News Analysis

Tuesday 30 September 2014

How the IRA set up an arms deal with Boston gangster James 'Whitey' Bulger

New book details operation to smuggle weapons from US, writes Jim Cusack

Published 24/02/2013 | 04:00

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A new book on the notorious Boston gangster, James 'Whitey' Bulger, details his meetings with the Provisional IRA in setting up the arms smuggling deal which led to the arrest of Sinn Fein TD Martin Ferris in 1984.

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The book also says that Bulger's involvement with the IRA "took off" after he began working as an FBI informer and quotes one of Bulger's associates saying that C4 plastic explosive supplied to the IRA came from a corrupt FBI agent who was supposed to be one of the Irish-American gangster's handlers.

The book is written by Boston Globe journalists Shelley Murphy and Kevin Cullen. Cullen, former crime correspondent for the newspaper, reported on Bulger and his gang for decades and had his life threatened by both Bulger and the corrupt FBI agent, John Connolly, now serving 40 years for involvement in three of the reputed 19 murders carried out by Bulger and his gang. Bulger, who was arrested in California in June 2011, faces trial in June on 19 murder and other charges.

Bulger is the model for the gangster Frank Costello played by Jack Nicholson in the film The Departed. The Hollywood Reporter last week said that Johnny Depp is now tipped to play Bulger in a new film by director Barry Levinson.

The Boston reporters' book contains previously unpublished material about Bulger including material about how he was approached by the Provisional IRA to supply weapons even though they were aware he was a gangster and heavily involved in the importation of drugs. It states that prior to becoming an FBI "informant", Bulger had no dealings with the IRA.

It says: "The truth was that on the night Whitey signed on as an informant there was very little he could have given (FBI agent John) Connolly on the IRA. Up to that point, he had merely donated relatively small amounts of money to Irish Northern Aid, or Noraid, the IRA's main support group in the United States.

"But now that he had the FBI in his pocket, his involvement quickly intensified. It became more than giving cash, it became a hands-on thing. Whitey first sent a small consignment of weapons to the IRA, then prevailed upon a friendly FBI agent to acquire C4 explosives for the IRA, according to Steve Flemmi (Bulger's associate who testified against him). Finally, in 1984, Whitey sanctioned and helped organise the biggest-ever shipment of weapons from the US to the IRA. He considered the mission his crowning achievement, an interlude of honour in his long criminal career. It was an audacious project, but one that was doomed to failure because of that bane of Irish revolutionaries, the informer."

As the book explains, gardai were tipped off about the shipment by their most senior informant inside the IRA, Sean O'Callaghan from Kerry. The book describes Bulger's meetings with Joe Cahill who held the twin posts of head of finance for the IRA and Sinn Fein, and who died in 2004.

It reads: "Cahill was accustomed to doing business in bar-rooms, but his haunts were usually in his native West Belfast, not South Boston.

"Still, there was a war on, and Joe Cahill would go anywhere to get weapons for the Irish Republican Army. So there he was, in the private room on the second floor of Triple O's, Whitey Bulger's redoubt on West Broadway. Cahill eyed the Irish tricolour strung across the bare brick wall with an approving nod.

"His short stature, thick eyeglasses and retiring, grandfatherly manner belied a certain ruthlessness that fit in with the men grouped around him at Triple O's. There was Whitey, whose reputation preceded him. There was Pat Nee, the Irish-born Mullen gang survivor who had gone from hunting Whitey to hunting others with him. And there was Joe Murray, Whitey's newest associate, the biggest marijuana trafficker in town."

It adds: "The IRA's association with Murray, the marijuana and cocaine importer, was even more astonishing. If Murray had sold drugs in Belfast the way he did in Boston, his friends in the IRA would have felt duty bound to shoot him; they viewed drug dealers, and their customers as more vulnerable to a squeeze by police and thus more likely to become informers.

"Whitey shared the IRA's reservations. The only thing he liked about drug dealers was the large amounts of cash he could extort from them. He had only recently hooked up with Murray. After learning that Murray had used a warehouse in Southie to store a boatload of marijuana."

The book says the IRA was told to send Cahill to Canada during the winter, so that the trips coincided with dates when the Boston Bruins hockey team was playing in Montreal. "IRA sympathisers in Charlestown and Southie then chartered a bus to bring Bruins' fans to the games. Cahill usually travelled with three companions, so four Boston hockey fans were induced to stay a few extra days in Canada."

Whitey Bulger: America's Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice, by Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy, is published in the United States by WW Norton

Irish Independent

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