Image:Kevin Crilly
Paul Faith  /  AP file
Kevin Crilly arrives at Newry Magistrates' Court on Wednesday. The Irish Republican Army suspect has been charged with murdering a British Army intelligence agent on the Northern Ireland border 32 years ago.
updated 11/11/2009 3:11:41 PM ET 2009-11-11T20:11:41

An Irish Republican Army suspect was charged Wednesday with murdering a British Army intelligence agent on the Northern Ireland border 32 years ago, a surprising turn in one of the conflict's most mysterious killings.

Northern Ireland state prosecutors levied the unexpected new charge at a regular bail hearing for Kevin Crilly. Last year the 58-year-old was arrested and charged with kidnapping and falsely imprisoning — but not killing — Capt. Robert Nairac.

In May 1977 an IRA gang abducted Nairac from a pub in the outlaws' border stronghold of South Armagh, a close-knit society dubbed "bandit country" that Nairac had sought to infiltrate by posing as a Belfast IRA man.

The Oxford University-educated Catholic had learned Gaelic IRA drinking songs and used them in his pub-crawling surveillance operations. But it didn't fool local IRA men.

His body was never found.

Crilly admits to driving at least one IRA member on the night of the killing but denies further involvement. He fled to the United States and stayed there until 2004, when he returned home using another name, Declan Parr.

Crilly's lawyers complained bitterly they had been ambushed by the murder charge as well as by a renewed attempt to withdraw Crilly's right to bail.

District Judge Austin Kennedy upheld Crilly's right to remain free on a $200,000 bond backed by cash and family property. Crilly left the courthouse in the border town of Newry holding his black leather jacket over his head and dived into the back of a waiting car.

Missing body
Six IRA members have already served prison sentences for their part in overpowering Nairac, taking him across the border into a Republic of Ireland forest, interrogating him and shooting him in the head. Three were convicted of his murder, three others of manslaughter, kidnapping or withholding information.

If convicted, Crilly would be likely to serve less than a year in prison. Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord delivered early freedom for more than 200 IRA convicts and promised speedy paroles for IRA members subsequently convicted of pre-1998 crimes.

Nairac posthumously won the George Cross, Britain's highest civilian award for bravery. His 1979 citation credited him with exceptional toughness and courage for trying repeatedly to escape, and refusing to reveal anything to his executioners.

The IRA killed more than 700 British soldiers during its failed 1970-97 campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. Nairac was the only one whose body disappeared.

More on: Irish Republican Army

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