MONEY AND MUNITIONS FROM NEW YORK ARE HELPING THE IRA LAY SIEGE TO LONDON. THE NEW TRIANGLE TRADE.
BELFAST — In the headquarters of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the deputy chief constable is concluding a briefing on the situation in Northern Ireland. The briefing is, of course, granted on condition of anonymity. Neat in appearance, a trifle wan, diffident, the constable sits in a chair in a corner of the room clearly wishing he were someplace else. Not at all like John LeCarre’s Smiley, the exquisite spymaster modeled after Sir Maurice Oldfield, the British intelligence boss who once oversaw the local security situation. Nodding off at the constable’s side is his press aide.
The constable speaks positively about how well things are going, the excellent cooperation with the FBI in the United States, and the remarkable efforts of the British Embassy in Washington in setting the record straight about the ongoing war with the Irish Republican Army. Asked about the IRA’s “ingenuity” in concocting an arsenal of homemade weaponry, his mouth tightens. “Deviousness, I should say,” he corrects. He gestures with a pointer to a map of Northern Ireland on the desk before him. Little colored pins mark hot spots. Above the desk on a file cabinet a television screen flashes the comforting message: “All Quiet.”
That’s before lunch. By midafternoon, an unarmed female British soldier on patrol in the New Lodge section of Belfast has been shot in the face by an IRA sniper. A squad of British soldiers rushes the house where they think the sniper is hidden; a time-delayed bomb goes off, blowing it up. As night and a light rain fall, choppers hover overhead. Across the city, patrols of British soldiers, guns at the ready, inch down the streets. In a pub frequented by pro-IRA nationalists, everyone sits watching the door, unconsciously tensing every time it opens for fear a loyalist gunman is coming in. Late that night, in the middle of Belfast, reporters hail a passerby to ask directions. The man halts, his eyes turning wide with fright. Fearing that these three men in a car are about to shoot him, he jackknifes away, running like a startled deer down the street.
The war in Northern Ireland is one of the longest-running and most intensive guerrilla insurgencies in the history of modern warfare. On one side, the forces of the British union: 20,000 regular British soldiers, including a special homegrown regiment of Royal Irish Rangers, another 12,000 police — Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Special Air Services, the elite British Special Forces unit. Then there are MIS, the British equivalent of the FBI, and MI6, the Brit’s CIA. There are Ulster Special Branch detectives, local detectives, and a myriad of competing intelligence units running agents and informers, and organizing surveillance. And amidst the loyalist, heavily Protestant community — the Brits’ allies — are paramilitary units, Salvadoran-style death squads.
Heavily fortified police stations and army barracks are spread across the countryside — Fire Post Charlies amidst a sea of insurgents. There is a camera on every main road, hooked to a centralized intelligence-gathering computer. Tall, reinforced watch posts dot the countryside. Every decent-sized town has at least one heavily fortified checkpoint, and some as many as three. The license plate of every car is entered on a central computer, the location of every house, the number of inhabitants in the house, the color of the wallpaper. And in the sky hovering all day and all night, the ubiquitous choppers.
Against the massed forces of Her Majesty are the members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. The IRA. The Terrorists. The scum. The “wee fucking provies.” Five hundred of them at the very most in operations, and 350 more functioning as an active unit inside the Maze at Long Kesh, Europe’s most modern maximum security prison. Behind the fighters, a network of supporters, farmers, townspeople, and teenagers, who stand ready when called upon to make their homes over into safe houses, to surrender their autos, to hide the fighters, and most of all to watch the Brits. These are the dickers, the lookouts in every town, out of every window, in the gas station, at the post office, in the cafe. Beyond them, another network of supporters 3000 miles away in the United States: money men meeting in the clubs of Wall Street, gunrunners, sympathizers offering IRA fighters safe jobs, new identities, new lives.
Since the early 1970s the Brits have tried everything to break the IRA. They have rolled through the streets of West Belfast with armored personnel carriers, sent squads of troops against the populace, shot civilians on sight, ambushed the IRA with shoot-to-kill SAS units, penetrated and manipulated the Protestant paramilitary death squads. They have interned the populace, using statements obtained through torture to convict suspected IRA members in jury-less trials.
In return, the IRA has become the world’s most sophisticated guerrilla force. It has at times displayed a tendency to inflict damage on itself and its supporters by engaging in reckless and brutal adventures that have resulted in civilian casualties both in Northern Ireland and in Britain. It has also displayed an ability, albeit erratically, to learn from its mistakes. Today, the IRA controls large sections of this tiny portion of the world, which runs just 100 miles from the Irish Sea to the Atlantic. It has de facto control of the nationalist ghettos of the North’s two cities and large towns. From its secret and mobile command posts in the South. the IRA is strong enough to keep up a constantly varied level of attacks against British targets across the North, as well as carrying its campaign of bombing to the very heart of London.
The siege of London has thrown the British government onto the defensive and, in the view of many observers, driven the Tory government into a new initiative to settle the conflict. The hierarchy of the Tory party began quietly to push Prime Minister John Major into taking a more active role on Ireland, and despite the fact that he needs the 10 votes from Protestant Ulster to hang onto his majority for unification with Europe, Major set about opening secret channels with the IRA. For three years now the IRA through its political arm, Sinn Fein, has been engaged in on-again off-again talks with the British, seeking some political solution to the war. Before Christmas, the Republic of Ireland joined in attempting to broker a deal. But unlike Hong Kong, where the British clearly have announced their plans to retire, in the Union’s first colony, settled in the 12th century, they are staying.
There may be no logistical or economic interest left, but emotions run deep, and to the Tory establishment the loss of Ulster is the loss of Britain, a Dunkirk too humiliating to reckon. The IRA leadership may be eager to end the war, but it faces a potential revolt in its own ranks, among the grassroots in the prisons, the ghettos of West Belfast, and the rural hinterlands, determined to give no quarter to the British. So talk of peace goes on amidst a general sense that, for the time being, so too will the war. On Tuesday, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams attended a conference on Northern Ireland in New York, the first time in 20 years that a Sinn Fein leader has openly been in the United States. The visit, needless to say, is being interpreted as another move — this time by the U.S. — to nudge the peace process forward.
Adams’s 48-hour visa, agreed to by the Clinton administration after two weeks of negotiations, is a blow to the British, who had lobbied against it, mainly through the offices of House Speaker Tom Foley, a well-established Anglophile Irishman. Arrayed against him were Ted Kennedy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and, in the White House, Mark Gearan, director of the Office of Communications. Anthony Lake, the president’s national security adviser, spent much of last week on the phone, quelling the FBl’s nervousness over having a terrorist openly visiting New York and splitting hairs over Adams’s views on violence. American diplomats in Belfast said Adams’s statements to them about wanting to halt the war met the American precondition that he renounce violence before being allowed into this country. But there were plenty of signs before he left Belfast that Adams’s line toward the British had, if anything, hardened.
In early January, we set out to make our own assessment of the war in Northern Ireland, with visits and interviews at the three key points of the triangle: here in New York, center of the American network providing money and still some of the key arms to the nationalists, as well as an overall support system; Belfast and the rural North — the so-called cockpit of the war, where the fighting grinds on and where strategy is laid; and London, where the IRA recently has transformed the City, the historic financial district, into a veritable bunker. We talked to fighters in the field in the North and those hiding in New York; to the political leaders of Sinn Fein; and to the major counselors of the IRA. We even spoke with a senior official at General Headquarters, the IRA’s secret command post from the which the campaign against London is being carried out.
IRISH REPUBLICANISM was born among Irish émigrés in Europe, formed by the influence of French revolutionary Jacobinism. Its first uprising, in 1798, was aided by the navy of revolutionary France. But its modern day counterpart, the Irish Republican Army, has its origins in the teeming Irish ghettos on the Eastern seaboard of mid-19th-century America. It was there, amongst the economic and political refugees of Famine Ireland, that the so-called Fenian movement and the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood and Clan Na Gael organizations were formed with the aim of violently overthrowing British rule in Ireland.
Since that time, every important uprising in Ireland has been financed with money from the Irish community in the U.S. When the nationalist ghettos in Northern Ireland came under attack from loyalist mobs and the police in 1969 and 1970, it was to the Irish emigrant network in the U.S. that the Catholics looked for relief aid and munitions. The first weapons for the revived IRA campaign against the British — 12 M1s — were smuggled from the United States into Northern Ireland in 1970.
Beginning in October of that year, Joe Cahill, the senior IRA official charged with overseeing the pipeline to America, made a series of trips to the U.S. to raise money and arrange for the purchase of weapons. Here he hooked up with old republican activists like Michael Flannery and George Harrison and set up arms-importation networks that included, ironically, the QE2 luxury liner. One of the first clear indications of the IRA’s reliance on this source was the emergence of the American AR-I5, or Armalite, as the IRA’s weapon of choice in the 1970s.
Today in the traditional Irish neighborhoods in New York — Norwood in the North Bronx, Woodside and Sunnyside in Queens, and Bay Ridge in Brooklyn — the old gunrunning and fundraising network based on bars and construction companies has been supplemented by the influx of new Irish immigrants, many of them fleeing unemployment and political repression in Northern Ireland.
People travel back and forth to Ireland two or three times a year, send money home, make room for visiting relatives. The local bars are places where new immigrants cash their pay checks, find jobs, locate apartments. Just as in Belfast, locals watching out for the FBI’s antiterrorist squad agents cruise the neighborhood. In the bars along 204th Street in the Bainbridge section of the northern Bronx, posters advertising IRA fundraising socials for organizations like Clan Na Gael, are common. The serious fundraising goes on at invitation-only private gatherings, where the latest courier from Belfast makes a pitch and the attendees make out checks in the thousands.
The FBI has had some notable successes in arresting leading IRA members who’ve fled to the U.S. to avoid the heat in Northern Ireland. Joe Doherty was arrested in New York in 1983 and Jimmy Smyth, Kevin Arrt, and Pol Brennan were picked up in California nearly 10 years after they took part in a mass escape from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. Smyth and Arrt were carrying U.S. passports in the names of twins who had died from a rare blood disorder in the early 1970s.
The IRA has its own structure here, with an OC or Officer-in-Command who coordinates activities on behalf of the leadership in Belfast and Dublin. One OC, Liam Ryan, moved back to his native Tyrone in 1987 only to be assassinated by a loyalist gang in the family bar that he managed. Ryan, who was himself charged in an arms-dealing case in 1985, ran a courier trail with contacts in Kennedy Airport and a smuggling operation that carried people and money into the U.S. through Buffalo from Canada.
What began as gunrunning has now evolved into a complicated network helping to provide the IRA with high-tech improvements in its homegrown arsenal. New York is also a sort of r&r spot for men and women coming off active duty, some of whom are too hot to remain in Northern Ireland or the republic, and who are sent to America to get lost, to find new identities that cannot be traced. Others come here for a break, often finding employment as illegals in the construction business. And there is the constant flow of funds to keep the struggle going, ranging from money sent home to individuals to funds raised by legal entities such as Irish Northern Aid to help prisoners and their families.
The Irish American community “is very important because the British think it is very important,” Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader said during an interview in Belfast. “There is a huge part of the U.S. — people who claim, or want, or are of Irish extraction; there is no language difficulty. Most American Irish are in the states because of the relationship between Ireland and Britain. All of this has the British a bit paranoid, and I think it is the duty of freedom lovers to make the British very paranoid.”
The British commonly attempt to turn immigrants from Northern Ireland into spies. In at least one instance, American FBI and British intelligence agents engaged in a covert operation in New York to turn an Irish construction worker from Northern Ireland.
Kevin Corrigan, 31, had come to the U.S. with his wife and baby in 1989 from the small farm village of Cappagh in County Tyrone. Cappagh has been a center of attack and counterattack over the last 15 years.
On arriving in New York the Corrigans took up residence in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, and Kevin got work in the construction industry around New York. Like many Irish immigrants, he did not have a green card. One evening in August 1990, Corrigan says, FBI agents appeared outside his Bronx apartment flashing their badges. They told him that he was in breach of the immigration laws. One of the agents proceeded to rattle off details of Kevin’s life, incidental facts such as where his son had been born, where he had been christened, and where the party was held afterward. Then the FBI agent threatened him with deportation.
When Corrigan said he was ready to go back to Ireland, the agent said, “You don’t have to go back, in fact you can stay here as long as you want. If you help us out we can help you.” And he said, “I’ll show you a number of photographs of men who drink in bars around here. All you have to do is tell me who they’re with and the times they come and go. That’s all I want.” Corrigan refused. The agent persisted, renewing the offer, and threatening him with the same fate as Liam Ryan. After 20 minutes or so, the FBI men left, promising to get back in touch.
Two days later, as Corrigan approached the subway station on 204th Street on his way to work, the agents turned up again. One of them sat opposite him as he rode the D train into Manhattan to his job at a construction site near Herald Square. At the end of his workday Corrigan was approached by two FBI agents who handcuffed him and marched him off the construction site. They put him in a car and drove a few blocks to 32nd Street and Fifth Avenue, where they took the cuffs off him and got out. Moments later another man got into the back of the car with Corrigan. He recognized the man as “Alex,” the Royal Ulster Constabulary Special Branch officer who had interrogated him back home in County Tyrone. “Alex” repeated the FBI deportation threat. Pulling a cigarette in his mouth, the RUC man said, “When this cigarette is finished I’m getting out of this car, and there is nothing more I can do for you … If you were cooperative we could be sitting in a bar — any bar you like — having a friendly conversation, chatting about old times and I’d be telling you what was going on in the North and what all the boys are doing. Nobody need know anything about it.”
Corrigan refused. The cigarette burned down, and the man ordered Corrigan to get out of the car. Corrigan got out and walked away. Later that night the phone rang. It was “Alex.” Corrigan unplugged the phone. Later, he went back to his native Tyrone, where he still lives today. Apart from his unwillingness to betray his own people, Corrigan’s refusal was motivated by a second fact: he knew that the IRA’s way of dealing with informers was to kill them.
IN THE 1980s, the IRA’s weaponry needs shifted from guns to surface-to-air missiles with which to shoot down British Army helicopters, in many rural areas the only reliable form of surveillance and troop transportation. IRA engineers put together a team to devise their own system. The project was led by Richard Johnson, a Massachusetts-based scientist with top U.S. security clearance, and Martin Quigley, an IRA engineer. Backing them up was Christina Reid, a Bay Area engineering student, and Peter Maguire, a technician with Aer Lingus, the Irish national airline. For seven years, from 1982 to 1989, the FBI set up an elaborate surveillance operation against the IRA team. By 1989, when the feds moved in, the prototype of a radio-signal controlled missile system had been developed.
Parallel to the efforts to develop its own system, the IRA also made various efforts to buy Stinger surface-to-air missiles in the U.S. In one case, a group in Florida led by IRA member Kevin McKinley made arrangements with a group of arms dealers to purchase Stingers. To raise the needed $50,000, according to a federal indictment, an IRA member made a “charity fund run” to New York, hitting bars — including the Kilarney Rose and the Spinning Wheel — the Bank of Ireland, Chemical Bank, and several residences. After the cash was handed over, the arms dealers revealed themselves as undercover FBI agents and four men, including McKinley, were arrested.
In a follow-up operation, a total of 14 men, including those convicted in Florida, were indicted last year in Tucson, Arizona, charged with the purchasing and shipment to the IRA of 2900 detonators, which they claimed would be used for mining. From Tucson, the detonators were put on a Greyhound Bus and shipped to New York and then sent on to Northern Ireland, where, according to the feds, they were used in explosive devices from January 1991 to June 1992. According to the indictment, another IRA member slipped into the United States from Canada with a munitions shopping list that included night vision glasses for a Ruger mini-14, 2000 nonelectric detonators, 200 electric ignitors, bullet molds for 9mms, and conversion kits for various rifles. Those arrested in New York included a Bronx bar-owner, a building superintendent, a carpenter, and a Toronto-based bank executive.
When some of the defendants in the Tucson case were released on multimillion-dollar bail, they appeared at a welcome-home rally at Gaelic Park in the northern Bronx. The party was a standing-room-only affair packed with young Irish immigrants, representatives of Irish organizations from across the tristate area, labor union officials, and Irish sports organizations. Speaker after speaker told the cheering crowd that, while the defendants were innocent victims of FBI collusion with the British security forces, only armed resistance could drive the British out of Ireland. The highlight of the night was a speech from Gerry McGeough, an IRA figure who was himself on trial for trying to buy a Stinger missile.
Another boisterous victory party was thrown after a group of admitted IRA gunrunners was acquitted by a Brooklyn jury in 1982. Much to the annoyance of federal prosecutors, says one man who attended, some of the jurors showed up and music was provided by the NYPD Emerald Society Pipe band.
CARVED OUT OF the historic Irish province of Ulster after the IRA’s War of Independence brought the British to the negotiating table in 1921, and constructed to ensure a loyalist/Protestant majority, Northern Ireland became, in the words of one of its founders, a “Protestant State for a Protestant People.” The island was turned into two underdeveloped units, both dominated by backward, religious-based ideologies, the “carnivals of reaction” James Connolly, the Socialist republican leader executed by the British in the 1916, predicted partition would create.
The early years of Northern Ireland saw large-scale pogroms against Catholic ghettos and the arming of more than one-third of adult Protestant males. The Catholic nationalist minority — which constituted between a third and two-fifths of the population — was subject to institutionalized discrimination in employment, housing, voting, and almost all aspects of public life. The Civil Rights movement of the late 1960s — consciously modeled on its American counterpart — provided a challenge to the system, and eventually tore it asunder. By 1969, it became apparent that Northern Ireland was incapable of reforming itself and British troops were sent in. The conclusion drawn by many Catholics was simple: civil rights could not be attained within the confines of the state of Northern Ireland. Only by uniting Ireland could they guarantee their democratic rights. That, coincidentally, had always been the position of Irish republicanism and its armed manifestation, the IRA.
Now, driving through the rain-swept, overcast countryside, we pass a slogan on a gable-end wall that sums up the perspective of this part of the world: “In the Middle-East they say ‘Yassir,’ in County Tyrone we say ‘No-Sir!’ ” We are on our way to the small village of Loughmacrory in the hills of mid-Tyrone, where a Gaelic football match is in progress. The local side, many of whom have served time for various IRA offenses, is playing a team of IRA prisoners on a weeklong holiday parole from the H-Blocks. After the game — which is won by the locals who, though lacking the prisoners’ fitness, have the edge in game practice — the players are joined by 300 to 400 locals in the village’s community center to debate the political and military strategy of the republican movement. First, though, the winning team has to be presented with medals.
Later, in a nearby roadhouse, hundreds of Tyrone republicans gather for a social event, the highlight of which is the presentation of plaques to the families of Tyrone IRA volunteers killed in action in the latest phase of the conflict. The ceremony goes on for an hour as family after family leaves its table and makes its way to the podium amid loud ovations from the crowd. The presentations are testimony both to the strength of support in the community for the IRA and also to the price paid in casualties over the last 20 years.
A center of rebellion as far back as the 16th century, Tyrone became subject to a two-pronged British policy of genocide and plantation that saw the lands of the native Irish confiscated and the inhabitants replaced by thousands of settlers imported from Scotland and England. The Irish fled to the poor land on the hillsides. Their descendants live there still, strong supporters of the secret military conspiracy that is the IRA. From here, in the late 1960s, Bernadette Devlin traveled to Queen’s University in Belfast and became a leader of the civil rights movement that was first attacked and clubbed by loyalist mobs and their supporters in the RUC, and then shot off the streets by British paratroopers. On Bloody Sunday, in January 1972, they killed 14 unarmed civil rights marchers in Derry. Afterward, nationalist youth in Tyrone joined the IRA in droves.
As the war has changed over the years, with the IRA focusing its targets more closely on commercial enterprises, the number of civilian casualties from its bombing attacks has declined. But the war has taken an ominous turn with the emergence of loyalist death squads, drawn from the descendants of the 17th-century Scottish and English settlers. In the last three years, the two main loyalist paramilitary groups — the Ulster Defense Association (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) — have carried out more killings than anyone else. Their targets vary from known republican activists to ordinary Catholics who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
(It was an IRA attempt to take out the leadership of the UDA that resulted in one of the army’s biggest public relations disasters of recent years, when a bomb directed against a UDA leadership meeting exploded prematurely, killing 10 people, including the IRA bomber, in a fish store on loyalist Shankill Road in Belfast last December.)
Drawn from the lower sections of the Protestant working class, the loyalist gangs have close connections to neo-fascist groups in Britain and adopt a racially supremacist attitude toward the Catholics. In many cases the loyalist gangs have been able to operate with impunity because of the latent sympathy among sections of the RUC for their aims and their methods.
For many years there have also been allegations of collusion between the British security forces and the loyalist gangs. “It is a matter of common knowledge within the nationalist community that information gathered by the British forces regularly and easily finds its way into the hands of loyalist death squads,” says Gerry Adams. In 1989, the British government was forced to dispatch a senior British police official, John Stevens, to investigate the growing evidence that intelligence files on republicans were being handed over to the loyalists.
One of the men Stevens arrested was the UDA’s intelligence officer, Brian Nelson. Shortly afterward it was revealed that Nelson was an agent of British military intelligence. It was his function in the UDA to collate all of the intelligence files on nationalists provided by the British security forces and provide computer readouts on potential victims to UDA hit squads. One of Nelson’s victims was lawyer Patrick Finucane, who had become a thorn in the side of the North’s legal and security establishment by his courageous civil rights advocacy and his defense of IRA suspects.
Nelson had also been party to an arms deal engineered by loyalists in 1988 that imported 200 AK-47s, 90 Browning pistols, 500 splinter grenades, numerous rocket launchers, and tens of thousands of bullets from South Africa. The deal was set up by the South African authorities in collaboration with a Middle East arms dealer.
The arrest of Nelson was both a huge embarrassment to the British authorities and clear evidence that loyalist death squads were being armed and directed with the assistance of British intelligence. At his trial in January 1992, during which a senior British military intelligence officer provided a character reference for Nelson, murder charges were dropped in the “public interest” in return for a guilty plea. Nelson is due to be released in 1996.
The loyalists’ propensity for violence is directly correlated to any indication of ambivalence on the part of the British government to the status quo in Northern Ireland. Should the British suggest even a long-term process of disengagement, the loyalist gangs, along with important sections of the local security forces, could be expected to unleash an unprecedented onslaught against the nationalist community.
STARTING IN THE early 1970s, the IRA ran a wild and ruthless campaign, marked by bombings of civilian targets — pubs frequented by British Army personnel at Guildford and Woolwich, well-to-do gentlemen’s clubs and fancy restaurants in Knightsbridge, and Harrods department store in the middle of London. It botched a warning at a Birmingham pub, where the bomb killed 21 civilians. It killed horses in a ceremonial parade, and shot and killed the editor of the Guinness Book of Records, who had offered a reward for the capture of IRA squads in England.
Then, during the middle ’70s, it came close to collapsing altogether into what turned out to be a shrewd British trap. Offering the IRA a ceasefire, which they then extended, the British hinted they wanted to end the violence and leave Northern Ireland. The IRA accepted the ceasefire: the guerrilla fighters came out into the open and here and there began to take up normal lives, revealing their cover and support system in the process. Behind the scenes, the British were beefing up their own intelligence operations, penetrating the IRA brigade system that now was nakedly exposed, tightening the rules for criminal arrest and prosecution. They then swooped down, and the IRA buckled.
It was at that point that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein’s vice-president, took over and, on the basis of discussion groups IRA prisoners had undertaken in jail, reorganized the republican movement. The IRA replaced brigades with cells, ended the retaliatory shootings of Protestants, and shifted its focus to a long-term campaign against commercial targets aimed at costing the British money. It began blowing off big bombs in the downtown provincial towns of the North, blowing up the center of Belfast itself, all the while aiming to kill as many British soldiers as possible in hit-and-run ambushes.
Even with this redirection of efforts, they never quite got rid of the brutal IRA reputation, which was revived by what came to be known as the European campaign, in which British military units stationed along the Rhine and off-duty soldiers in Holland and Belgium were attacked. This campaign soon became marked by a sense of ruthless abandon, with IRA units killing a baby, injuring a mother on her way home from the store, and mistakenly killing two people with short hair it thought surely were off-duty soldiers. As it turned out, they were Australian tourists.
In 1988, amidst the botched campaign on the continent, the IRA launched another campaign within Britain itself, attacking a variety of targets — a soldiers’ barracks, the homes of Tory politicians — mortaring a cabinet meeting during the Gulf War, switching quickly back and forth to keep the British security forces off guard. The campaign climaxed with two big bombs in the City of London, the British capital’s financial district, which demolished the Baltic Exchange, the shipping center. A year later, just as the Tory establishment was congratulating itself with a grand banquet for reopening the Baltic, the IRA struck again, this time with an enormous bomb in Bishopsgate, which blew up buildings housing foreign banks and offices, and damaged the big Liverpool Street train and subway station. All in all, in 1993 the IRA tried to blow up three times as many explosives — 18 tons — in the City of London as it did in the whole of Northern Ireland. The damage totaled upward of $ 1.5 billion. It was the heaviest bombing since the Blitz.
From the bustling entrance of the modern Liverpool Station the City looks like any modern downtown, construction cranes pulling the finishing touches on high-rise towers that are crowding out the historic financial buildings. It takes a moment to get one’s bearings, but a security guard standing outside a bank helpfully points out what’s going on. “There,” he jabs with a finger at a high-rise office building. “And over there.” Another jab. “There, there, there.” All points where the IRA truck bomb took out the heart of the City.
The cranes and workmen sprawled across the narrow, rain-swept streets are still struggling to rebuild. The streets are all but empty, traffic having been diverted around the City area. Another helpful guard points out the slim silver canisters at the beginning and end of every street, outside the entrances of Lloyd’s, all around the bank buildings. These are security cameras, so common in Belfast, but remarkable here.
Inside a commodity trading house, which is reached only through locked doors and with a pass from a security guard (hooked by beeper into all the other security guards in the City), a young English broker describes the effect of the IRA bombings. “The windows,” he says, pointing to the glass expanse that encloses the trading room, “there’s a bulletproof film over them. And most of the securities firms have duplicated their trading rooms.” That is, taking advantage of the recession to rent other quarters, they have created replicas of their offices, complete with telephones and computers. These stand empty, ready to be inhabited should there be another bombing.
Last fall, the IRA began to steadily bomb or hoax the commuter railroads. In December, the army set off a bomb on the Reading railroad, a main commuter line. The IRA can easily close every mainline station during the morning rush hour. Last year it claimed there was a bomb on the Kent line, completely shutting it down for hours. It’s been estimated that hoax cost nearly $100 million.
Steady, long-term surveillance has brought a certain success to British security forces, leading the police to one or another stash of explosives. But, from what one can tell, the IRA’s operational network in England remains in place, ready to strike. In all probability it involves sleepers, people who are sent over to England years before they are activated. From some recent arrests, it’s clear the IRA now has second-generation Irish involved, people who emigrated from Ireland, married, became to all intents and purposes English with English accents, living in working-class suburbs with decent working-class jobs. They drink at the corner pub. They fit no profile. Who would have ever thought that these descendants of the oldest colony — the dependable handyman, the maid, the accomplished but eccentric writer, the day laborer, the workers who built the Chunnel, would at the end of the 20th century turn on their decent English employers and entertain the prospect of becoming urban guerrillas?
THE ATTACKS ON the City of London, indeed the overall British campaign, have been directed by a handful of individuals who make up the IRA’s General Headquarters, a secret floating command center that moves about the island of Ireland. Sometimes it’s in the north in working-class Belfast, and at others across the border in the countryside of the south. Getting in touch with GHQ isn’t the easiest thing in the world, but over time, following a circuitous and often haphazard-seeming route through New York, Dublin, and Belfast, we asked for and eventually were granted an interview with one of the officials at GHQ.
We were to show up on a certain street corner in downtown Belfast after lunch on a cold, drizzly day in mid-January. Our contact man was driving a small sedan. He didn’t speak as he drove carefully through a warren of terraced houses just west of Belfast’s city center. After about 10 minutes of taking side streets to avoid British Army checkpoints, we pulled up outside a small group of neighborhood stores. The driver nodded to another car parked adjacent to a grocery store. Inside were two young men in jeans. We switched cars, and started off again, crisscrossing the working-class housing estates that slope down from the Divis mountain and sprawl across nationalist West Belfast. The two young men in the car drove along, asking how easy it would be to get a ticket to the World Cup soccer match in New York. Nobody mentioned politics.
After another car switch, and more crisscrossing, we stopped outside a small, two-story dwelling on a cul-de-sac in a nondescript public housing development. We entered and waited in the front sitting room while the last driver scanned the street from the window. Then, a man who looked to be in his thirties came up the sidewalk and into the house. The two men who had brought us there produced massive deadbolts, locking the front door. Settling into a chair, the official from GHQ began to talk.
“It’s important to see the English campaign in the context of overall IRA strategy,” he began, setting up right away the political context for the discussion. “Our strategy is underpinned by a number of strategic objectives, the aim of which is to sap the will of the British government’s violent denial of the Irish people’s right to self-determination. Given that objective, the IRA seeks with a variety of tactics to stretch and re-stretch the British in terms of their personnel and resources.” He paused.
“Like all guerrilla armies, the IRA seeks to improvise and manufacture at as low a cost as possible weaponry and armaments which can be deployed against Crown forces and other targets on the basis of the largest return for the least outlay. Another factor is the need to pace ourselves. The essence of guerrilla warfare is that the smaller insurgency force harries and harasses a massively superior enemy. The object is to have the enemy in a constant state of high alert and continuously guarding a wide range of potential targets. For example, in the mid 1980s the IRA devastated over 45 rural British Army and RUC bases with large-scale bombings. One effect of this was that the British had to undertake a large campaign of reconstruction and refortification. The IRA then issued a warning that anyone involved in the reconstruction of these bases would themselves become targets. The effect of that was two-fold: it caused a major inflation in the cost of rebuilding, and two, it meant that the British had to deploy two extra battalions of troops to assist in the rebuilding program.
“The nature of the rebuilding program rendered the use of car bombs redundant because we were dealing with three-foot-thick walls, sometimes reaching 20 to 30 feet. Quite early in that program the IRA began to improvise with their mortar technology. We had the production of the Mark 10 to Mark 14 mortars and now the Mark 15, which the British call a barrack buster. When that mortar goes in — and it has a maximum payload of 500 pounds of explosives although they now average 150 to 200 pounds — the fortifications which act as a deterrent to car bombs actually multiply the damage in the base.”
But, he continued, if the IRA were to focus on just one method, the British soon would catch on and counter it. It’s the whole “tapestry of operations” that matters. One important element was strikes against commercial targets, which countered British claims that life was normal.
“Throughout 1991, ’92, and continuing in 1993, we engaged in massive bomb attacks in the commercial heartland of London. The IRA in one period of 1992 deployed 26 tons of explosives in and around London. Unfortunately 18 tons of explosives were seized by British forces, and the operation itself went wrong, when British forces tailed one van. IRA engineers and backup volunteers were in position with the explosives and had a simple choice to make. They could have executed the British police who had stumbled into an operation that was beyond their capacity to deal with, but it was decided that because the opportunity to remove the explosives didn’t exist there was no military justification for attacking the British police, and the volunteers withdrew from the area. It had been our intention at that point to simultaneously explode six substantial explosive devices at targets throughout the capital.
“Another aspect of the campaign has been the persistent and long-term disruption of the travel network in and around London. There is the economic loss of work hours, and the sheer frustration of the local populace when the IRA paralyzes the city, making it hellish. That has the effect, along with our other operations, of draining the Exchequer and straining the nerves of the British establishment.
“It is clear that the British establishment, when it comes to the question of Ireland, are slow learners but they will find that the IRA are very patient teachers.”
The official broke off, rising to talk to one of the guards who had come into the room. Then, turning to us, he said, “I’ve got to get out of here right away,” and departed.
WAR WITHOUT END
WITH THE PHONY ceasefire of the mid 1970s very much in mind, the IRA leadership warily approaches the recent British maneuvering over Ireland. They suspect that, far from planning to retire from Northern Ireland, John Major is more likely to try to split the IRA by luring Adams and the leadership into a ceasefire without the kind of concessions that would radically alter the situation. IRA leaders see rhetoric on Irish self-determination contradicted by the insistence that a majority in Northern Ireland have a veto over any change.
All of this takes place against a background of secret talks between Sinn Fein, IRA leadership, and the British that began in 1990. In Belfast, Gerry Adams explained that the IRA had indeed been involved in direct talks with the British before the attacks on the City of London began. “We engaged in protracted dialogue and contact with the British government for almost a three-year period,” he said. “In the course of that, the British government offered a series of meetings with Sinn Fein and argued that this could be facilitated and assisted if the IRA campaign was stopped. Having negotiated the logistics and the general political parameters of the meeting, Sinn Fein then asked the IRA leadership to suspend its campaign in line with the British request.”
The IRA agreed to suspend the campaign for two weeks, after which the talks were supposed to take place at one of a number of suggested locations in mainland Europe. But having got the agreement of the IRA, Sinn Fein found that the British were suddenly no longer interested.
Adams continued: “The British government then walked away from the proposals. By that time, we think they got into trouble within their own Tory party and when they started to make an arrangement to deal with the unionists.” In June of last year, Major needed the votes of the Ulster unionists in the House of Commons to save his political hide in a vote on European integration. That need coincided with the British decision not to pursue the peace talks with Sinn Fein/IRA.
But Adams had been pursuing his own talks with John Hume, the leader of moderate nationalist in Northern Ireland. Those talks created a momentum — particularly in Dublin, where the Irish government has, since the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, had a consultative role in the running of Northern Ireland. The talks, and the revelation that the British had already been talking to Sinn Fein, created the pressure that resulted in the so-called Downing Street Joint Declaration signed by Major and Irish prime minister Albert Reynolds.
Full of ambiguous language, the Joint Declaration implies that Britain is playing a neutral role in Northern Ireland. It declares that when the IRA lays down its arms the British will open talks with Sinn Fein — a new precondition. While the British and Irish governments talk of their initiative as one that will eventually open up the door to a United Ireland, the reality is easier to discern by the fact that the Unionist Party, the core of Ulster unionism, welcomed it as a document that would “copper-fasten the Union.”
The Joint Declaration was seen by Republican leaders as a maneuver designed for quick rejection by them —a rejection that the British could use first to isolate them and then to bring in even harsher repressive measures. Adams’s response was to seek clarification of the Joint Declaration and to place the onus on London and Dublin to prove that it was a genuine peace initiative.
Under pressure from its electorate and an attempt to draw the IRA into a ceasefire, the Dublin government lifted the 20-year-old censorship of Sinn Fem on television and radio. Dublin also made it known to the White House that it had no objection to the ban on Adams entering the U.S. being lifted.
Meanwhile, a consistent majority of people in Britain tell opinion pollers that they want out of Northern Ireland. Apart from the hundreds of millions of dollars that are paid out in compensation for IRA damage, Britain pays out $5 billion every year just to keep things running. So why, many people ask, don’t they just cut and run? One television journalist we met in London who has worked extensively in Northern Ireland pointed to the crisis in the British state as one key reason. “We have strong nationalist movements in Scotland and Wales, the monarchy is in a state of crisis, the Justice system is discredited, nobody believes in the established Anglican church anymore, and they can’t come to terms with the European Community. Ireland is our first and oldest colony and key parts of the establishment are scared to death of the ramifications of losing what’s left of it.”
There is also the problem of the 1 million Protestants. “We have managed to create a hybrid race of our own little Afrikaners over there,” the Journalist added. “They say they are British but nobody here wants anything to do with them. They’re already armed to the teeth and ready to go to war if we pull out.”
Any deal struck between London, Dublin, and Belfast would have to meet the approval of the IRA, and especially the prisoners at Long Kesh. An indication of their view of things came during our meeting in the Maze with Sean Lynch, the OC of 350 IRA men who arc organized as a prisoner-of-war unit. The peace proposals, among other things, offer them the possibility of a general amnesty, a chance to abruptly conclude their 20-to-30-year sentences and return to normal life. Their answer, Lynch said without hesitation, was no. No until the British said they would retire from the island of Ireland.
“The war has gone on for 25 years,” Bernadette Devlin McAliskey said. “And nobody can say what the balance sheet of suffering is. Certainly the greatest weight of war has been carried within the republican community. Those of us who have been part of the struggle for 25 years have children. The children have grown up in a totally militarized society. The most alarming thing about the situation is that this is normal life for our children. This is the kind of society, the kind of life, the kind of structure, that has provided the normal basis of their growing up. Peace is abnormal to anybody in this country under the age of 25. There may be some people around who say that anything would be better at this point than seeing these people have to go through the next 25 years the same as ourselves. But that’s not our decision. That decision is for people who are 22 and 23.
“And the kids? What they’re saying to the leadership is, if you’re tired, that’s all right. Go home. We’re not tired.” ■
Special thanks to Ed Moloney, the Sunday Tribune‘s Belfast correspondent, who has diligently covered the war and its complex politics over the last two decades. Additional reporting in New York: Susan Walsh, Eamon Lynch.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 29, 2020