It should have been Ireland's trial of the century: The elderly leader of a communist breakaway group from the IRA, whose former party comrades are now in government, sat accused by the US State Department of distributing “superdollars” – perfect forgeries of US dollars – printed by the North Korean government to underwrite the dictatorship's failing economy, and, in some of the more thriller-like reports, to undermine the US economy at the same time.
And yet, other than the initial allegations, the long-running extradition battle barely registered in the press in Ireland or abroad. This morning, it drew to a close as Ireland's High Court ruled against extraditing former Irish political party leader Seán Garland to the United States to face charges of distributing counterfeit dollars allegedly printed by North Korea.
Speaking at a hearing this morning, Justice John Edwards said the court would not grant the application and will furnish the reasons for doing so on Jan. 13. The decision had originally been due in October, after the hearing adjourned in July.
Mr. Garland was indicted by the US for circulating North Korean forgeries of American $100 bills in the 1990s in cooperation with the Russian Communist Party and British criminal contacts. Garland denies the charges, and claims the American government wants to put him in Guantánamo Bay or, at the very least, a "Supermax" prison from which he will never see daylight again.
Garland was first arrested on the charges in Northern Ireland in 2005, but while awaiting extradition, he jumped bail and fled to the Republic of Ireland, where he lives. He was rearrested by Irish authorities in 2009.
The Rev. Chris Hudson, chair of the Stop the Extradition of Seán Garland campaign, today issued a statement supporting the judgment.
“This has been a horrendous six-year ordeal for Seán, his family, and friends,” said Mr. Hudson, “and I am delighted with the progress we have made today. I have always believed that the US extradition demand was a vindictive act by the former Bush administration designed to punish and isolate North Korea and anyone who had connections with that country.”
Speaking to The Christian Science Monitor in July, Mick Finngean, the current president of the Workers' Party, said the allegations against Garland were absurd and politically motivated, and the US justice system was too slanted. “There’s no way Seán Garland, given his opposition to [US foreign policy] and political beliefs, would get a fair trial,” he said. “The most right-wing fanatics have already presumed him guilty.”
In his bid against extradition, the aging and ailing Mr. Garland gathered significant support across Ireland: 74 current and former lawmakers and many other prominent figures, from trade union leaders to entertainers, had stated their opposition to his being handed over to the US authorities.
The charges are rooted in the history of the Workers' Party, which in decades past, like many Soviet-aligned groups, maintained fraternal links with ruling parties in the Eastern bloc. In this case, the Workers' Party made contacts not only with the Soviet Union, but also with the North Korean regime.
A book documenting the party's rise and fall says the links went deeper than holidays paid for by Kim Il-sung, though. "The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers' Party" by Brian Hanley and Scott Millar claims more than a dozen members of its secretive armed wing, the Official IRA, receiving military training while in Korea in the late 1980s.
Mr. Finnegan disputed the idea of shady connections to the Kim regime. “The connection to North Korea has always been of a humanitarian nature,” he says. “And to promote trade and peace – and we also saw it as a country that was partitioned, like Ireland,” he said.
But many people wonder why the US is putting such effort into going after the obscure figure of Seán Garland, particularly now that his party has shrunk to a shadow of its former self, the Irish conflict has come to an end, and the cold war is a distant memory.
The answer may lie in the Workers’ Party’s history as an offshoot of the IRA with Communist ties, says Mr. Millar. The Workers' Party was once the political wing of the Official IRA (OIRA), which "was fairly close to the Eastern bloc intelligence agencies," says Millar.
Millar’s co-author, historian Mr. Hanley, says the case is linked to ongoing US tensions and politicking over Korea. “The cold war is over but the US is not finished with North Korea,” he says.
A major source of confusion is the alphabet soup of groups in Ireland styling themselves the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Garland’s group is not connected to the mainstream Provisional IRA – now usually just referred to as the IRA – from which the modern political party Sinn Fein evolved. In fact, both the PIRA and OIRA originated in a split in Irish republicanism in 1969.
The OIRA declared a ceasefire in 1972 to focus on its political arm, Official Sinn Féin, later renamed the Workers’ Party. The Workers' Party saw electoral success in the Republic of Ireland, but by 1992, the party fractured over the end of the cold war and allegations that the OIRA was still active. Some reform-minded members quit to form a new party, Democratic Left, which eventually merged with Labor, leaving the hardline communist rump as a much reduced force that barely registered at the polls.
Ireland's deputy prime minister, Eamon Gilmore, is a former Democratic Left and Workers' Party member, as are several of his Labor party colleagues.