How the IRA ships arms into Ulster
Belfast — The Provisional IRA's reliance on American support is no accident. The transatlantic connection that links US guns and money to IRA fighters extends back to the 19th-century Fenian movement and continues today. This report examines these links. It is the Ulster equivalent of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
But in the case of Northern Ireland, the trail of money and guns stretches all the way from Belfast's Falls Road and Dublin's Parnell Square back to the streets of New York City and Boston.
The American connection is said to account for roughly 50 percent of the weapons and ammunition smuggled to the outlawed Provisional wing of the Irish Republican Army. Donald J. McGorty, head of the section on international terrorism of United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in New York, says the Provisional IRA's dependence on American support and supplies is ``tremendous.''
Guns, ammunition, explosives, and money, aimed at keeping snipers and bomb-throwers as active as possible in Northern Ireland, have been regularly smuggled out of the United States during the past 15 years by a handful of determined supporters of the Provisional IRA, according to Irish, British, and US law-enforcement officials.
These IRA supporters are working quietly in America in small, loosely organized ``cells'' to do as much as they can to help undermine British rule in Ulster.
The American connection is of the utmost importance to the Provisional IRA. It plays an integral role in the organization's military and political strategies.
The IRA's current campaign of violence began in 1969, soon after British troops moved in, and -- unlike previous IRA campaigns in Northern Ireland, which did not have a British presence to target -- there are no signs of it petering out. The hit-and-run nature of guerrilla, terrorist warfare and the promise of a steady source of arms, money, and moral support from the US have virtually ensured the longevity of the IRA's military struggle.
The Provisional IRA's military strategy: To attempt to convince the British through a series of seemingly never-ending assassinations and bombings that their interests would best be served by following the example of the Americans in Vietnam and withdrawing.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who narrowly escaped an IRA bomb blast in Brighton, England, last October, has been adamant in her position: Northern Ireland will remain a part of the United Kingdom for as long as a majority of the residents of Northern Ireland wish to remain a part of the U.K. The British do not draw parallels between Vietnam and Northern Ireland.
While the IRA's war of attrition has taken its toll in terms of killed security personnel (722), it has also exacted a price on the country as a whole. Since 1969, some 2,400 people have been killed and roughly 26,700 others (18,000 of them civilians) have been injured in the fighting in Northern Ireland, according to police statistics.
There have been 7,979 explosions or bomb attacks in the past 15 years. And American money and guns continue to flow into the country.
Joe Cahill, a former senior IRA leader and one of the founders of the Provisional IRA, acknowledged the value of American support to the IRA. In an interview in Dublin, he said: ``Support seems to be growing in America, and that's very, very important.'' He added that the IRA receives a ``continual, small flow of arms from the States, and it is one of their main sources of supply.''
But guns aren't all the Provisionals receive from the US. Money raised in pub collection plates and at testimonial dinners held by pro-IRA groups throughout the US is regularly sent to Ireland and plays an important role in maintaining the conflict.
Estimates are that it costs between $1.5 million to $3 million a year to run the Provisional IRA and its associated organizations, including the legal political wing, Sinn Fein, and the prisoner relief organization, An Cumman Cabhrach.
According to security officials, most of the IRA's funding has historically come from bank robberies, extortion, protection rackets, and kidnappings in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. In 1983, police say, IRA-sanctioned bank robberies in Northern Ireland netted some 300,000 British pounds.
Funds from the US -- most notably from the Irish Northern Aid Committee (Noraid) of New York City -- have totaled between $120,000 and $300,000 each year, according to Noraid officials. Noraid founder and director Michael Flannery, a former IRA man in the 1920s, says that all Noraid's funds are earmarked exclusively for charitable relief projects to help the wives and families of political prisoners in Northern Ireland.
The British and Irish governments contend that even if all or most of Noraid's funds are channelled into prisoner relief programs, which they doubt, the US contributions simply free up other IRA funds for weapons and explosives purchases.
Mr. Flannery agrees. ``Of course that's true,'' he said in an interview in New York. ``If we're taking care of these people, surely it takes the burden off the IRA.''
Flannery explained that one of the reasons Noraid was organized was to enable the IRA to continue to fight a protracted guerrilla war against the British. The Noraid director said that at the time the Provisional IRA was formed in 1969, he met in Ireland with representatives of the outlawed group. He said they told him: ``We are going to build up and fight out of this. Can you help us?''
Flannery says he gave them some advice: ``Don't start a fight, get the best of your people killed, and then stop. Don't start a fight until you are ready to continue it, until you are able to get something.''
He adds: ``They said, `We'll give you our word that we will continue this fight . . . but there's only one thing necessary -- that you feed and cloth our people, so they don't starve us into submission again like they did in 1956. They starved us right out. Our people were penniless, and we had to stop [fighting]. We couldn't continue.' ''
Flannery said that he told the Provisionals: ``I can't guarantee anything. But we'll do our best.'' Thus was the Irish Northern Aid Committee born.
How has it done in the years since?
``Well, we had phenomenal success,'' Flannery says with a broad smile.
On the surface it may seem ironic that the Provisional IRA's supply lines should originate in the United States, a close friend and ideological ally of Britain. But the US is also home to 44 million Americans who claim at least some Irish heritage, with roughly 10 million direct Irish descendants. There are fewer than 5 million Irish men, women, and children in all of Ireland, both North and South.
Thus, the US is seen from the IRA's point of view as a vast reservoir of potential Irish Roman Catholic supporters, whose various levels of commitment to the cause of ``Brits Out'' and a united Ireland could, if not actually win the Northern Ireland conflict, then at least help to draw it out into a protracted war of attrition.
Politically, the IRA and others in the Republican movement are seeking to gain support in the US Congress by raising the awareness of Irish-Americans on the Northern Ireland issue and organizing an Irish-American voting bloc. They seek to emulate the success that Israeli-Zionist groups have had in the US in both mobilizing American Jewish support and translating that support into political influence on Capitol Hill.
While their success in the political sphere has been spotty, their smuggling and fund-raising operations have more than made up for any setbacks.
``It is important to the Provisionals themselves to feel they have a fairly well-oiled machine in America,'' says a Northern Ireland security official.
Mr. Cahill says: ``The fact that the IRA can still carry on operations, despite the losses they have from time to time, proves beyond all doubt that they have a constant source of supply, and America is probably one of the main sources.''
Since 1969, more than 8,000 weapons have been seized or captured by security forces in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
Of those, 2,843 of the weapons seized in Northern Ireland were believed to have been smuggled originally from the US, and 1,357 of the weapons seized in the Republic were thought to have come from America, according to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), Northern Ireland's police force.
``There is no need to send 5,000 weapons over there. They don't need that many. If you can keep a constant flow of small numbers, maybe 50, 60, or 100 a year, they will have enough to do what they want to do,'' says the FBI's Mr. McGorty.
``We can always tell when they get a resupply,'' says an RUC spokesman. Ballistics tests and detailed records enable the RUC to keep track of how many different weapons were involved in various attacks in Northern Ireland and how often the same weapons are used.
From this the RUC has concluded that at some point last year the Provisionals received a resupply of weapons.
``Certainly there has been one resupply -- possibly from America. It wasn't huge, but it was larger than the usual trickle of eight,'' the RUC source says.
But the overall picture as related by security sources here is that the Provisionals are beginning to feel the pinch in terms of the American source of supply. In addition, they say the Provisionals are strapped for money.
``When you see one firearm turning up in four, five, or six jobs, you can be sure they are not doing well,'' says an Irish official in Dublin.
It is not for lack of trying.
The seizure of the Irish trawler Marita Ann off the Kerry coast Sept. 29 is seen by security officials in Dublin and Belfast as a major setback for the IRA.
The fishing trawler was intercepted by Irish Navy vessels after Irish authorities received a tip that a large arms shipment was on its way from the United States.
The Marita Ann was found to be carrying seven tons of rifles, ammunition, and other military-related equipment.
The arms are believed by security officials to have been smuggled from the Boston area via a Gloucester, Mass.-registered trawler, the Valhalla. The US Customs Service and the FBI are investigating the Boston end of the Marita Ann smuggling plan.
According to the FBI's McGorty, US law-enforcement officials expected IRA gunrunners to attempt to diversify their operations outside of New York City. He says successful prosecutions and in-depth investigations in the early 1980s in New York may have convinced the gunrunners to relocate.
``They got tired of getting hit here, and we were just waiting for some incident to show that they had smartened up a little bit and moved their act out of town,'' McGorty says.
``So the Boston episode [the Valhalla and Marita Ann] really didn't shock us that much.''
The American connection to the IRA is nothing new.
Irish rebels have maintained underground societies, fund raising, gunrunning, and support groups in the US ever since 1857, when the Fenian Brotherhood (the forerunner of the IRA) organized secretly in Paris and New York City.
By the mid-1860s there were said to be 45,000 members of the Fenian Brotherhood in the US, many of them battle-hardened from service in the American Civil War. Fenians fought on both sides of that conflict -- sometimes against each other.
They mounted two disastrous invasions of Canada in the late 1860s in an effort to take a swipe at Britain. And several large gunrunning operations failed, in part because of infiltration into the Fenian groups by British spies.
Fund-raising efforts were sporadic. But the American connection was maintained.
After the Irish civil war in the 1920s, the defeated IRA leaders decided to send a lanky, 24-year-old IRA man from Tipperary to New York to organize Irish immigrants and to raise funds to support the re-arming of the IRA. That young man was Michael Flannery.
Today, Flannery, as director of Noraid, supervises the collection of what is said to be the Provisional IRA's largest source of overseas funds.
Map: Flow of funds from US to IRA
Marita Ann fishing trawler seized off southwest coast Sept. 1984 with seven tons of guns and ammunition bound for IRA. American fishing trawler Valhalla suspected by US authorities to have crossed Atlantic in Sept. 1984 with weapons collected in Boston area. Weapons are suspected to have been transferred to Marita Ann outside Irish territorial waters. Cyprus-registered steamer, Claudia, seized off southeast coast in 1973 with five tons of Russian weapons from Libya bound for IRA. Headquarters of Irish Northern Aid Committee (Noraid) where funds collected throughout US are assembled and sent to Dublin. Noraid funds received by An Cumman Cabhrach which shares address with Provisional Sinn Fein, political wing of Provisional IRA. Most funds sent on to Belfast. Noraid funds, channeled through Dublin, received by Green Cross and distributed to families of IRA prisoners.