Thursday 23 January 2020

Rugby row, guns and an invite from Saddam: 1989 State Papers revealed

Documents from 30 years ago cover discussion over IRA bombings, IRFU controversy and Saddam Hussein, writes Ralph Riegel

Willie John McBride. Photo by Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Willie John McBride. Photo by Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Charles Haughey and Brian Keenan in 1990
Seamus Mallon
Brian Lenihan Sr, right, with British Labour MP Kevin McNamara in 1988

Ralph Riegel

The US issued a travel advisory to holidaymakers in 1989 following repeated IRA bomb threats on the Dublin-Belfast train line - despite major concern within the Irish and British Governments over its potential tourism fall-out.

A confidential memo, dated April 24, 1989 revealed the government was briefed by John Fee, an official within SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon's office, that the IRA rail threats were likely linked to the paramilitaries preparing for the Single European Market (SEM) in 1992.

"The local guess, like that in Dundalk, is that the IRA campaign against the (rail) line is connected with road haulage," it revealed.

"There is a belief that the effect of 1992 (SEM) will be to cut IRA revenue from smuggling, increase road haulage traffic and provide opportunities for the IRA through the lapse of official (customs) controls.

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"It is not thought the hauliers are paying the IRA to close the line but rather that the IRA itself, or a section of it, is determined to get control of the increasing North/South haulage business before 1992.

"By 'control', (Fee) said he meant direct or indirect commercial control of some haulage companies as well as the extortion of protection money from others."

However, Seamus Mallon was unconvinced of the theory.

"He is strongly sceptical, arguing that the main suppliers using the rail line, Irish Cement and Guinness, would not be vulnerable to control of any kind by the IRA. He believes the IRA campaign is symbolic, as it was with the electricity inter-connector."

Despite Irish and British concerns, the US issued its travel advisory to American holidaymakers.

It cited "frequent bomb threats and small explosions" by the IRA on the Dublin-Belfast rail line - and urged travellers to be prepared for delays and follow the advice of authorities.

* Meanwhile, the Irish Rugby Football Union's (IRFU) recognition of centenary celebrations by the South Africa IRFU in 1989 was "unjustified" and involved "needless public controversy" for Ireland.

Confidential government documents, released as part of the State Archive, revealed both government and diplomatic officials expressed "outrage" at the IRFU decision which was in total disregard for Irish policy towards the then apartheid state.

The tour involved an international selection, managed by Ireland and Lions star Willie John McBride, playing five matches against South African sides including the Springboks.

Mr McBride defended the tour and his participation.

"I believe in the communication of people through sport and that is the way it should be," he said.

"I believe in trying to break down the barriers."

Mr McBride was the focus of stringent criticism from anti-apartheid groups and responded: "I wouldn't expect anything else."

The Irish star was described in one South African publication, which hailed his participation in the tour, as "a burly Britisher".

The IRFU reversed its policy after a storm of criticism both from the government and the public.

"The committee of the IRFU is concerned that its recognition of the centenary of the South African Rugby Board has aroused adverse reaction and controversy," a letter from IRFU Secretary GP Moss confirmed on September 18, 1989. He pointed out that the tour had been sanctioned by the International Rugby Football Board.

But the IRFU letter said it now "regrets decisions taken at an earlier stage".

"The (IRFU) committee is now fully aware of the depth of feeling subsequently expressed by members of the rugby fraternity and others and as a consequence, re-affirms its earlier resolution that no Irish team at any level or any other team from Ireland shall be permitted to play in South Africa nor will teams from that country be invited to play in Ireland whilst the remainder of the apartheid laws in South Africa exist."

The then Minister for Foreign Affairs Gerry Collins subsequently endorsed the IRFU decision.

"The minister welcomes the indications... that the IRFU will in future adopt a more responsible approach," he wrote.

Mr Collins also noted with approval the promise that the IRFU will work to "discourage individuals from taking part in rugby football in South Africa".

* Elsewhere, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael officials agreed in secret state documents that it was "disquieting" for Iran to suggest the deepening of diplomatic ties between Tehran and Dublin could be linked to Iranian assistance in freeing Irish hostage Brian Keenan in the Lebanon.

In a letter, dated December 14, 1988, Tanaiste Brian Lenihan expressed his thanks to Fine Gael leader Alan Dukes for a confidential briefing on a conversation he had with the Iranian ambassador several weeks earlier.

Mr Dukes revealed that the Iranian diplomat "seemed to indicate that the Minister for Foreign Affairs should visit Tehran".

"At other points, what he seems to have in mind is that there should be an Irish ambassador in Tehran rather than a charge d'affaires.

"Later on in the conversation, he indicated to me that his authorities would have to have some incentive to be helpful in the Keenan case. He linked this with upgrading our diplomatic representation in Tehran."

Mr Dukes told Mr Lenihan he "reacted rather sharply to this".

"I told him that I could not accept that in any civilised country, the fate of an innocent, uninvolved person who was taken hostage should be the subject of bargaining between governments which intend to be friendly."

Mr Lenihan agreed that the conversation was "disquieting".

"The Government reject, as do you, any link between developing our relations with Iran and Iranian assistance in securing the release of Brian Keenan," the minister wrote.

"It is our view that states have a duty to assist where they can in the release of hostages such as Keenan."

Brian Keenan was kidnapped by the Islamic Jihad group in the Lebanon on April 11, 1986.

The group boasted strong links to Iran.

He was eventually released on August 24, 1990 to the Syrian Army who handed him over to Irish diplomats.

Mr Keenan went back to the Lebanon in 2007, having admitted he was again "falling in love" with the city.

* The 30-year-old secret files also reveal that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein wanted Taoiseach Charles Haughey to pay an official visit to Baghdad.

Confidential documents, released as part of the 1989 State Archive, revealed the Saddam Hussein had personally asked, via An Bord Bainne (ABB), the Irish dairy board, whether Mr Haughey would visit Iraq.

In a letter to foreign affairs minister Brian Lenihan dated July 14, 1989, ABB secretary Peter McKimm said such a visit could help Irish exports to the country.

"Just a reminder of our discussion regarding the query which came from Mr Saddam Hossain (sic), prime minister of Iraq, regarding the possibility of the Taoiseach accepting an invitation to that country," he wrote.

"Even if such a visit were to take some time to organise, I think it would be extremely useful for this country, particularly in regard to increasing trade."

"1992 (Single European Market) represents both opportunities and risks and it would be beneficial if we could insure downside risks by taking steps to increase trade with non-EEC countries such as the Arab world."

* Finally, major US arms manufacturer Smith & Wesson was warned by the government there was no market for its products in Ireland.

Confidential government documents revealed that both the departments of Justice and Defence had ruled out any prospect of major firearms sales for the historic firm.

The US firm, one of the oldest firearms manufacturers in the world, had written to the Irish Consul in New York inquiring about the potential for export sales for its products to Ireland.

Smith & Wesson marketing research manager Richard McLaughlin had asked for information about projected demand for handguns for both police and military use in Ireland. "We would also appreciate any information you might have indicating brands and types of handguns used by various consumer groups within your country," Mr McLaughlin wrote.

The firm was about to enjoy a sales boom within the US due to the revival of interest in Western-style handguns and the increasing popularity of powerful revolvers such as the .44 Magnum wielded by Clint Eastwood in the 1970s Dirty Harry films.

However, the Government scotched any prospect of sales in Ireland for Smith & Wesson.

"I am directed by the Minister for Justice to inform you that only a limited number of members of An Garda Siochana carry firearms on duty.

There is no prospect of this firm's handguns being required by the Garda Siochana for some years to come," a January 1 memo warned.

It added that, as a matter of policy, import licences for pistols or revolvers are not granted to private individuals except in the most exceptional circumstances.

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