Veteran IRA gunrunner Joe Cahill tells his story

In the first three articules of a six-part series, the Monitor has described fund-raising methods of the Irish Northern Aid Committee (Noraid), its failure ot comply with state and federal reporting laws in the United States, and its links with the Provisional IRA. Today: a profile of Joe Cahill, longtime IRA leader, convicted gunrunner, and a trustee of An Cumman Cabhrach, which distributes Noradid funds in Northern Ireland.

Joe Cahill was one of the original ``Provo'' gunrunners.

He tells the story of being caught in 1973 off Ireland's Waterford coast on board a Cyprus-registered steamer, the Claudia. He was in the process of smuggling some five tons of rifles and ammunition from Libya to the outlawed Provisional Irish Republican Army, or ``Provos,'' as they are called in Northern Ireland.

He says that when the Irish Republic's Army and Navy men came aboard the Claudia and saw the illicit cargo of Russian AK-47s, ammunition, and explosives, one of the officers commented that Mr. Cahill must have felt it was hard luck that the cargo didn't get through.

``I said it was hard luck, all right,'' says Cahill, remembering the incident that has since become legend in Provo circles. ``But I told them the point is that the only time you know that we have hard luck is when you capture the stuff.

``They don't know about the successful trips that you have.''

Cahill, former Belfast commander of the Provisional IRA who is considered by some ``Provos'' as a sort of modern-day version of 1916 gunrunner Roger Casement, went on to note: ``So be it with the Marita Ann. You are bound at some time or another to have losses. You can't be successful all the time.''

The Marita Ann, a fishing trawler out of Fenit, was seized Sept. 29 off the Kerry coast with some seven tons of guns and ammunition on board. It was the largest seizure by Irish authorities of weapons bound for the IRA since the Claudia episode more than a decade earlier.

The weapons are believed to have been transported across the Atlantic by a Gloucester, Mass., fishing trawler -- the Valhalla. The arms are said by security officials to have been offloaded from the Valhalla to the Marita Ann outside Irish territorial waters. US law- enforcement personnel in Boston are investigating suspected American links to the Marita Ann smuggling effort.

Talking in the shabby, unheated Dublin headquarters of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional IRA, Cahill declined to speak at length about gunrunning operations. ``I believe you can't talk about these things until the war has been won and it is no longer necessary to do these things,'' he says. ``I have never been involved in the arms side of things as far as America is concerned.''

He says he knows nothing of the Marita Ann case.

According to a security official, Cahill was seen standing outside the Cork, Ireland, police station as the five Marita Ann suspects were first brought in for questioning after having been arrested at sea. A local press account mentions that Cahill was also in attendance at the Special Criminal Court in Dublin when the five suspects were arraigned on gunrunning charges. (Three of the five received 10-year prison sentences Dec. 11. The two crew members got suspended five-year sentences.)

``If there is one man who is never far awayfrom weapons or funds, it's Joe Cahill,'' says a Northern Ireland security official.

He adds, ``Joe Cahill was one of the founding members of the Provisional IRA. He is one of the provisionals with a pedigree that goes way back. Even the current leadership would go to him for advice.''

At one time Cahill was said to be an assistant chief of staff on the Provisional IRA's Army Council, the highest authority in the Republican movement. Asked about this, Cahill replies: ``That's the sort of thing where even if you were, you wouldn't say that you were. The Army Council of the IRA is a very secretive body, it's a small group of people and nobody would ever know who they are. So, for anyone to speculate -- and that's all it is, speculation -- we would never confirm nor deny, . . . just keep it a guessing game.''

Cahill says he has spent some 15 years of his life in prison, seven of them for the murder of a Belfast policeman in 1942 and three for his involvement in the Claudia affair. He notes he's also been held on political charges in Northern Ireland. (It is illegal in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to be a member of the Provisional IRA.) But at 64, Cahill says his IRA guerrilla days are over, that he's traded in his Armalite rifle for the more sedate surroundings of the Sinn Fein political headquarters in Dublin. It was a decision made for health reasons, he says.

If he could, would he still be an active IRA fighter?

``Out of no hesitation in me,'' he says immediately. ``But it is a job I left for a younger man.''

Cahill is a joint treasurer of Sinn Fein. He is also one of three trustees of An Cumman Cabhrach, the Republican prisoner-relief organization that is listed as the recipient of virtually all of the funds raised in the United States by the Irish Northern Aid Committee (Noraid), headquartered in New York City. Noraid has consistently provided the Republican movement with its largest regular source of overseas revenue.

From the perspective of American and Irish security officials concerned about US funds possibly being diverted to IRA gunrunning efforts, Cahill's position in Dublin as treasurer and trustee seems like having a fox guard the chicken coop.

The convicted gunrunner has made his position clear. After being found guilty in the Claudia affair, he was quoted as saying: ``If I am guilty of any crime it is that I did not succeed in getting the contents of the Claudia into the hands of the freedom fighters in this country.''

Cahill is said to be a fierce advocate of maintaining guerrilla operations against the British, including bombings in England. He classifies politicians in Britain and Northern Ireland as ``targets.''

According to one of Noraid's own fund-raising fliers of the early 1970s: ``Joe [Cahill] has been closely associated with the defense of Belfast since August last. He is one of the strongest supporters of the Provisional Army Council in the six counties [Northern Ireland] and one of the strongest opponents of any deviation from the fundamental Republican position. He believes that Ireland's freedom can only be achieved by force of arms. Accordingly, he believes that a strong IRA is vital to the Irish national interest.''

Such statements have fueled the suspicions of security officials on both sides of the Atlantic that some of the US dollars sent by Noraid may be siphoned into an IRA general military account in Dublin.

If that were true, Joe Cahill would almost certainly know about it.

``There is no such thing as a general account or anything like that,'' Cahill says. ``That's something we are very strict about. Money collected for Sinn Fein is Sinn Fein money, and money coming in for prisoners goes to prisoners.''

But asked if he might show An Cumman Cabhrach's books to an American reporter, Cahill declines. He says, ``It's something that's just not done.''

Such requests are honored -- indeed invited -- by other relief organizations, why not with An Cumman Cabhrach?

``You don't bother with that sort of thing here in Ireland. There is a tremendous amount of trust in the whole thing,'' Cahill says.

``Our contention,'' says a Northern Ireland security official, ``is that a large percentage of [US] funding would be used to fund the Provisional IRA's activities. It goes into the system in Dublin and a certain amount would make its way to Belfast.''

He adds, ``But we have no way of checking.''

A security source in Dublin repeats the same lament. Bank secrecy laws, he says, prevent Irish authorities from accurately monitoring the finances of such groups as Sinn Fein and An Cumman Cabhrach.

Cahill's name has been associated with New York-based Noraid almost from the beginning of the organization.

According to US federal court documents, Cahill was the primary recipient of Noraid funds at least as far back as 1972. One document in federal files, a letter dated March 8, 1972, states in part: ``The [Irish Northern Aid] Committee was set up by the Trustees in Ireland about two years ago, and it has been increasingly successful in supplying funds because the United States representatives were well and favorably known. . . .''

It adds: ``Our funds are channeled through Joe Cahill of Belfast to be used for the advancement of the campaign in Ireland. Naturally, a great deal of it has to go to the relief of those who were burned out or driven out of their homes; to the families of men in jail, in the internment camps or `on the run'; to help sick or wounded men and women to regain their health.''

The term `on the run' means that the individual is a fugitive and is either wanted on charges or has escaped from prison.

In fact, at the time the March 1972 letter was written Cahill himself was ``on the run.''

Cahill's fugitive status remained unchanged for almost a year, until March 1973, when he was arrested off the Irish coast aboard the Claudia. He was soon serving a three-year sentence in prison for his involvement in the gunrunning scheme. Although he was arrested and deported from the US in 1971, Cahill has made several clandestine fund-raising trips to the US -- most recently from March through May 1984, when he was caught and again deported. He was traveling with a false Irish passport under the name ``James Dowling.''

Cahill says that on his American fund-raising missions he is shuttled from one house to another, where his hosts arrange for him to talk to small groups. ``And when I finish talking to them and answering their questions, they are free to [make donations or not].

``I'm not going to give you figures or facts, because if I do we'll get the tax people after us. But on three occasions I've gone out there [to the US] on fund-raising missions for the Republican movement,'' Cahill says. ``The first time I went out I thought I was very successful; then the second time there was a big increase, probably a quarter higher. Then the third time I went out -- this year, actually -- I got three times the amount of money I got the first time that I went out.''

The funds raised on such secret fund-raising missions are not reported to the US government, as is required by law, and are not reported to Irish authorities. Thus, it is impossible to verify independently the truth of Cahill's statements or to estimate even crudely how much he was able to raise. It is also impossible to say with certainty whether the money was or was not used to purchase weapons and explosives in the US.

Cahill says it was during one such clandestine fund-raising mission in July 1981 that his real Irish passport was discovered during a Federal Bureau of Investigation raid at the Queens, N.Y., home of George Harrison.

Mr. Harrison was subsequently charged with Noraid founder and director Michael Flannery and three other Irish-Americans of conspiring to smuggle weapons -- including a 20-millimeter cannon, a flame thrower, 47 machine guns, and 11 automatic rifles -- to the Provisional IRA. All five were acquitted in a 1982 trial in Brooklyn federal court. Mr. Flannery testified during the trial that he had given Harrison $17,000 in cash to purchase weapons. According to court records, Harrison had been running guns to the IRA from New York for 25 years.

What was Cahill's passport doing in Harrison's home? ``It was just a coincidence,'' Cahill says. ``My passport just happened to be there. I was in no way involved in that particular venture.''

Law-enforcement officials at the time theorized that Cahill may have been in the US to put the finishing touches on the Harrison arms deal.

Cahill says his most recent arrest -- May 17, 1984, in Queens, N.Y. -- was made with a federal warrant issued in 1981. But he says the arresting agents didn't ask him about the Harrison arms deal. ``They never even mentioned that to me,'' he says.

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