Rebel without applause

Danny McNamee is clearly a dedicated man. He has been waiting for over 12 years to practise law. He has “assisted” in Old Bailey trials, High Court appeals and the collection of forensic evidence. His legal training has taken him to some of Britain’s most secure prisons, from Brixton to Durham, Whitemoor, Belmarsh and most recently Belfast’s Maze.

Although he passed his law degree in June, it was not until eight days before Christmas, when the appeal court quashed his conviction for conspiring to cause explosions, that McNamee was free to pursue a career in law.

Until that point he was a terrorist. And not just any old terrorist – according to the British justice system, McNamee was the architect of the Hyde Park bomb in 1982. If that charge makes him one of the most unlikely candidates to be joining the legal profession – which he accuses of deliberately framing him by withholding information from the defence at his original trial – it also gives McNamee an unparalleled perspective on what he sees as some serious shortcomings of the criminal justice system.

“Once you have experienced the system you want to change it – even if only in a small way,” he says. “I have been in a lot of remand prisons and there are few lawyers who will genuinely represent their clients’ interests – most are more concerned with following a career path. You need people with experience like mine. The system needs people like me more than I need the system.”

If McNamee is an unlikely lawyer then he was an equally unlikely IRA bomb-maker. The IRA refutes that he was ever a member and he has always asserted that he has no links with the group. Two of his cousins were murdered by the organisation because it thought they were informers and his father was injured, and later died, as a result of an IRA explosion in 1975.

The 1987 prosecution case that convicted McNamee hinged on three fingerprints – one on a Duracell battery said to have come from an unexploded bomb discovered in London in December 1983, the other two found on masking tape at two IRA arms dumps in 1983 and 1984.

At the trial it was said the masking tape prints could have found their way onto the tape innocently – McNamee was working as an electrical engineer and handling such material all the time. But at the appeal, McNamee’s legal team challenged the identification of all three fingerprints – and spent seven days on the Duracell print alone. But at the heart of his appeal was the prosecution’s failure to disclose evidence linking convicted IRA bomb-maker Desmond Ellis, already serving a prison sentence in the Irish Republic at the time of the 1987 trial, to the bomb-making equipment which McNamee was convicted of constructing.

After a 12-year battle to prove his innocence the final appeal court judgment in December was begrudging. The barrister representing the Crown Prosecution Service admitted there had been non-disclosure of relevant evidence, that the CPS could no longer “conclusively” prove any link between McNamee and the Hyde Park bomb and that the appeal had cast further doubt over the Duracell battery fingerprint.

The judges accepted all of that, described the non-disclosure as a “material irregularity” and found the conviction unsafe – but still said in their judgment: “We accept that the Crown makes out a very strong case that the appellant [McNamee] was indeed a conspirator to cause explosions and it may very well be that, as a matter of probability, a jury would still have found him guilty if they had the material we had.”

The judges have effectively guaranteed a whispering campaign which claims McNamee got off on a technicality despite the fact that they could not uphold his conviction. “It was equivalent to the Court of Appeal saying a jury could have found him [McNamee] innocent but we will still side with the Crown,” argues McNamee. “It is a legal nonsense. We upset the appeal court because we persisted in saying that the non-disclosure was deliberate. Michael Mansfield [McNamee’s QC] said that if we took that approach the appeal court would try to harm me and that it could affect the final outcome.

“It is the place of the appeal court to investigate what went wrong [in the original prosecution] but it didn’t. In the end the appeal court was scared of what we were saying. Constitutionally, it is not for the appeal court to give a verdict. It was media management on behalf of the appeal court.”

McNamee and his defence team were excluded from the first three days of the appeal because of a public interest immunity clause. During that period the three appeal judges are understood to have received information from the intelligence services, information that McNamee says prejudiced the final appeal judgment.

If he had not been jailed, McNamee would probably be running his own electrical business now. He would certainly be married – he was arrested one week before his wedding day – and would have children. He looks unremarkable – short, wiry, balding – little different from other 38- year-olds on the streets of Crossmaglen, to which he has returned after his 12-year forced absence.

What marks him out is a desire to use his experience positively, to change the system. He talks of other miscarriages of justice, people he has met in Britain’s prisons who he believes are also innocent. He is in the middle of a masters degree investigating the impact the European Convention on Human Rights will have on the Northern Irish Peace Process.

His ambition is to work at an Irish law firm on human rights cases and the European Convention. “I am not after revenge. I wanted the conviction quashed – the people over here [Ireland] would expect the judgment I received. Hopefully we will make our system superior to the one over there where there is no justice – at least not if you’re Irish.”