Joe MacAnthony remembers meeting a criminal who helped the IRA get arms.
IT WAS a notorious gentleman of the last century who said that the bigger the lie, the more likely people would swallow it. We've seen some whoppers churned out in the wake of the Columbia debacle. Most consisted of heated denials from Sinn Féin that any link existed between the IRA and the international drug trade.
The very suggestion that the IRA would do business with drug dealers, they claim, is an outrageous libel.
In fact I can confirm that the Provisional IRA used a network of drug trade connections between Holland and Ireland to bring arms here in the early stages of their campaign. I know this because I met and interviewed the drug dealer in charge of the operation. His name was Jim McCann and he was possibly the most effective arms supplier to the Provos in his time. McCann not only provided the weaponry for one of the most active stages of the IRA's campaign back in the Seventies. He was also importing consignments of up to one ton of cannabis at a time into Ireland while doing it.
Anyone who wants to know more about McCann's unique place in the world of drug smuggling and some of what he did in Ireland has only to read a book called Mr. Nice by Britain's most notorious drug dealer, Howard Marks. It was Jim McCann who helped Marks climb to a commanding position in the international drug trade by partnering him in smuggling tons of drugs into Ireland from Afghanistan through offices based in Shannon Airport trade zone.
McCann himself was, and may still be, an extraordinary character. Wiry and wired, he was a manic talker when I met him. Much of that talk related to dope. I thought he was crazy. McCann, the first man to escape from Crumlin Road prison in 22 years, provided good copy. His contacts at Irish and foreign airports and seaports along with his ability to buy, steal or forge waybills and other official documents, allowed him to move huge inspection-free containers into Ireland from Holland, both guns and drugs.
Given the Provos supposed loathing for drug dealers, it was remarkable that they would use McCann to smuggle their guns into Ireland, but they claimed they didn't know. Given his sources and his talk, even a cursory check would have shown that Jim McCann was a drug dealer. But the security-minded Provos claimed they didn't notice. At least, not until his network was exposed and after they had gotten their arms.
My second meeting with Jim McCann came around the time his cover was blown and his drug dealing became public knowledge. It happened when his girlfriend was arrested in Germany while importing hard drugs for sale to US soldiers based there. By then, the Brits had exposed McCann's arms smuggling from Holland. But once the embarrassing connection between guns and drugs was exposed, the Provos fell back on the denial we see again with Colombia and the connection with the FARC. "The IRA's view of drug dealing is well known, etc ... "
In McCann's case, which was particularly sensitive because he was a local man, the word went out that they were considering killing him.
Actually, the Provos really wanted to initiate some damage control. McCann, already on the run and much sought by the media, called me and offered a clandestine interview. After a series of cloak and dagger moves, I arrived at the rendezvous to be greeted by McCann waving a submachine gun and vowing he would never be taken alive. He gave me a colourful account of his arms smuggling and an equally manic denial of drug dealing. I wrote up his claims, noting they were indeed claims and the job, or snow job, was done.
The IRA were apparently satisfied because McCann was allowed to go on to bigger things and more troubles in the drug world. To date, he has made a lot of money and done time in Germany, France, Canada along with North and South here on drug related matters ... held in Portlaoise in 1979 for bringing a massive cargo of cannabis into Ireland, he was given a beating by the Provos.
But it may have been cosmetic since they could have killed him and did not. Interestingly enough, the last I heard of McCann, was of him travelling South America where he had the usual trade connections. When the Mounties checked one of his bank accounts in Canada, they found a million dollars in it.
For the Provos and Sinn Féin, a repeat of the drug issue in Colombia could prove highly damaging, particularly in the US, if allowed to drag on. Given the rising suspicion that there is substance to that linkage, Gerry Adams and the IRA would be wise to do the hitherto unthinkable and draw on their ace in the hole, decommissioning, if they want to avoid the matter ending up as an inquiry by the US Congress.
In this case, it may very likely take on a life of its own, with trained investigators looking into questions beyond Colombia and on to Sinn Féin/Provos links with other terrorist groups like ETA in Spain and Palestinian extremists. Conservatives will want to know about extortions from business and the child advocates in Congress and there are many will want to know about the IRA practice of crippling child offenders. If the republicans want to avoid that scenario and to keep a lid on the reality of what lies underneath the carpet, they would do well to make that big move and finally put genuine decommissioning on the table.
It could turn a prtions disaster into a triumph.