If I was in the leadership of Sinn Fein there is one question to which I would now be urgently trying to get an answer and it is this: who took the initiative that led to the arrest and charging of former senior IRA member Padraig Wilson who last week was arraigned on charges connected to the high profile IRA murder of East Belfast man Robert McCartney in January 2005?
There really are only two possible answers. It was either McCartney’s sisters and partner, who have campaigned tirelessly to obtain justice for their late brother, or it was the PSNI. If it was the former then the Adams-McGuinness leadership can rest a little easier. But if the PSNI was behind the arrest of Wilson, if it was their detectives who dreamed up the prosecution strategy and pushed it forward, then they have every reason to be very concerned for it signals a willingness and even a determination by the PSNI, notwithstanding the peace process, to pursue high level Provo apparatchiks for past offenses, a willingness even to pursue the top men themselves.
And with the legal fight to prevent the handover of the Boston College interviews still unresolved that is something that should cause the Sinn Fein leadership considerable pause for thought.
Sinn Fein’s pose on the Boston College tapes has been to ignore the dangers to their leaders, to Gerry Adams in particular, and to concentrate their ire against myself and Anthony McIntyre for compiling the archive. They have done this via proxies like Danny Morrison or Niall O’Dowd and that stance has confused and perplexed many in Irish-America. But if it turns out that it was the PSNI who pushed for the Padraig Wilson arrest then Irish-America’s concerns will have been justified, for it suggests the police may not be deterred by the rank or status of any individual if they decide to use the tapes in court.
That is an issue yet to be resolved but in the meantime there is no doubt that when the PSNI pursued Padraig Wilson they chose a man who was a key confidante of the Adams-McGuinness leadership, a fixer of serious problems ready to undertake the most delicate tasks on their behalf, and an IRA activist of the highest order.
Sentenced to 24 years for a car bombing offense in 1991, Wilson was IRA commander in the Maze prison during the critical years of the peace process and showed himself to be very supportive of a strategy that was causing much confusion and concern amongst the IRA’s rank and file, especially in regard to the possibility of the IRA decommissioning its weapons.
Throughout the years between the 1994 IRA ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement four years later, the IRA stance on this question was, at least in public, unequivocal and was best captured in a 1996 statement from P O’Neill which told the world: “There will be no decommissioning either through the front or the back doors”.
But it was Wilson in a June 1998 interview who helped open the back door, telling The Financial Times: “I think a ‘voluntary’ decommissioning would be a natural development of the peace process once we get a sense that the arrangements envisaged in the agreement are beginning to function”.
I turned up to a Sinn Fein press conference on the morning that interview appeared and Gerry Adams’ aides furiously denied that Wilson’s remarks represented party policy (although I do remember that Richard McAuley wore a cynical grin as he peddled this line) and some even denounced Wilson for straying too far from the orthodoxy. I didn’t believe them partly because I had caught them out lying so many times by that point and also because I knew that the IRA leadership was riven with disputes over the decommissioning issue and that the Adams-McGuinness party was being accused at Army Council and IRA Executive level of trying to facilitate it in underhand ways.
As it turned out my skepticism was a prudent for this is exactly how decommissioning did happen a few years later. So here was an example of Wilson facilitating Provo policy in a classic Adams way, making a policy statement that was deniable to the rank and file but re-assuring to the other parties in the peace process dance, not least the British government. Padraig Wilson was turning out to be a loyal and dependable servant.
His importance to the leadership was recognized by the British who twice gave him leave from the Maze prison to attend crucial IRA Conventions, concessions that were unprecedented in the history of British-IRA interactions. The government was presumably motivated by a comfortable degree of confidence that he would support the Adams-McGuinness line and could help swing Convention delegates in their direction.
On the first occasion, in May 1998, he was let out for eight hours to attend the Convention that approved the recently brokered Good Friday Agreement. Calling the decision to free him “exceptional”, the Northern Ireland Office said it had been taken “in an effort to promote the agreement and to encourage the peace process.”
When Wilson was released in December 1999 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the nature of his relationship with the IRA and Sinn Fein leadership and theirs with him was unmistakably clear: he loved them and they loved him back. Former Adjutant-General and soon to be Junior Minister in the Stormont power-sharing government, Gerry Kelly was at the gates of the Maze to greet his released colleague. Wilson’s first remarks to the waiting media were in glowing praise of his leaders:
“It has been a very important period for us and a very interesting period. Nothing that has happened would have been possible without the leadership and commitment of our comrades in Sinn Fein and the republican structures, and we are very thankful for that. The very fact that I am here today a considerable number of years before the British government and others wanted me to be out is down to the working efforts of our comrades in the republican movement.”
Kelly repaid the compliment with the IRA leadership’s good housekeeping seal of approval of their former prison commander:
“I’d like to welcome him personally as a long term friend and a comrade and also to say his leadership, (and he’s been leader of the republican prisoners for some considerable time in the jail now), has been well appreciated both inside the jail and outside it. He has been a good leader in good times and bad.”
Notwithstanding his work for the burgeoning peace process, Padraig Wilson was soon back at the heart of the IRA, that is if the Colombians, British and Americans are to be believed. Some two years before Padraig Wilson’s release from jail, the IRA had begun a ‘cash-for-know-how’ relationship with the FARC guerrilla movement in Colombia in which the IRA allegedly passed on their skills in the manufacture and delivery of home made bombs and mortars to FARC which in return paid the IRA handsomely with large amounts of cash. The money, it is claimed, came from FARC’s dealings in the cocaine trade.
The Daily Telegraph made Wilson’s involvement in all this public in a May 2002 report written by the redoubtable Toby Harnden, author of the classic study of the IRA in South Armagh, Bandit Country. Describing Wilson as a “senior IRA leader and key ally of Gerry Adams”, Harnden, quoting Colombian, British and American sources in his report, said Wilson had traveled to Colombia using a false passport in April 2001, less than two years after his release from the Maze.
The report continued:
“Colombian intelligence documents say that Wilson entered Bogota, the capital, on Air France flight 422 on April 5 last year and flew on by Satena Airlines to San Vicente del Caguan in Farc territory. There he was met by guerrilla leaders. He returned to Paris on April 16 by the same route.
“A copy of an Irish passport bearing the name James Edward Walker and a photograph of Wilson has been passed to The Telegraph by Colombian intelligence.
“Wilson was accompanied on the flights by Niall Connolly, Sinn Fein’s representative in Cuba. Connolly, Monaghan and Martin McCauley were arrested on Aug 11 last year as they tried to leave Bogota for Paris.
“They are alleged to be leading IRA members and are in jail awaiting trial on charges of training Farc terrorists.
“The presence of such a high-ranking IRA man as Wilson in Colombia is powerful evidence that training activities were authorised by the terrorist group’s top leadership.
“A surveillance photograph of Wilson taken at San Vicente del Caguan airport was shown by the Colombian authorities at a House international relations committee hearing in Washington last month. Wilson, a former Sinn Fein worker, is a strong supporter and friend of Mr Adams, the president of Sinn Fein.”
For whatever reason Padraig Wilson escaped arrest in Colombia and returned back to Belfast where he continued to undertake delicate missions for the Sinn Fein and IRA leaderships, monitoring in particular possible media stories that could damage the likes of Gerry Adams. His official role in Sinn Fein was director of international affairs, a job once undertaken by Ted Howell who was perhaps the most important backroom Provo figure of this current leadership.
If the PSNI are to be believed, Padraig Wilson’s delicate diplomacy included intervening on the IRA’s behalf in a notorious rape case. That involved allegations from a close relative of the late Joe Cahill that she had been repeatedly assaulted by a senior IRA figure in West Belfast for many years while being forced to take part in an IRA “investigation” that was primarily concerned with discrediting her allegations. In mid October this year a judge in Belfast lifted reporting restrictions on the identities of people charged in connection with the affair. Amongst those charged with IRA membership and assisting in the management of an IRA meeting was Padraig Wilson.
The charges leveled against him last week in relation to the Robert McCartney killing are remarkably and perhaps significantly similar: IRA membership and addressing a meeting “to encourage support for the IRA”. A PSNI detective told the court that Robert McCartney’s five sisters and his partner had made witness statements accusing him of involvement in an IRA investigation following McCartney’s death.
The fatal stabbing of Robert McCartney, which followed a row in a city centre pub between him and several leading IRA members from the Markets and Short Strand areas, caused a major public relations crisis for Sinn Fein, especially in the United States and greatly intensified the pressure on the IRA to fully and finally decommission its weaponry.
What is not yet known is one crucial detail. Did the McCartney sisters go to the PSNI with the idea of implicating Wilson or did the PSNI come to them with the suggestion? If it was the former then the Wilson arrest can be safely regarded by the Sinn Fein leadership as a one-off event; if the latter then it means there could be more and worse to come.
Padraig Wilson’s colleague Gerry Kelly appears at least to recognise the potential seriousness of the situation, telling the Associated Press: “This is a very serious situation and these charges need to be dropped and Padraic Wilson needs to be released immediately.” Any detectives involved in building a case against Wilson, he added, “need to be removed from policing before they inflict further damage on the peace process.”
There is one unexplained and intriguing aspect to the Padraig Wilson arrest which requires further investigation, assuming the media in Northern Ireland are still alive to the demands of normal journalism. When Marian Price was arrested and charged the British government quickly revoked her license saying that she will have to serve out the remainder of the prison term for the 1973 London bombing. Price had been granted an early release from her life sentence on health grounds and also claimed that she had been given a royal pardon but with the license revoked all bets are now off.
Padraig Wilson has had three strikes against him: his alleged involvement in the IRA’s Colombian adventure and two charges of IRA membership. So far there is no sign that the NI Secretary of State is of a mind to revoke his license and force him to serve out the remainder of his 24-year sentence. I wonder why?