Monthly Archives: February 2011

Muammar and Me

بلدي مغامرة مثيرة في الشعبية الاشتراكية العظمى الجماهيرية العربية الليبية

(My Excellent Adventure in the Great Socialist Peoples’  Libyan Arab Jamahiriya)

The advert was tiny and it was tucked down by the Bunion cartoon, at the bottom of one of the back pages of the Belfast Telegraph, the ones usually filled with classified ads. ‘English Teachers required for University of Tripoli, Libyan Arab Republic’. it read. ‘Graduates with minimum two years experience at secondary level. Annual salary 5,000 Libyan dinars.’ A quick call to the foreign exchange department of the Ulster Bank: “What’s a Libyan dinar worth”, I asked. “Three pounds” came back the answer. Three pounds! You mean this job pays fifteen thousand pounds a year! So miracles can happen.

It was the summer of 1973 and life was miserable. Two years before I had graduated from Queen’s University in Belfast with a degree in Economics and Politics and little idea of what I was going to do with my life. Out of financial desperation I had drifted into teaching. It wasn’t something I wanted to do and I quickly discovered that I hated it. Since then my personal motto has always been: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”. (Yes, I know that’s horribly unfair to teachers and as I’m married to one – a very good one, incidentally – I’m not allowed to forget how inaccurate and bigoted that statement is. Sorry, but it’s how I feel.) Anyway having become a teacher by default, I was determined to avoid teaching kids, something I knew I’d really, really hate, so I aimed at the tech college level where I thought the students, being older, would be more motivated, more fun to be with. They weren’t.

My first job was at Newtownards Tech College, teaching general studies to apprentice electricians, carpenters and bricklayers although with a surname like mine I’ll never know how I got it. This was Newtownards after all, east of Belfast and as Orange a town as could be found anywhere in the North. The nearest Catholic population of any size was miles away in Portaferry, perched at the end of the Ards peninsula as if they had been pushed there, out of sight, out of mind. If they had been edged any further away from Newtownards they’d have fallen into the sea. I don’t know why I was hired but my suspicion always was that the English accent confused the heck out of the selection panel.

My boss rejoiced in the name, Cecil Maquigg, an elder in his local Presbyterian kirk and a part-time RUC Reservist. The IRA was firing the first shots of its war when I started teaching there and Cecil was out every night, proudly walking the streets of Newtownards to protect it from the republican visigoths. An upright man, who rarely smiled, Cecil put the ‘d’ into dour and the ‘a’ into anally retentive. I am not sure he knew what to make of his newest recruit but he was polite if distant and left me to my own devices most of the time.

The students were a different matter though. It was in their DNA, an ability to sniff out a fenian (or an imagined one, as in my case) from 200 yards. No problem with the accent with these kids; if a guy has got a fenian name then he is one, end of story. If I say that on the Monday morning after Bloody Sunday, I walked into the first class of the day to discover ‘Thirteen – nil!’ chalked in large letters on the board, you’ll get a taste of what it was like to teach there. My next job, at Larne tech, was marginally worse. Bernadette McAliskey once coined the wonderful phrase, ‘Keeping his head lower than a Larne Taig’ to describe a friend who was trying avoid unwelcome attention. After a year in Larne, I knew exactly what she meant.

The two experiences were not entirely awful. I met some nice people, all Protestants, and gained a valuable insight into that community, one that would serve me well when I began life as a journalist. What really made life so wretched was poverty. When I finished at Queen’s I owed £2,000 in bank loans, an enormous sum in those days. This was 1973 don’t forget and to put that into context a teacher at my level earned an annual salary of about £1,100 a year. So I owed nearly two years pay and it looked as if it would take years to clear the debt, scrimping and scraping in the meantime to keep body and soul attached.

The little advert down by the Bunion advert was therefore a potential life-saver. I could pay off all my debts in a few months and by the end of a year I’d have a little nest egg. If I could get two years out of it, life would be changed beyond recognition. So I wrote off for an application, filled it in and a few days later was summoned to a semi-detached house off the Cregagh Road in east Belfast for an interview with a curious Englishman called Dennis Philcox.

I use the word interview but that’s a generous word to describe what happened. Dennis, a voluble, balding man in his early middle age who sprayed more than spoke sentences, was married to a little mouse of a woman from Iceland called Helga who rarely, if ever, opened her mouth. It soon became clear that the only thing on Dennis’ mind was filling his quota of recruits and as long as you had the bare requirements there’d be a job for you. (I later learned that he and a partner already on site in Tripoli were on a finders’ fee for the University, so the more they hired, the more they got paid). He told me that he’d spent his life in ‘teffel’, as he called it, hoped I’d enjoy it too and wondered how quickly I could quit my job and get over to Tripoli. ‘Teffel?’ I asked, a little stunned at the speed of events and not exactly sure what I was getting into. ‘Yes, Teaching English as a Foreign Language, T-E-F-L’, he explained. “Well, I’d have to give a month’s notice. That’s in my contract”. “Great”, he replied, “welcome aboard”. That was it. I was on my way to Libya.

This was my entree to the world of TEFL, and to the community of people who spent their lives traveling from one Arab country to another teaching English to schoolchildren, college kids, oil executives, army officers, the wives of rich businessmen and so on. They’d typically spend two or three years in Saudi before moving to Kuwait or Dubai or Bahrain and so on. Mostly they were single, addicted to the itinerant life and entranced by the Arab world. Oil-rich Libya had been on the circuit for a couple of decades but since the revolution led by a young Colonel called Muammar Gaddafi old certitudes had been shattered.

It wasn’t until I arrived in Tripoli that I began asking the obvious questions. What on earth was the University of Tripoli doing hiring teachers via display ads down by the Bunion cartoon in the Belfast Telegraph? And how come I had got a job, and a lavishly well-paid one to boot, for which I was not even remotely qualified; after all I hadn’t even heard of TEFL until I met Dennis Philcox much less know how to do it.

The answers to those question lay in the complex history and politics of Libya and to the fact that the young Colonel Gaddafi had upended all those comfortable certainties which in the past had ensured that Belfast would be the last place on earth where Libya would seek its English teachers. These events had already interacted with the lives of the two dozen or so teachers hired  by Dennis Philcox and they would interact in a wider and more far-reaching way with the politics and history of Ireland for the next several decades.

Ireland and Libya had one thing in common and that was an unhappy history as someone else’s colony and while Libya’s experience was every bit as miserable as Ireland’s, Libya could justifiably claim that hers was much, much longer. Libya was first occupied by the Roman Empire in 167 BC and ever since then one foreign power or another had taken the place over to enrich and empower themselves. After the Romans came the Moslems, then the Turks followed by the Italians who at first ruled via a local puppet monarchy, the Idris family, until Mussolini appeared on the scene, dispensed with the Idris clan and after a guerrilla war against Libyan partisans which cost many tens of thousands of Arab lives (a story captured in the movie, Lion of the Desert starring Anthony Quinn), absorbed Libya fully into Italy.

What attracted these early foreign interlopers to Libya was its coastal strip. The soil is rich and the Mediterranean climate balmy for ten months of the year. The combination made the Libyan coastal strip Rome’s bread basket and so enriched

The ampitheatre at Leptis Magna, a Roman city west of Tripoli

Roman merchants that they were able to build two large cities on either side of what is now Tripoli (the ruins are spectacular by the way). The Turks came for the same reason, as well as the strategic advantage afforded by Libya’s geography, and so did the Italians, who shipped over thousands of farmers who, in shades of Ireland’s Plantation, stole land away from the locals to turn into vast olive farms.

The Italians were of course ejected after the Second World War and the victorious powers, America, Britain and France divided the country up into spheres of influence and installed the Idris family back onto the throne. The American sphere was in the west, around Tripoli where a huge airbase, Wheelus, was built. The French took the south, mostly scrabble hard desert but strategically important since it abutted on the French colonies of Chad and Niger, while the British took the east, around Benghazi and the scene of Montgomery’s victory at Tobruk over Rommel, conveniently close to Egypt and the Suez canal, which Britain was determined to hold.

The British used the adjoining desert as a military training ground. Veterans of the conflict in Northern Ireland will remember that after Operation Motorman in 1972 the British imported a fleet of Saladin and Saracen armoured cars to ferry their troops around the streets of Belfast and Derry. The vehicles stood out because instead of a dull shade of khaki like other British vehicles, these had been painted a bright sand yellow and the reason for that was that they had come directly from these training grounds around Benghazi.

By this time oil had been discovered in Libya. Not just any old oil but stuff that was so pure that it was said that it could be poured straight from the ground into a motor car’s engine. That meant it needed very little refining and was more than ordinarily profitable for oil companies. So Libya’s abundantly fertile coastal strip was replaced by oil as the motive for foreign interference and for the best part of a quarter century the post-war settlement prospered: the Idris family ran the place and cut deals with oil companies that enriched them both while the British, Americans and French supplied the Libyan elite with its needs and exercised huge cultural and political influence over the country. The Libyan masses though were left mostly untouched by this enormous natural bounty, as they had since the days of the Roman Empire. (Question: What did the Romans ever do for the Libyans? Answer: Nothing) By 1958, the United Nations calculated that Libya was the third poorest country in the world.

And then along came Gamal Abdel Nasser. Along with officer colleagues in the Egyptian army, Nasser overthrew the pro-British monarch King Farouk in 1952 and in 1956, on a platform of pan-Arab solidarity, social and economic reform and opposition to foreign interference in the region, he was elected President of Egypt. That year Nasser electrified the Arab world when he nationalised the Suez Canal, edging its two largest shareholders, Britain and France into a conspiracy with Israel to invade Egypt and recapture the Canal. The adventure failed, thanks largely to American disapproval (a stand that nowadays seems like it could have happened on another planet) while the debacle of Suez marked the final and undeniable sunset of the British empire. The Suez Canal had long symbolised Western interference in, and domination of the Arab world and Nasser’s move made him an Arab hero and a role model for a young Libyan army officer called Muammar Gaddafi.

Gaddafi’s revolution was modeled entirely on Nasser’s and in many ways was a facsimile. Gaddafi overthrew a pro-Western puppet monarch, just as Nasser had, and he and his fellow revolutionaries shared Nasser’s enthusiasm for radical

A young Muammar Gaddafi with his hero, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt

social and economic reform. They were also pan-Arabists and Gaddafi’s Libya applied almost immediately for membership of Nasser’s United Arab Republic, the ill-fated union of Egypt, Syria and Iraq. They were also determined to get pay back from the European powers who had colonised or exploited Libya for so long – and that’s where Dennis Philcox and his ad in the Belfast Telegraph enters the story.

Gaddafi and his co-revolutionaries made expulsion of Western oil companies and their governments a major and early priority. By 1973, BP and other foreign companies had been nationalised and oil production was firmly in the hands of the Libyans. The Americans had been forced to close the airbase at Wheelus (in 1974 you could still climb into the cockpits of abandoned American jets lying scattered around the base), the French had been chased out of the south and the British had emptied their military bases and training grounds around Benghazi.

Through the British Council, the British had also supplied the bulk of Libya’s English teachers but in 1972 Gaddafi cancelled their contract. The British Council was an arm of the Foreign Office, and regarded by the Libyans in the same light as the British Army, but it had long been viewed in the Arab world, and elsewhere, as a convenient cover for spies and that was another reason for kicking them out. (The notion that the British used teachers as spies was not, as I learned, that far-fetched. One non-British Council teacher in the agricultural department at the university one night confessed to me in his cups that MI6 had asked to see him during his vacation breaks so that he could be debriefed on a huge Gaddafi-inspired project to irrigate and farm part of the eastern desert. He agreed to help them.)

So that’s why Dennis Philcox was running around recruiting teachers for Libya

Gaddafi and fellow revolutionaries determined to rid Libya of Western influence

although it didn’t quite explain why he had come to Belfast of all places to do so. Strictly speaking Belfast should have been last on his list. The Belfast accent is about as far away from RP, as the TEFL pros call it, as you could get. RP stands for Received Pronunciation, or, if you prefer, a BBC accent and the idea that young Arabs were being taught English by people with such coarse, incomprehensible enunciation horrified and outraged those few British Council leftovers still working out the remnants of their contracts when we arrived in Tripoli.

No, the reason Dennis had set up a base in Belfast had more to do with Nasser, the Suez Canal and Gaddafi’s desire to tweak the noses of the old imperial powers, especially the Brits, than it had with any teaching skills or fluency in English. Dennis had come to Belfast, unwittingly or otherwise, I do not know, to provide camouflage for the Libyans so that they could install an agent of the Provisional IRA in Tripoli, an ambassador if you prefer because that is how he was treated, to liaise with them over weapons and financial assistance for the IRA’s war in the North. That agent wasn’t in our particular group but he was one of dozens of Irish teachers recruited, North and South, at that time, so many that one would not stand out and therefore would less likely come to the attention of MI6 or other agencies that kept a wary eye on Gaddafi’s dealings.

I have written extensively elsewhere about that liaison between the IRA and Gaddafi, how the agent, a small, elf-like man from a town in Co. Monaghan who was known to the Libyans as ‘Mister Eddie’, would teach English to the children of Libyan Army officers by day but at night retire to his villa in Tripoli’s embassy district where he would dine off exquisitely embossed plates confiscated from King Idris’ palace and discuss the war in Ireland with his contact from Libyan intelligence.

IRA man fires a rifle supplied by Gaddafi

I have also written about the last dramatic chapter in that liaison which culminated in the capture of the gun-running ship, the Eksund in 1987 and how that event transformed the IRA’s fortunes, closing off for good any lingering hopes of military victory, but planting the suspicion of high-level betrayal and the seeds of a bitter split in the IRA while accelerating the infant peace process. This is not the place to rehearse all that history but to make a broader point about the Gaddafi-IRA relationship.

The striking aspect of their association is the extent to which the stories of the Provos and Muammar Gaddafi have run on parallel tracks, more or less, throughout the years of their existence, beginning with their genesis. They started out in life at more or less at the same time: Gaddafi’s revolution happened on September 1st, 1969 while the Provos effectively came into being a fortnight earlier, on August 15th, 1969 when the inability of the disarmed/unarmed IRA to defend Catholic homes from Loyalist petrol bombs inspired a revolt and split in the ranks. Gaddafi threw off the yoke of a monarch he regarded as a puppet of the West while the Provos rejected a leadership seen as being just as out of touch with the needs of their people.

They both then shared years of commitment to revolution and a conviction that only violence and armed struggle could achieve their aims, Gaddafi through funding and arming anti-imperialist insurrections throughout Europe and Africa and the Provos by bombing and shooting, by killing and destroying.

Both then shared an existence marked by failure, isolation and near defeat followed by re-assessment and a rejection of their old ways. Gaddafi’s volte-face came about thanks to international sanctions imposed in the wake of the Lockerbie bombing and other incidents and culminated in two highly symbolic acts, both designed to signal a radical change in direction. Only one is really known about. That was Gaddafi’s surrender in 2004 to George W Bush’s demand that he dismantle his ‘weapons of mass destruction’, as overt a genuflection towards Washington as it was possible to make.

The other act, which happened years before, is less well known. When the IRA

Semtex explosive - Gaddafi's gift to the IRA

made the arrangements for the arms shipments of the 1980’s, Joe Cahill, who had been chief of staff when the relationship with Gaddafi began, accepted a Libyan insistence that the real identities of the IRA personnel involved in the operation, from leaders like ‘Slab’ Murphy and Micky McKevitt through to the foot soldiers who had been sent to Libya to train in the weaponry, be recorded by the Libyans. Each man was obliged to fill out a form detailing exactly who they were which was then handed over to Libyan intelligence. When Gaddafi began to repair relations with Britain in the early to mid 1990’s he handed over those details to MI6 as a sign of his bona fides along with the manifest of weapons shipped from his armories, a concession that facilitated the demand during the peace process that the IRA decommission its weapons. Muammar did the dirt on his old mates, in other words, to save his skin.

The Provos faced defeat and isolation at a much earlier stage than Gaddafi and while it was the 1981 hunger strikes and the subsequent foray into electoral politics that stimulated, at least amongst the leadership around Gerry Adams, a re-assessment and eventual renunciation of armed struggle and their old ways, both they and Gaddafi ended up in the same place, as friends and allies of those they had hitherto spent their lives and expending their energies trying to destroy.

Consider some of the links Gaddafi is said to have forged in recent years. According to the Washington-based Politico website, the grand-daddy of the neocon hawks, Richard Perle, aka ‘the Dark Prince’ and one of those who agitated behind the scenes for the invasion of Iraq, became a Gaddafi adviser and frequent visitor to his desert tent beginning in 2006. Perle was working on behalf of the Boston-based consultancy firm, Monitor and debriefed VP Dick Cheney on his chats with the Libyan leader. Also recruited by Monitor as Gaddafi confidantes were the ‘end of history’ neocon icon, Francis Fukuyama and arch neocon, Bernard Lewis, said by some to be the single most persuasive influence on George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. By their friends shall ye know them.

Gaddafi - the former revolutionary, ravaged by forty years of power and corruption, counted US neocons amongst his confidantes at the end of his reign.

Last June, Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi revealed the identity of another intriguing recruit to his father’s stable of advisers, telling The Daily Mail that Tony Blair had become ‘a personal family friend’ of the Libyan leader and that the two men were now on first name terms. Saif said that Blair, who is also an advisor to the Wall Street bankers J P Morgan and reportedly within sight of acquiring a personal fortune of some £20 million, had become a consultant to Libya’s sovereign wealth fund which has assets of around $65 billion and had visited the country ‘many, many times’ since quitting as prime minister. Their relationship prospered, he said, when Blair negotiated the release of the Lockerbie bomber in return for a lucrative oil contract awarded to BP.

Tony and Muammar

Blair denied the Mail story but Saif Gaddafi was adamant: ‘Tony Blair has an excellent relationship with my father”, he insisted. “For us, he is a personal family friend. I first met him around four years ago at Number 10. Since then I’ve met him several times in Libya where he stays with my father…….He’s an adviser to the LIA, the Libyan Investment Authority. He has some consultancy role.’

The facts are much less clear cut when it comes to the relationship between Gerry Adams and Tony Blair but given revelations from Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell that he and his prime minister helped draft IRA statements at key moments during the decade-long peace process, and that Blair’s strategy of boosting Sinn Fein with concessions during negotiations, no matter the collateral damage done to the Unionist leader David Trimble or Sinn Fein’s Nationalist rivals, John Hume’s

Tony and Gerry

SDLP, helped make it the dominant Nationalist party in the North, questions about the ties between them – was Blair an adviser or just a helper? – will be debated long after both men are dead. It could hardly be otherwise. You could say that Tony Blair destroyed the centre ground of NI politics in his quest to boost the Sinn Fein leader and you can’t get more buddy-buddy than that.

Whatever the truth there’s no doubt that in the case of Gerry Adams – and with Gaddafi until recently – their respective political turnarounds brought respectability, success and a new sense of security – as well as a new and surprising set of friends.

The fortunes and life stories of the Provos and Gaddafi may have travelled on parallel tracks for most of the past forty years but no longer, or so it seems. As I write this, Gaddafi faces extinction in Libya while, thanks to those pesky bankers, Adams is enjoying something of a revival in fortunes with a good result in the recent Irish general election. Will their paths now diverge? Who knows, but bear in mind what Chou En-Lai once said about the lessons learned from the French revolution – it’s far too early to tell.

As for me I had a ball in Libya. I spent two years there teaching in the language laboratory (the accent again doing me a favour) and I met some great Arab students, none more memorable than Juhanah, a Palestinian girl with perfect English whose family had twice been driven from their homes by Israelis, in 1948 from their farm near what became Tel Aviv and in 1967 from their home in West Jerusalem. Her father, a Cambridge educated philologist and as sophisticated a man as you could meet on a long day’s walk, had been obliged to take a low ranking job in a Libyan ministry to keep his family fed and clothed, taking orders from bullying oafs.

I lived in a villa on a farm cum fruit orchard that had once been owned by Italian colons but was now back in Libyan hands that was within driving distance of

Happy Days!

empty, silvery Mediterranean beaches where many an afternoon was spent snorkeling, swimming and sunning. These were the early years of Gaddafi’s revolution. No wall-sized portraits of the dear leader stared down at you from street corners and the oil money went where it should, to the building of new apartment blocks, schools and hospitals and the wallets of ordinary Libyans.

Life was good. Booze flowed like oil from the desert wells (the Libyans turned a blind eye as the European and American expats brewed home-made beer or distilled ‘Flash’ with skills honed in the Glens of Antrim or the woods of Kentucky) while government subsidies on food meant that at night, as the cicadas sang their entrancing song, we barbecued whole sirloins or fillets of beef bought at the same price as stewing meat and feasted like kings. We were young, we were single and, for the first time in our lives, we had money in our pockets. I paid off all my debt, came home with enough money to buy a house and the energy and drive to make teaching a thing of the past.

I will always have a great affection for Libya but I hope Muammar goes to where all the hypocrites and tyrants should go. If he does, I’m sure he won’t want for company. And if he waits long enough he just might be joined by some old friends.

Micheál Martin, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness

Not too long ago anyone who publicly doubted the honesty and integrity of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was, in some quarters south of the Irish border, risking the sort of response usually reserved for child molesters and war criminals. Few could be more withering and condemnatory, especially behind one’s back, than Fianna Fail, although to be fair the Department of Foreign Affairs always gave them a run for their money.

I am of course speaking of the days of the peace process, especially pre-Northern Bank robbery, when to suggest that Gerry Adams was anything less than a fountainhead of truth and candour was on a par with concocting a breakfast recipe that featured fattened Protestant babies in the main course.

Now it may have been the case that people like the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and his Northern point man Martin Mansergh truly believed that Adams was being sincere and straight in his peace process dealings but I seriously, seriously doubt it. Something as difficult as getting the IRA to end its war on the terms that were finally accepted was not the sort of project that could be steered to success without a considerable amount of falsification and dissembling. And Bertie and Martin would have known that very well.

So when Gerry Adams or his nom de guerre, P O’Neill, would routinely assure the troops that IRA decommissioning was just not on the cards, my hunch is that Bertie and Martin would look at each other and wink. They would, or should have known via Garda Special Branch that this was nonsense and that plans to do just this were already being laid just as they knew that Adams was aware that decommissioning was the price he’d have to pay to get Unionists to share power with him.

But they would also have been acutely conscious of another peace process reality: lying to and deceiving the Provo grassroots in this way was the only assured route to eventual success. It kept the IRA rank and file content and quiet, lulled into a false sense of security until it was too late for them to do anything about it. In the same way, Bertie and Martin would, I suspect, have grinned and borne it whenever Adams or P O’Neill denied that the IRA robbed this or that bank, knowing this would also keep the grassroots bamboozled, convinced that their leaders were trustworthy, had once again successfully hoodwinked the Irish government and that the IRA would never go away.

Bernadette McAliskey once compared the peace process to pushing a fly down the neck of a wine bottle. Eventually a point would be reached when there was no traction left and the fly would fall, helpless, to the bottom of the bottle where it would drown in the dregs. Mendacity was the stick that pushed the fly down the neck of the bottle.

In fact it would be no exaggeration to say that the ability of Gerry Adams to lie and fool so expertly was the peace process’ most valuable asset. Had Adams been straight and honest with his people about where the IRA was going to end up, he would have been found long before 2005 in a ditch somewhere in South Armagh, trussed up like a Christmas turkey with several bullet-shaped holes in his skull. Without his talent for dissimulation we would never have got to 2005 when the IRA, finally divested of its Semtex and AK-47’s, declared its war against Britain to be over.

The corollary of all this was that a special venom was reserved by the Irish state for anyone in the media who dared suggest that the Sinn Fein leadership had less than a monopoly on the truth. Everyone knows the fable of the Emperor’s new clothes, how a child shames the crowd into admitting the truth, that the Emperor parading in front of them supposedly clothed in finery is actually stark naked. There is a special Irish version of the story with a very different ending. When the child cries out ‘the Emperor is naked’, the crowd reacts by turning on the child and beating it to death.

It is, of course, the job of government to lie and deceive or to connive at others’ lies in the pursuit of implementing policy. And many will say that telling lies in the quest for peace in Northern Ireland was not only excusable but laudable. But journalists are not politicians, or at least they shouldn’t be. They – we – have a special duty to the truth, even if that causes discomfort or difficulty. Whenever I was assailed by government officials, or more often by fellow hacks, for writing stories deemed ‘unhelpful’ to the peace process my response was simple: if this process cannot survive one of my stories then it’s doomed no matter what I write or do not write. Joining in the deception, either by commission or omission, wouldn’t make a jot of difference except to devalue the trade of journalism, to render it a useless and unconvincing charade.

So, I have to say that when I heard that the new Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin had challenged Gerry Adams to tell the truth about his past membership of the IRA, to “come clean” about his “baggage from the past” as he put it, I have to confess that I laughed out loud and long. “There is a fundamental problem for Gerry when he continues to deny his membership of the IRA”, said the bold Micheál, “because every time he talks in this debate during the election about honesty . . . it jars very much with his own position about the past.” Indeed it does Micheál but you didn’t have that problem back in 1998, did you?

Micheál Martin was not only a minister in the Fianna Fail cabinet from 1997 onwards, during the key years of the peace process when there a special premium on Adams not telling the truth, but he is a former Minister of Foreign Affairs whose civil servants not only helped Adams hone to perfection his  dissembling skills but often led the charge, employing a special sense of viciousness, against anyone who questioned the Sinn Fein leader’s honesty.

Micheál Martin, more than most people, has known for a very long time that, in relation to Northern matters, Adams and the truth have often been strangers and the fact that he chose this time to let us all in on the secret is a sure indication that in the forthcoming election the Fianna Fail party is headed down the toilet. Truth suddenly acquires virtue, one could say, when political destruction stares you in the face. There was a sense of desperation about what he said, as well as artifice, and I suspect the Irish voter picked up on it.

There was however one line in Micheál Martin’s statement that especially drew my attention and it was this: “Martin McGuinness doesn’t have a problem admitting his membership in the past but I think there is a huge problem for Gerry Adams in a credibility sense.”

Actually not entirely true, Mr Martin. Not only not the full truth but also unfair to Mr Adams. It’s unfair to Gerry Adams because in the narrative of Provo dishonesty peddled by the likes of Micheál Martin, the Sinn Fein leader is depicted as the singular voice of skullduggery in Sinn Fein whereas in fact Martin McGuinness has lied ever bit as flagrantly about his IRA history as Gerry Adams and, I strongly suspect, would have lied as comprehensively but for a few inconvenient pieces of newspaper and television archive.

The Martin McGuinness that I came to know as a journalist covering the Northern Ireland beat was rarely far from the very top of the IRA pyramid. In the mid to late 1970’s he was the IRA’s first Northern Commander, appointed to the job when on Adams’ advice a separate Northern Command was created whose effect, if not purpose, was to take power away from Southern IRA leaders. He then became Chief of Staff and held that post until 1982 when others on the Army Council insisted that he had to give it up if he wanted to run as a Sinn Fein candidate in the elections to Jim Prior’s Assembly.

He always hankered to get the job back and for years afterwards a vicious feud simmered beneath the surface between him and Kevin McKenna who took over the post and held it until he was succeeded by ‘Slab’ Murphy. McGuinness re-entered the military picture in a serious way in the mid-1980’s when, in preparation for the arrival of Libyan weaponry and the launching of the IRA’s version of the ‘Tet offensive’, he was again made Northern Commander with the special job of distributing Col. Gaddafi’s guns to the units on the ground. The task that he performed was done in such a way that it brought him into conflict with Michael McKeviit, then the QMG. McKevitt came to suspect that for whatever reason, McGuinness gave more weapons to units that were most likely to lose them, usually through the efforts of informers.

When the peace process got under way he played two key roles. One as the IRA’s (or at least Gerry Adams’) secret contact man via people like Derry businessman Brendan Duddy with British intelligence and the Northern Ireland Office; the other as Chairman of the Army Council, traditionally the IRA’s chief diplomat and representative in discussions with outside individuals and bodies. When the media would describe McGuinness as the ‘Sinn Fein negotiator’ during peace process talks they got it wrong. He was actually there representing the Army Council, as their official ambassador.

So in all the years between the mid-1970’s and 2005, Martin McGuinness was there at the very top of the IRA or thereabouts, playing a crucial role in both its military and political side.

But what does Martin McGuinness himself say about what he was doing during this period?

Well the answer to this question can be found in the report of the Saville Tribunal into Bloody Sunday, to be specific in the transcript of witness cross-examinations, pages 140-141 of day 391’s business. McGuinness was being questioned by Christopher Clarke QC, counsel for the Tribunal about the “Green Book’, which contains the IRA’s manual, statement of aims and constitution and this is how it reads:

Q. It may well be, sir, you had already left the IRA by the time this document in the form that we have it, came into existence. When did you leave the IRA?

A. Here we go again, on another trawl through the Martin McGuinness fixation.

Q. No, it is not at all, sir, not at all. May I just explain to you, because you have been very concerned, understandably, to be treated in the same way as the soldiers, and it is precisely the same question, word for word, as was asked, I think, of some seven or eight soldiers.

A. Were they asked when they left the British Army?

Q. Yes, simply because it was thought to be relevant to the way in which other people had reacted to what had happened on Bloody Sunday. You do not have to answer my question or any of them, I ask them, and I will not ask them twice, it is for the Tribunal to say whether you should answer them or not: I ask again, when did you leave the IRA, if you did?

A. I left the IRA in the early part of the 1970s.

So during all those years when we thought that Martin McGuinness was Northern Commander (twice), Chief of Staff and then Chairman of the Army Council, he was really a civilian with no connection at all to the IRA. How could he be anything else since he told the Saville Tribunal under oath that he had left the organisation in the ‘early’ 1970’s?

I can almost hear the readers’ response: “Sure, that’s bullshit but at least he admits he was in the IRA, if only for a bit!” And that’s true and it’s more than Gerry Adams has ever acknowledged. But why lie about the three decades or so after the ‘early’ 1970’s and not about the two or three years before it? Is it because there’s more to hide in the later years or because he screwed up in those early years, admitting things about his association with the IRA that he regretted later and which the wilier Adams would never have? And if he had not said or done those things would he too, like Adams, now be swearing to the world that he had never, ever been in the IRA?

Martin McGuinness at an early IRA funeral in Derry

There’s this for instance, something that falls into the rush of blood to the head category, a statement he made from the dock in Green Street courthouse, Dublin in 1973 when he was convicted of IRA membership:

“We have fought against the killing of our people. I am a member of Oglaigh na Eireann (IRA) and very, very proud of it.”

That’s something Mr Adams would never have said.

Then there’s this video of an appearance at an IRA press conference in Derry in June 1972, perhaps an example of McGuinness succumbing to the lure of the klieg lights. He is flanked by IRA Chief of Staff, Sean Macstiofain, Belfast Commander Seamus Twomey and Army Council member Daithi O Connail, and the purpose of press conference was to put forward an IRA ceasefire proposal to the new NI Secretary, Willie Whitelaw. There’s an even more famous television interview, broadcast on ITV but sadly not available on YouTube, in which a youthful McGuinness admits being the Derry Commander of the IRA. Again the shrewder Gerry Adams would have steered well clear of such exposure.

After blatant admissions like these it would be impossible for Martin McGuinness to deny he had been in the IRA in the ‘early’ 1970’s. But after that, in the subsequent three decades, he never made a similar mistake or engaged in such embarrassing frankness ever again and, thankfully from his viewpoint, it was so much easier therefore to resort to the lie.

There’s another part of the story of Adams, McGuinness and the peace process that is vital to an understanding of this period. For sure, Gerry Adams dissembled the IRA into decommissioning its weapons and ending its war with the British but he didn’t do this alone. He couldn’t have achieved it without McGuinness’ help for while Gerry was the Provos’ political leader, he never had the trust of the IRA rank and file that Martin had. The reason was simple: Martin had a military track record and Gerry didn’t. Martin had done the business and Gerry hadn’t. So when Martin would give substance to Gerry’s assurances that all was well, as in this video, it gave the whole project a crucial credibility.

In the days before my book ‘A Secret History of the IRA’ was published in the autumn of 2001, Martin McGuinness toured newspaper and television offices in Dublin and London to talk about it to editors and senior journalists. His purpose was simple, to blacken my name and label me a dissident fellow-traveller. It was partly an effort to do the book down and partly an exercise in intimidation, carrying with it the implied threat that any journalist treating my book sympathetically or seriously risked the same treatment. He even went to see my editor in the Sunday Tribune, Matt Cooper. Matt asked him did he believe Gerry Adams when he denied ever being in the IRA? “Yes” replied McGuinness, not missing a beat. “He looked me straight in the eye when he said it”, recalled Cooper.

Martin and Gerry

The Death of a Newspaper

The announcement last week that Tony O’Reilly had sent the bailiffs into the Sunday Tribune was a bit like hearing of the death of an old ailing friend; you had been expecting it for a long time but even so, the shock is still intense, the sadness real.

The Sunday Tribune was so much part of my life in Irish journalism that it really does feel like a limb has been chopped off (not that you would notice the difference these days!).

The paper was born out of the old Hibernia weekly magazine that had been run for years out of a Dickensian suite of offices near Dublin’s Custom House by John Mulcahy and his wife Nuala in their uniquely paternal but often inspirational way. They gave me my first proper job in journalism – for which I will always be grateful – and since I was there at the death of Hibernia, I can claim, I think, to have played a small part in the conception, if not birth, of the Tribune.

The Mulcahy’s had the good luck to come into ownership of Hibernia at the start of the Northern Troubles and they made the magazine’s name with a consistent record of investigative journalism on that side of the Border, burrowing into places where the mainstream press did not have the nous nor, as government-imposed and media self-censorship began to bite, the courage to delve. To its eternal credit Hibernia earned the wrath of Conor Cruise O’Brien in the flush of his Section 31 days; he took a hissy fit one day and condemned it as a cross between the good wine guide and Republican News. Mulcahy thought it a wonderful compliment.

Sadly it was the North that also brought Hibernia to its knees. An article by the late, great Jack Holland about the involvement of the Royal Ulster Constabulary alongside Loyalist paramilitaries in the intimidation and forced movement of hundreds of Catholic families from the Rathcoole area of north Belfast in 1972 spelled disaster for the magazine. Jack had named a couple of senior RUC officers as being in charge of the local police, and therefore responsible for what happened during those terrible days but unfortunately he got his information from a Constabulary gazette that was out of date. The cops sued, it was an open and shut case and that was the end of Hibernia.

(In a last desperate effort to get some dirt on the policemen, Mulcahy gave me two weeks off in the early part of 1980 to dig into the story for any evidence that they had been somehow involved. They weren’t, but my burrowing took me to the Twinbrook housing estate on the fringe of West Belfast where many of the Rathcoole refugees had been rehoused. One of the families I interviewed was called Sands and they told me that yes, the RUC had stood idly by watching, while they were forced by armed thugs to flee their home and their eldest boy, who was called Bobby, was so angry that afterwards he had joined the IRA and was now languishing in the H Blocks of Long Kesh. We’d soon hear a lot more about him.)

With Hibernia out of business, Mulcahy launched the Sunday Tribune later the same year with Conor Brady (originally editor of the Garda Review and later the Irish Times) as his editor. But then the Midas syndrome, the conviction that some businessmen develop that they can do no wrong or ever fail in commercial matters, intervened. The Tribune was doing well, its journalism was much admired and it was moving towards profitability when one of Mulcahy’s partners, Hugh McLaughlin insisted on launching a new daily paper, the Daily News which was a (deservedly) disastrous flop. When it failed the Sunday Tribune was brought crashing down alongside it.

In stepped Vincent Browne to buy the title and relaunch the paper. Sunday Tribune Mark II, the real Trib, was born.

If there is one man who made me the journalist I later became it was Vincent. By the time I first encountered him, in 1979, he was already a legend. He’d cut his reporting teeth for the Irish Press group and later the Irish Independent covering the North in the very early days of the Troubles. He was the very first to talent spot Gerry Adams, then working his way up through the ranks of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade, and he penetrated the strange world of Northern Loyalism, something very few other southern journalists were able or willing to do.

One story, an interview with a youngish Ian Paisley caused a sensation when the Protestant leader effectively (albeit only temporarily) abandoned his Unionist politics and conceded that if Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution were scrapped (they laid claim on the territory of Northern Ireland), he’d favour closer relations with the South. Changing the constitution in this way thereafter became a priority, even an obsession for the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin. They finally got their way in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement.

By 1968 he had already started one magazine, the monthly Nusight (which propelled that complex being, Kevin Myers into journalism) and then in 1977 he launched Magill magazine which had so many high points over the years  (the Arms Trial issues come to mind) that you couldn’t count them.

Two qualities marked Browne out as a truly exceptional editor and journalist: one was a real love for the skill of reportage, that is the ability to firstly identify where the story was and then to get at it and finally write it up in an attractive, readable yet penetrating fashion, and the second was his gift for spotting other journalistic talent. Some of Ireland’s most talented reporters and writers, from Colm Toibin (former Magill editor) to Paddy Agnew to Gene Kerrigan (Magill columnist) amongst many, many others, got their start with Vincent and I believe it is for this that he should be best remembered. He watered the garden of Irish journalism (often with more than the stuff that comes out of taps) and planted many of its seeds. Inasmuch as the garden has blossomed, it is in no small measure down to Vincent.

Vincent also gave me a start by commissioning a series of articles on the North in 1979. With those pieces in my portfolio I was able to persuade John Mulcahy to give me employment (landing a job with Hibernia was the equivalent then of waking up in Heaven) and the rest is history. I briefly rejoined Magill a couple of years later before moving to D’Olier Street and when the Irish Times and myself fell out in 1986, I was hired by Vincent as the Sunday Tribune’s Northern editor. I stayed there until 2001, outlasting him incidentally by nearly a decade. He could be extraordinarily kind and generous – he and his delightful wife Jean, once put me up for weeks in Dublin while I house-searched for my new family – and he always paid well if he was getting good work from you.

Vincent in his heyday

There was however another side to Vincent, as those who had dealings with him knew only too well. He could never make a friend without falling out with them, often in a tirade of angry insults and abuse. He had high standards to be sure and couldn’t abide it when others failed to meet them, as they often did. There’s nothing wrong with that but Vincent could be so unimaginably cruel to people who otherwise worshipped him that these confrontations often ended with the victim in tears, vowing eternal hatred for the man.

His editorial meetings on a Tuesday morning were such exercises in terror that I always found an excuse to skip them. That was the great advantage of working in Belfast, a hundred miles away; there was always a breaking story to cover or the plea that making the journey there and back would lose me a full working day.

I attended only a handful of them and they were truly awful affairs. The staff would filter into Vincent’s office with about as much enthusiasm as a condemned man facing the gallows. The bravest among them would take seats at the big editorial table while the rest hugged the wall as if praying that they would merge with the paintwork and go unnoticed. There was a good reason for that; Vincent would always descend upon one poor soul and rage about how pitiful their story that weekend had been. Even though the humiliation was heart-rending to witness, the rest of us would breathe a sigh of relief, quickly tempered by a horrifying thought: “Would it be my turn next week?”

Being stationed in Belfast meant that our paths rarely crossed and for that reason I probably stayed friends with Vincent longer than most. But inevitably the day of our falling out arrived. We quarreled about many things but at the root of our dispute was a fundamental difference about where the North, and specifically the IRA, was going.

Like most in the Southern media, Vincent had failed to spot the burgeoning peace process and by the early 1990’s he was openly advocating the re-introduction of internment to deal with the Provos. By contrast I was writing about the potentially huge ideological changes, and likely compromises to come, that were happening within the leadership of Sinn Fein and, therefore, the IRA. But as far as Vincent was concerned I might as well have been filing my copy from Mars, so out of touch with reality, so accommodating to the men of violence was my coverage.

We dueled furiously over ersatz issues and finally a fax arrived one summer afternoon. I was being transferred to work in the Dublin office. How quickly could I report for duty, he demanded? I replied ‘Whenever you wish’ and heard nothing more. He had obviously been hoping that I would object and refuse, and that would be a firing offence. In reality he wanted me nowhere near the Dublin office. And so it went on until deus ex machina-like, everything changed.

For that I have to thanks Vincent’s other failing, the fact that he was a lousy businessman. Like Hugh McLaughlin he was infected with the Midas virus and in the early 1990’s, as the Sunday paper was consolidating itself, he started the Dublin Tribune, a giveaway that was meant to form the beginnings of a new daily paper.

Now anyone who knows anything about the newspaper business can tell you that you produce freesheets with nothing more ambitious than two men and a dog; anything more and it becomes a sure money loser. But Vincent knew better and before too long there were more reporters working for the giveaway Dublin Tribune than were employed in the money-making parent publication. Admittedly the journalism was great and once again Vincent discovered some great writing talent – it was edited by the lovely Michael Hand and Rory Godson and, inter alia, included amongst its stars Ed O’Loughlin, listed for a Booker prize in 2009 for his novel ‘Not Untrue & Not Unkind’ - but it was a commercial disaster and a drain on the Sunday Tribune.

Finally the board moved against Vincent and, in 1994, he was sacked. The Trib then became part of the Independent stable, bought by Tony O’Reilly we were told, to stave off a broader challenge to his titles from Rupert Murdoch’s empire.The Sunday Tribune never made Tony O’Reilly a penny, as far as I know, and it was always a mystery why he kept it going, especially since the rationale for buying it had long since been undermined by the Sunday Times’ success in Ireland. The only surprise in the move to put the paper into receivership is that it took so long to happen.

I cannot say that I have a word of complaint about O’Reilly’s management of the Sunday Tribune. They stood bravely by me when Scotland Yard attempted to destroy my career and always allowed me a complete free hand in my coverage of the North, especially during the controversial years of the peace process when the Irish media were sharply divided into the (larger) ‘helpful to the process, i.e. ask no questions’ camp and the (much smaller) ‘unhelpful, i.e. ask too many awkward questions’  bunch, of which I am proud to say I was a founder member.

But the Sunday Tribune for me will always be Vincent Browne’s newspaper. I will miss it just as I miss our friendship.

Any takers?

Al Jazeera again

Well, the lack of access to Al Jazeera in the US is now a mainstream story. Must be because the New York Times has finally caught up with it! Sarcasm aside, one has to concede that it takes the Grey Lady to force the cable companies out in the open.