LONDON (Reuters) - The British Supreme Court overturned two 1975 convictions of Irish nationalist leader Gerry Adams for prison escape attempts in Northern Ireland during its conflict, ruling on Wednesday that his initial internment without trial had been unlawful.
Adams, who stood down in 2018 as head of Sinn Fein, the main party opposing British rule of Northern Ireland, was among hundreds of people held without trial in the early 1970s under a policy meant to break the guerrilla Irish Republican Army.
The conflict between mainly Protestant Unionists who favour continued British rule and mainly Catholic Irish Nationalists ended with the Good Friday agreement in 1998, and Sinn Fein under Adams later joined power-sharing governments in the region.
About 3,500 militants, soldiers and civilians were killed in the violent period known as the Troubles. The internment of suspected militants was one of the most controversial elements of the British counter-insurgency campaign.
While Adams did not dispute the two escape attempts, his lawyers argued that he had not been lawfully detained in the first place.
The court agreed, saying that the internment order that led to Adams’ detention had not been considered by a British cabinet minister, known as a secretary of state, but by a lower-level minister.
The “momentous” decision on whether to detain a person without trial should have been made by the Secretary of State himself, a unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court said.
The Interim Custody Order under which Adams was detained was invalid and “it follows that he was not detained lawfully,” the ruling said.
“It further follows that he was wrongfully convicted of the offences of attempting to escape from lawful custody and his convictions for those offences must be quashed.”
Adams, who was sentenced to 18 months in jail for the escape attempts, welcomed the ruling and called for the British government to identify and inform other detainees whose internment may also have been unlawful.
“Of course internment, later described as detention by the British, was never lawful. In fact it set aside the normal principles of law and was based on a blunt and brutal piece of coercive legislation,” Adams said in a statement.
Adams took over as leader of Sinn Fein in 1983 when it was the IRA’s political wing, establishing himself as the main political leader of the movement to end British rule of Northern Ireland. He has always denied membership of the IRA.
Adams was initially detained in Belfast’s Maze prison in 1973. On one of his attempts to flee, he switched places with a visitor at the prison who had been abducted while waiting at a bus stop, a Belfast court heard in 2018.
A man who bore a resemblance to Adams had been taken against his will to a house where his hair was dyed and he was given a false beard, according to the evidence. The substitution was spotted by prison staff.
Reporting by Conor Humphries and Michael Holden; Editing by Peter Graff and Angus MacSwan