The George Blake Prison Escape: An Interesting If Troubling Postscript

By Ed Moloney and Bob Mitchell

As regular readers of this blog will know The Broken Elbow published a piece recently suggesting that the Irish judiciary’s treatment of a famous British prison escape involving a notorious Soviet spy might hold out hope for NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden in the event that he was arrested at Shannon airport en route to South America and then faced extradition proceedings in Dublin.

The piece was prompted by a report that the US had sent an arrest warrant for Snowden to Dublin in case the former NSA spy chose to travel through Shannon to Cuba.

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

Just to recap: the spy was George Blake, an MI6 officer whose activities on behalf of the KGB were uncovered in 1961 and he was sentenced to 42 years in jail. Sent to Wormwood Scrubs he befriended there a colourful Irish criminal by the name of Sean Bourke who, angered at the savagery of Blake’s sentence, resolved to help him escape.

This he did in October 1966 and Bourke then drove Blake in a van to East Germany from where the pair then made their way to Moscow. After a year and a half in the Russian capital, Bourke decided to return to Dublin whereupon the British asked the Irish government to extradite him to the UK to face charges of helping Blake escape.

A British mugshot of George Blake

A British mugshot of George Blake

The case ended up in the Dublin High Court in 1969 where the presiding judge decided that the escape was a political offence and therefore excluded from the extradition treaty with Britain. The precedent is an encouraging one for Snowden in the event that he ever gets arrested at Shannon.

The George Blake-Sean Bourke saga did not end however with the Irish High Court decision. What happened next can now be told thanks to some detective work at the British government’s archives at Kew by my resourceful colleague Bob Mitchell.

But before telling that story some background is necessary. The Troubles in Northern Ireland erupted not long after Sean Bourke walked out of the Dublin court a free man and as the violence North of the border intensified the problems mounted for the Irish government then led by Jack Lynch, whose Fianna Fail party claimed the heritage of militant if constitutional Irish republicanism.

Fianna Fail (FF) arose out of opposition to the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty which inter alia partitioned the island into two states, one of which, Northern Ireland, stayed British. The anti-Treatyites in the IRA took up arms against the settlement, a short but vicious civil war followed and out of the ashes of the defeated republican ranks arose Fianna Fail, founded by Eamon de Valera and committed to the reunification of Ireland.

Jack Lynch with Margaret Thatcher in 1979 just before Charles Haughey took his job

Jack Lynch with Margaret Thatcher in 1979 just before Charles Haughey took his job

The mantle of de Valera’s inheritance did not sit easily on Jack Lynch’s shoulders however. He preached the gospel of compromise with the Northern state and met several times with the Unionist leadership at Stormont in an effort to normalise relations between the two entities. Not everyone in FF was happy with that approach. A civil rights movement was highlighting Unionist discrimination of Nationalists in Northern Ireland while the police and Loyalist mobs were opposing its marches and demonstrations with more and more violence. As the North slid towards the precipice and it was clear that Ireland was facing the gravest crisis since the Anglo-Irish war, some in Fianna Fail began reaching for the pikes hidden in the thatch.

In the summer of 1969, Northern Ireland exploded as Loyalist mobs went on a rampage of killing and burning in Nationalist areas of Belfast and Jack Lynch’s cabinet was soon rocked by scandal. What exactly happened is still a matter of strong contention but the allegation is that some of Lynch’s ministers, led by Charles Haughey, conspired to use government resources to arm some Nationalists north of the Border so that they could defend their districts and even held talks with the IRA in a bid to persuade it to leave the Southern government alone and instead concentrate its firepower North of the Border. It was never clear whether the arms were to be used solely for defense or also to take on the Northern security forces.

The affair, christened ‘The Arms Crisis’ when Haughey and several of his allies faced but were acquitted of criminal charges arising from the episode, would define and divide both Fianna Fail and much of Irish politics south of the Border throughout the Troubles. That alongside the fear that gripped the political establishment in Dublin after ‘Bloody Sunday’, that the wave of anger that surged through Ireland at the killings by British soldiers would spread, feed support for the Provisional IRA and destabilise the southern state, led the Lynch government to adopt a conciliatory and co-operative stance towards the British on Northern Ireland and aggressive hostility to the Provisionals.

Charles Haughey, pictured around the time of the Arms Crisis

Charles Haughey, pictured around the time of the Arms Crisis

It is arguable that two figures symbolised this rift in mainstream Southern Irish politics. One was Charles Haughey who staged a remarkable recovery from the arms scandal to lead Fianna Fail and was three times Ireland’s prime minister from the late 1970’s to the early 1990’s. His periods as the state’s political leader are notable for a much more aggressive Nationalistic and aggressive tone with the British as well as antagonism towards opposition politicians who favoured a more accommodating approach to the British and Northern Unionists.

Two in that latter category stand out; one was Conor Cruise O’Brien and the other Garret FitzGerald, both men noted for their loathing of Irish republicanism in general and Charles Haughey in particular.

But for the sheer longevity and intensity of a shared hatred no-one can rival Sean Donlon, a diplomat in Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs, a former ambassador to Washington and a key architect of much of the Irish state’s policy, sans Charles Haughey, on Northern Ireland. He is credited with, for instance, moulding establishment Irish-American opinion against the IRA and created the so-called ‘Four Horsemen’ of Ted Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, Hugh Carey and Daniel Moynihan to advance Ireland’s interests in America.

Sean Donlon on St Patrick's Day, Washington DC meeting VP Walter Mondale - note the vase of shamrock

Sean Donlon (right) on St Patrick’s Day, Washington DC meeting VP Walter Mondale – note the obligatory if cliched vase of shamrock

Tellingly, Donlon later described his mission to Washington in these terms when Jack Lynch made him ambassador:

When telling me of my appointment, the then Taoiseach (prime minister), Jack Lynch said that the priorities in my mission were, firstly, to do everything possible to reduce US financial, political and logistical support for the Provisional IRA and, secondly, to work closely with the IDA to secure US investment in Ireland.

I was searching around for material to describe the intense rivalry and mutual detestation that characterised the Haughey-Donlon relationship when I came across this article posted on the Slugger O’Toole blog by former BBC journalist Brian Walker. I decided that nothing could better illustrate what was in my mind than this piece because it also introduced another key element of the story, the fact that the mainstream media took sides in this quarrel and overwhelmingly they plumped for Donlon – which, of course, is no surprise. Walker’s prose is quite extraordinary and he makes no apology at all for using the most emotive and unbalanced language throughout his article. It is a salutory reminder that when it comes to the David Gregory’s of journalism, Ireland is no slouch.

(Incidentally the article illustrates an important feature of Irish government policy-making in the US, which is that when it came to grassroots Irish-America as opposed the inside the beltway Irish-America, they really didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. The Irish National Caucus mentioned in the article is described as a supporter of IRA fund-raising and this, argued Donlon, made Haughey’s plan to support the group so dangerous. In fact the INC and the Provos’ money raising machine in America, Noraid, were at daggers drawn most of this time, and arguably ever since, precisely because the INC was a rival for IRA money. A sensible policy then would have been to boost the INC since the IRA would be the loser. But such subtlety was completely lost on the diplomats.) Anyway here is the Brian Walker article:

Anyway, before Sean Donlon was sent to Washington he was a counsellor in the Anglo-Irish division of Foreign Affairs and part of his job, in fact a big part of it was to journey Northwards to Belfast, Derry and various rural spots on a regular basis to talk to contacts face to face. These ‘travellers’, as they were known, also made sure to keep in touch with correspondents from the Dublin media as they were often valuable sources of gossip and confirmation.

So it was that Sean Donlon and Sean Bourke crossed paths on the evening of November 21st, 1972 in the company of Ciaran McKeown at the Wellington Park hotel, a favourite watering hole in South Belfast then as now for members of the moderate Northern Nationalist party, the SDLP. McKeown was correspondent for the Irish Press, now sadly no longer with us, but he went on to be one of the trio of Peace People leaders in the mid-1970’s alongside Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan.

Sean Bourke - Irish court refused to extradite him to Britian because his offense was political

Sean Bourke – Irish court refused to extradite him to Britain because his offense was political

Ciaran McKeown in his Peace People days, flanked on his right by Mairead Corrigan and on right by Betty Williams

Ciaran McKeown in his Peace People days, flanked on his right by Mairead Corrigan and on left by Betty Williams

Anyway, I will leave the telling of the story of that night to Sir John Peck, the British ambassador to Dublin in 1973 and a figure who is known in British Foreign Office circles as an important sponsor of anti-Soviet black propaganda during the Cold War, as the linked obituary reveals. He helped set up the Information Research Department which later played a somewhat sinister and secretive role in Northern Ireland. He told the story of the night Sean Donlon met Sean Bourke by way of an official telegram, which made its way through bureaucratic channels to the desk of then British prime minister Ted Heath. Here is the Peck telegram (note he mistakenly has McKeown working for the Irish Independent):

Peck’s telegram was read by Heath and his response and the result of it can be read in this letter sent from his private secretary Christopher Roberts to Terry Platt in the Northern Ireland Office in Belfast. Copies were also sent to the Foreign Office and the Home Office doubtless because Heath’s reaction at the news of the sighting of Sean Bourke – “Get Him!” – suggested great excitement in the prime minister’s mind at the prospect of putting the Irish fugitive behind bars. Here is the letter:

British prime minister Ted Heath. When told that Sean Donlon had sighted Sean Bourke he responded: "Get Him!"

British prime minister Ted Heath. When told that Irish diplomat Sean Donlon had sighted Sean Bourke he responded: “Get Him!”

The story didn’t end there. A confidential letter was sent from then NI Secretary William Whitelaw to the British Army GOC, Sir Harry Tuzo informing him of the Bourke sighting and Ted Heath’s order to “Get Him!” and asking that the military “act accordingly”. A similar letter was sent to the RUC Chief Constable, Sir James Flanagan but that is not in the file. Here is the Tuzo letter:

So to summarise, a middle ranking Irish diplomat stumbles one evening into the Wellington Park hotel in Belfast to meet a journalist, recognises someone whom the highest court in his country says should not be extradited to Britain and three days later he contacts the British embassy in Dublin to tell them of his sighting presumably so that they can do what his own High Court would not do, which is to arrest him, send him to a court in London and lock him up for a very long time.

Two questions or thoughts occur to me about this story. The first is a question. Why didn’t Sean Donlon make his excuses and find the nearest phone to tell the British so they could arrest Sean Bourke there and then? Was it because suspicion would inevitably fall on him, whereas if he left it for two or three days the finger could be pointed at any number of people while the British would be almost as grateful for his favour?

The second is a thought. If this is how Irish diplomats behave towards one of their own countrymen at a time of huge conflict with an outside power which has, let us say, a less than distinguished record over six or so centuries for its humane treatment of the Irish, what on earth would they not do for the Yanks? Perhaps on second thoughts Edward Snowden might be better giving Shannon airport a wide berth.

6 responses to “The George Blake Prison Escape: An Interesting If Troubling Postscript

  1. Galloway's Valet

    In seconds they would have Snowden stuffed, trussed, and delivered to Washington like a Christmas turkey. The only question – to paraphrase Clare Daly – is whether Irish officials would actually sport ‘leprechaun hats’ wrapped in Old Glory as they delivered their prey to Obama.

  2. Perhaps you should write an addendum to your post to update readers on Sean Donlon’s currrent status.

    Having spent some time in the backrooms of Fine Gael (working variously for John Bruton and Michael Noonan as leaders of that party), he was recently appointed by the current Irish government to a particularly lucrative job …

    http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/government-to-appoint-donlon-to-prestigious-banking-post-1.1416967

    To close the circle of personal acquaintance … Judge Colm MacEochaidh recently denied an application by US authorities for a provisional extradition warrant for former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.

    http://www.rte.ie/news/2013/0708/461286-edward-snowden/

    Prior to becoming a judge, MacEochaidh was put onto the Fine Gael ticket in Dublin South-East for the 2002 general election by the then FG leader Michael Noonan.

  3. The same Sean Donlon who actively propagandised against the Peace Process and the campaigns to right a miscarriage of justice in the cases of the Birmingham 6 and Guildford 4. A man whose name will be one of infamy in future years like so many servants of the crown before him

  4. I’m interested in knowing just HOW a jailbreak qualifies as a “political crime.”

    • you are seriously asking that question!? well, how about when one is incarcerated for a politically motivated crime, which espionage for ideological reasons certainly is, or being imprisoned for resisting foreign rule, or a host of other examples?

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