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Sinn Féin is this island’s best resourced political party, the beneficiary of a legacy of barbarism

The effects of the Provisional movement’s fundraising campaign are still visible in Irish politics, North and South

I was at the multiparty talks convened by the leaders of the British and Irish governments, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, at Weston Park, a mansion on the borders of Shropshire and Staffordshire, in July 2001. Three years earlier, the Belfast Agreement had been published after talks in Stormont, but progress in implementing the agreement was tortuous and slow.

Decommissioning of paramilitary weapons and explosives and agreement on the policing of Northern Ireland were among the many issues that delayed the new dawn presaged by the agreement of Easter Week, 1998. Decommissioning of IRA weaponry did not occur until 2005.

The US participants in the Weston Park talks alerted the two governments to the IRA’s activities in Colombia, which involved senior IRA personnel travelling on a number of occasions to that country as part of a programme under which the communist Farc guerrillas were to pay many millions of US dollars derived from the cocaine trade, known as “narco-dollars”, in exchange for training, instruction and know-how from senior IRA bombmakers. The British government’s MI5 had been observing the IRA Colombia operations as well.

The Provisional movement was consistently engaged from 1998 to 2005 in a massive drive to establish the huge financial resources that its leadership considered necessary to transition by stages from paramilitarism to electoral politics. It engaged in widespread “fundraising” criminality across the island of Ireland directed from its Belfast centre involving hijackings, robberies, kidnappings and, eventually in December 2004, the Northern Bank robbery, which yielded £26.5 million in cash.

The effects of that fundraising campaign are still visible in Irish politics, North and South.

All of the foregoing must be remembered when we read the excellent and recently published paperback biography of Rose Dugdale authored by the investigative journalist Sean O’Driscoll, Heiress, Rebel, Vigilante, Bomber. Based on a great number of reliable sources, including interviews with Dugdale and her long-term partner Jim Monaghan (who gave O’Driscoll access to his unpublished memoirs), it is a non-judgmental but perceptive account of Dugdale’s lifetime progression from student radicalism to IRA bombmaker.

Dugdale and Monaghan led the development of IRA weaponry and explosives development over two decades. The IRA improvised explosive technology, by general consensus, was used not merely by Farc but also by the Basque separatist paramilitary force ETA.

The price paid by many innocent victims for the development of this lethal technology and its dissemination should not be forgotten.

In particular, the Provo-designed “barrack-buster” mortar, which combined high explosives with fairly basically re-engineered domestic gas cylinders, was deployed in May 2002 by Farc at Bojayá in western Colombia in a battle for control of a town called Bellavista. Farc fired such a mortar bomb and hit a church in which 300 inhabitants of the town were sheltering. The mortar penetrated the church roof and hit the altar inside, killing 79 innocent civilians and wounding scores of others.

The multimillion narco-dollar price that Farc paid to the Provisional movement, then supposedly in fundraising mode on a post-1998 ceasefire, was small compared with the human cost paid by the innocent victims in Bellavista for the insatiable greed and political ambitions of the Provo movement in Ireland.

Ironically, the events in Colombia severely damaged the IRA’s standing and reputation in Irish America.

But the merit of O’Driscoll’s research and investigatory skills is that it serves to remind us just how malleable Irish public opinion and political folk-memory can be. The weapons technology research programme in which Dugdale played a leading part was sanctioned by the IRA army council to continue right into the early 2000s, years after the 1998 agreement.

And although Sinn Féin’s political rise in the South seems far less inexorable than appeared a year ago, the party remains the inscrutable chameleon that it has always been.

When Det Gda Jerry McCabe was gunned down by Provo fundraisers in Adare in 1996 – Det Gda Ben O’Sullivan survived the gun attack – McCabe’s killers were imprisoned. Sinn Féin loudly and unsuccessfully demanded their early release.

One of his killers, Pearse McAuley, who had previously been arrested in England for conspiring to kill an industrialist, Sir Charles Tidbury, as another aspect of the Provo fundraising campaign to intimidate and extort businessmen North and South, received a standing ovation in absentia at a Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in 2003 while serving his sentence.

McAuley was later sentenced for the barbaric knife attack on now Sinn Féin TD Pauline Tully, the woman who was mother of his children and who had read out his prison letter to that 2003 Ard Fhéis.

Both Dugdale and McAuley died recently, still icons in the republican pantheon of freedom fighters. Sinn Féin remains the best resourced political party on this island – beneficiaries of the legacy of barbarism that they unleashed on so many.

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