Phoenix spooked by Afghan challenge
PHOENIX magazine editor Paddy Prendiville was ill at ease when challenged by Fifth Column this weekend as to whether he was prepared to stand over an article in his publication's current edition which branded a Belfast-born aid worker in Afghanistan a "British Spook".
In its article, entitled "Our man in Kabul", Phoenix twice used the term "spook" to describe Michael Semple and Mervyn Patterson, aid workers and officials who were expelled by the Afghans in December for holding talks with the Taliban. The article also questioned why Semple was being described as an Irish diplomat.
When asked on what basis he had made the allegation against Semple, Prendiville blurted out that the information had been "taken from the British media". He made a point of distancing himself from the piece. He said: "I did not write it myself."
Despite the "spook" tag, at the time of his expulsion Semple was officially deputy chief of the EU Aid Programme in Afghanistan. His wages are paid out of the Irish Government's subvention to the programme through the Taoiseach's Office.
Semple and Patterson, who is also from Belfast, are among the longest-serving aid workers/officials in Afghanistan, having been there for over 20 years. During the Taliban period and after, schools Semple set up for Oxfam were burned down. He is a Muslim convert, and he and his Pakistani wife have two young children living in Islamabad.
Last year, Semple and Patterson had made initial contact with a number of Taliban leaders in the south of the country, who had indicated interest in a peace process. Their actions provoked fury among leaders in Afghanistan and led to their arrest and expulsion.
It was reported at the time that the two were agents for British Intelligence Agency MI6 (as suggested by rival warlords in Afghanistan and unchallenged by initial reports), and that they were booted out at the behest of the CIA, supposedly "miffed" at their actions.
The MI6 line quickly faded once senior journalists returned to foreign desks after Christmas and proper stories appeared from those who knew of the pair's aid work in the region.
Semple returned to Ireland after his expulsion and it is still uncertain as to whether it is safe to return to Afghanistan. Last weekend he gave a public talk at All Souls Church in Belfast, and a number of press interviews about his work and his hopes for peace in Afghanistan.
Phoenix, however, seemed only too thrilled to relaunch the "spook" allegations against the two. The article's unnamed correspondent went on to point out that Semple "was educated at the prestigious Belfast Royal Academy, named by Queen Victoria". Aside from this somewhat sectarian observation, the rest of the information in the Phoenix article is remarkably similar to material published on a number of mad conspiracy-theory blogs.