Sat, 10 Jul, 2021 – 09:29
THE sun beats down on Schull. Shiny happy people wear bright colours to celebrate the holliers. There is street dining and ice cream cones and oversized cars easing through the village like bank statements.
Down in the harbour, the blue sea sparkles, as if shards of diamonds have been sprinkled from on high. It’s a good day to be alive in West Cork.
He shuffles up the main street, stooped, head crowned with a fedora, a leather bag slung over his shoulder. A shy smile plays at the corner of his mouth as if he knows damn well that some people are staring and wondering is it him. It is.
Ian Bailey claims he pays no attention to his local celebrity status — some would describe it as notoriety — but his denials lack all credibility.
“Kenneth Williams, the Carry-On actor, when he was asked about whether celebrity bothered him he said, infamy, infamy, infamy, they all have it in for me. That’s the way I look on it,” Bailey says.
He loves to play with words but as somebody with a master’s degree in law he knows the importance of evidence, and there is a body of it to suggest the fella is in his element when he’s standing where the light shines brightest.
The evidence that really matters with Bailey, however, is that which associates him in any way with the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier. Two recent documentaries have revisited a crime that convulsed the locale and sent ripples all the way to the highest echelons of government in two countries.
Most of all, the brutal killing of a woman who had considered the area to be her own private refuge left her bereaved family devastated.
The documentaries have thrown open the case to a whole new generation 25 years after the Frenchwoman’s body was found in a bloodied state near her holiday home in Toormore, a few kilometres out the road from Schull. Front and centre in both has been the person of Ian Bailey. He was arrested but never charged.
In 2019 he was convicted of murder in a Paris court and sentenced to 25 years in prison, but the High Court in this country refused to extradite him.
For some, he is the man who got away with murder.
Others consider him a victim of Garda malfeasance, the suspect they fingered early on and around whom they tried to build a case that was in reality flimsy and manufactured.
What really matters in that respect is the opinion of the prosecutorial authority, the DPP, and that office has repeatedly ruled that he has no case to answer.
So what did he think of the documentaries?
“I only saw two episodes of what I call the Jim Doc (the Sky crime series produced by Jim Sheridan). It made me deeply, deeply sad for a number of reasons. I was sad for the victim, Madame Du Plantier, sad for Jules (his ex-partner Jules Thomas) seeing her there as a much younger person and myself as a much younger person. I didn’t actively cry but it watered my eyes.
“The Netflix doc I knew was going to be a piece of self-serving demonising propaganda to paint me in a very dark light and try to say I was the murderer. A number of sequences were brought to my attention and I’m getting together some clips.”
He goes on to say that he has a major dispute with how some of the gardaí interviewed for the series presented aspects of the case.
The bereaved family withdrew permission for interviews conducted with them to be included in Sheridan’s documentary because they claimed it portrayed Bailey as a victim.
Equally, Bailey attempted to have passages filming him withdrawn from the Netflix doc but he was told to take a hike. The respective positioning of the two series would appear to reflect the opposing barstool opinions on his guilt or innocence as outlined above.
What is common to both is the newsreel footage from 25 years ago in the days, weeks and months after the murder. Notwithstanding natural aging, Bailey looks like a different person. He was filmed striding from Bandon Garda Station, an erect, well togged out, good looking man, his head held high. Today, at 64, he could pass for a decade older.
He moves slowly and mentions a bad knee and a bad back. While the chain of years can be random in their kindness, you get the impression that external forces have hurried his physical passage through life.
In a French creperie in the village he engages with the waitress in Irish. He has taken up the language of late and explains how a word a day goes a long way and before you know it you get a grasp. He riffs on social media, to which he is a newcomer.
On Twitter, I got over a thousand followers the last time I looked and it’s mainly good comments. I only got one nasty response, a what do you call it, troll.
He mentions that now he signs his name IKBO, an acronym for Ian Keep Buggering On.
“Did you know that during the war that was how Churchill signed his name, with KBO after it? He was the last great Briton as far as I’m concerned.”
On that subject, he can’t return to the land of his birth even for a visit.
“I have no desire to go back to that decomposing nation that I left in 1991 but I have a sister in Cornwall who has been over here. If I went to visit her I would be arrested at the point of entry and have to fight extradition to France. I am slightly worried about the French. I know there have been cases in France where they have kidnapped people and taken them to France to stand trial, but I’m not overly worried by it.”
His worry is not based solely on paranoid ramblings. In 2011, a German man wanted for killing a French woman in Germany was kidnapped and his bound body left outside a courthouse in France. He was subsequently convicted of homicide. There is no suggestion that anybody associated with Ms Du Plantier’s family would ever consider such action, but the case has been a cause celebre in France among the monied and there is always a chance that a person with no direct connection might take a notion to attempt such a thing.
The basis for his conviction is Paris is highly contentious. The French convicted him at a trial including a secondhand, half thrown together version of the evidence that the Irish DPP decided was simply nowhere near the threshold for a charge, not to mind conviction.
In that respect, central to any case against Ian Bailey is the testimony of Maria Farrell. Without that, the body of evidence is threadbare.
Farrell, who owned a shop in Schull, initially told the gardaí she saw a man answering to Bailey’s description at a location known as Kealfadda bridge in the early hours of December 23, 1996, in the hours after the estimated time for the murder. It was the only strand of evidence putting Bailey anywhere near the crime scene anytime that night.
The bridge is not on the direct route between Ms du Plantier’s cottage and the home Bailey shared with Thomas. But Farrell made a statement to that effect, and identified the individual as Bailey, based on another sighting of him in Schull some days later.
Her evidence was highly contentious. In an analysis of the case done in the DPP’s office in 2001 — which was excoriating of Garda conduct — there was a heading entitled “Unreliability of Maria Farrell”. The author, solicitor Robert Sheehan, went through in detail the inconsistencies, omissions and changing content of her statements and concluded she simply was not reliable.
Despite that, she was the star witness for eight newspapers in a libel action in 2003 in which Bailey was suing for defamation. Her detailed description of seeing Bailey on the bridge and what she alleged were intimidating actions by him towards her afterwards was highly convincing. Yet, two years later she contacted Bailey’s solicitor and said it was all lies and she had been forced by the gardaí to tell it like that.
BY 2015, she was the key witness for Bailey in a civil action he brought against the State for wrongful arrest. At one point she walked out of the witness box, refusing to reveal who had been with her in her car on the night in question. This time she painted a picture of gardaí harassing and threatening her to make statements against Bailey.
The general consensus among those observing the trial was that she was unconvincing. So the only evidence she has tendered — written or verbal — that was considered of major value at the time was at the libel trial and she now says that was a pack of lies.
If Farrell’s value as a witness was “unreliable” in 2001, then it was worthless by 2019 when the murder trial took place in Paris.
She did not give evidence at that trial, yet the judges accepted her initial statements about sighting Bailey but not her volte face which they attributed to fear of the Englishman. Thus the crucial evidence to convict Bailey of murder was based on what many would consider a strange and highly dubious basis.
He says he holds no animosity towards Farrell. “Bless her, she’s another victim. There is Madame du Plantier, me and Jules and her and the greater community of West Cork which has been tainted by this murder. She was a victim of garda harassment.” (The gardaí have always denied any harassment of Ms Farrell.)
He met her for the first time since the civil action last year when the Sheridan documentary was filming a reconstruction in the premises where her shop had previously operated.
“A lady came around the corner there on day and said, ‘Hi, you don’t recognise me.’ I said I didn’t and she said she was Maria Farrell. She looked a lot different and a lot better.”
On the sunny day in Schull this week, the Irish Examiner’s photographer was shooting Bailey down on the pier when he was approached by a man from Dublin who gave his name as Phil Hickey. He recognised Bailey from the documentary and was thrilled to meet him. Bailey was chuffed and suggested that the holidaymaker buy one of his books of poetry, which Mr Hickey did. Then there was the obligatory selfie with the local celebrity.
Despite such interludes, Ian Bailey cuts a lonely figure. The recent break-up of his near 30-year relationship with Thomas has been a major event. She owns the home they shared and he is looking for somewhere to live but it isn’t easy. On the Sheridan documentary, Jules at one point says, “I’ve told him before, it’s me or the alcohol.” Despite that, he denies that the booze had any impact on her decision to go her own way.
“Maybe at the early stages, we both drank then. But not latterly,” he says. “She stuck by me for a long time. Jules is a private person, an artist, and all of this took a toll. It was never easy for her.”
Irish Examiner special correspondent Michael Clifford speaking to Ian Bailey about life after the showing of the Netflix and Sky documentaries. Video by Dan Linehan
THE man cave at the rear of the house they shared, which featured prominently on Sheridan’s documentary, is locked up. He has already boxed most of his books and collections of various pieces of art. The break-up came just months after it appeared that maybe they would be allowed move on from the various legal entanglements in which he was caught over the last two decades and more.
In October 2020, the High Court ruled — for the third time — that he would not be extradited to France. Now he senses that Jules had even then decided that they were coming to the end of their shared journey.
“When the judgment was read out that day I didn’t know for an hour which way it would go and then he (the judge) went in my favour. I thought I would have a sense of relief, that having gone through all the battles I would have felt better. But strangely, I didn’t and I’m wondering with the benefit of hindsight that maybe Jules had made up her mind that she was going to stand by me through the process and once it was concluded she’d had enough and wanted the relationship to end and move on.”
HE DENIES any suggestion that in some ways he has been his own worst enemy through a craving of the spotlight. “Don’t forget, it was the guards that let my identity out from that moment, 10 February 1997 (the day of his first arrest),” he says.
“My life was completely changed. I lost my career as a journalist, I loved writing for newspapers. I lost 25 years of legitimate expectations and at the end of this I lost my long-term partner whom I love and now I’m losing my home. I’ve lost everything and all over a dirty rotten lie to subvert the course of justice.”
Ms Du Plantier’s bereaved family, and particularly her son Pierre Louis who was just 15 when his mother was taken, have a different perspective. Bailey says he can understand why they still believe the story that they were presented with by the gardaí all those years ago. He welcomes recent reports that there is expected to be a cold case review of the murder following the screening of the two documentaries.
“I wrote to the Taoiseach, the Attorney General and Garda Commissioner Drew Harris asking for an investigation,” he says.
And what of the future? Is he fearful of what life has now thrown at him? “No, I don’t think so. I hope to live and die in West Cork. Whatever happens to me, I hope my name will be cleared so I don’t have to come devil hunting from the afterworld.”