I have always had a soft spot for the BBC’s Dublin correspondent, Shane Harrison. I first met him when he was a reporter for Spotlight back in the late 1980’s and grew to regard him as a journalist of integrity and courage, a rare creature in our business then as now.
Not least of the reasons for my high regard of him was his willingness to go where most of my peers would run away from, their hair aflame and the air vibrating with their shrieks of fear and outrage.
The “where” back then was the big lie of 1980’s Nationalism, that the Workers Party (WP), which in the South was becoming a major political force, did not have an active military wing called the Official IRA and the lie, sad to say, mostly went unchallenged by the mainstream media.
Somehow, I know not how, Shane managed to persuade the brass in the BBC to investigate this claim and the result, a well-researched and damning programme called, aptly, ‘Sticking to their guns’, was broadcast in June 1991.
Almost immediately the programme became a bone in a vicious fight between warring factions in the WP, one which wanted to stay aligned to the post-Soviet Communist world – then disappearing into the North Korean mist – and modernisers who wanted to embrace free market economics and the electoral respectability and gains that would bring.
Shane’s programme, which demonstrated convincingly not only that the Official IRA did exist but that it was armed and was involved in a string of criminal enterprises all designed to raise money for the WP’s election campaigns south of the Border, was used by the modernisers as a stick (excuse the pun) to beat the old Stalinists. Eventually, at a heated special ard-fheis in February 1992, eight months after the Spotlight programme, the WP split irrevocably.
Today, Shane has a piece questioning the modern republican lie, the Adams and McGuinness lie about their non-membership of the IRA, and its power is derived from the source, who was a participant in one of the most daring and famous IRA prison escapes of the Troubles; his Provo credentials are therefore impeccable.
Harrison does what most journalists do not do when reporting Martin McGuinness’s IRA links, which is to point out that the deputy First Minister claims to have left the ranks in 1974 and thereafter to have had no association at all, a claim that stretches credibility to a painful extent.
Most reporters instead prefer to dwell on his admission of membership before 1974, favourably contrasting this to Adams’ flat denial of any links at all. In fact it is at least arguable that McGuinness is telling more lies about his IRA past than Adams.
Peter Rogers is one of the four surviving members of the so-called ‘Magnificent Seven’, the seven IRA internees who escaped from the prison ship, RMS Maidstone in Belfast Lough by slipping into the ice-cold water and swimming 400 yards to the opposite shore. They staged their break in January 1972, possibly the coldest time of the year and probably survived the extreme temperatures because they had smeared their bodies with butter and boot polish which insulated them.
Once on land they hijacked a bus, which Rogers, a former bus driver, drove to the Markets districts where customers in a bar in Verner Street gave them dry clothes. From there they made their escape by car and then appeared at a press conference in Dublin to give the IRA a pretty spectacular publicity coup.
Rogers stayed in the IRA and appears to have been very active, so active that in 1980 he was asked to ferry explosives to England for a renewed bombing campaign and it is this incident which forms the core of his interview with Shane Harrison.
Rogers says that he was reluctant to take the explosives because they were unstable and so he was summoned to a meeting with IRA commanders in Dublin. And those commanders he says, were none other than Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness (then Adjutant-General and Chief of Staff respectively) who more or less ordered him to take the explosives, unstable or not. The two men’s claim nowadays not to have been in the IRA or to have left it long before 1980, Rogers describes, with only a hint of sarcasm, as the possible product of alzheimer’s disease.
As he was ferrying to explosives to England, Rogers was intercepted by the Gardai, there was a shoot out and one policeman was killed and another wounded. Rogers was captured, initially sentenced to death but then his sentence was commuted to forty years. He was though released in 1998 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and was, he says, motivated to go public with this story by Sinn Fein’s decision to hold its recent ard-fheis in Wexford, the home town of the policeman he killed. He has, he said, attempted to apologise to the dead Gardai’s family but his overtures have been rejected.
Shane Harrison’s interview with Rogers can be heard below. There is an intriguing but unexplained aspect to the Peter Rogers story and it is that his disenchantment with the Provo leadership appears to be fairly recent. In 2002 he gave two lengthy interviews about the Maidstone escape with that most leadership-friendly of figures, Jim Gibney for what was still called An Phoblacht-Republican News which you can read here and here.The falling out seems to happened after this but exactly why is not clear.
Anyway here is the interview: