court order for extradition, and Mr. Ryan, a former priest accused of involvement with the illegal Irish Republican Army, was repatriated to Ireland, of which he was a citizen.
Then Margaret Thatcher's government sought to have him extradited from Ireland. In an unprecedented move, the Irish attorney general, John Murray, decided last week not to grant the extradition, on the grounds that extensive print and broadcast publicity about the case, including criticisms from members of Parliament, and Mrs. Thatcher herself, would make a fair trial impossible.
The British are incensed, with their prime minister calling Mr. Murray's decision ``an insult to all the people of this country.'' It's certainly not as if prejudicial pretrial publicity were unique to Britain. But one could certainly have hoped that British tabloids might have refrained from headlines like ``Devil in a dog collar'' to refer to Ryan. And if the Thatcher government is as serious about the fight against terrorism as it has every reason to be, its case was not helped by ill-considered remarks on the floor of the House of Commons.
Murray's decision does not mean that Ryan will not be brought to trial, however. Irish law includes a provision for trials in Ireland for certain offenses allegedly committed abroad. This allows Ireland to demonstrate that it takes charges of terrorism seriously, even when it is hesitant to hand its citizens over for trial in another country. In the dozen years this provision has been in effect, 13 cases have been prosecuted, all for terrorist offenses allegedly committed in Britain; of these, 10 have resulted in convictions.
Murray has invited the British to consider the option of an Irish trial for Patrick Ryan, who is not in custody in Ireland but could be ``produced'' for the authorities if the situation required. Murray has stated that the case against Ryan appears serious.
The British are less than hopeful about this approach. They point to the practical difficulties of transporting witnesses, ensuring their safety, and so on. The Thatcher government has not ruled out the possibility of trying Ryan in Ireland, but it doesn't appear to be a likely option.
The larger background in all this is that the British continue to see Anglo-Irish relations largely in terms of fighting terrorism, specifically the IRA.
The Irish see the agenda, particularly for Northern Ireland, in broader terms; they tend to see healing the social and political ills of the troubled province as the best way to fight the IRA. The Irish fear is that mere Irishness sometimes seems a crime in England; the British fear is that ostensible due-process concerns may mask a laxity toward terrorism and a latent sympathy with the IRA.