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Why those silent watchers deserve to be honoured

ALONG comes another witness to claim that Gerry Adams, the world-famous troubadour for peace, was a leading member of the IRA during the worst years of the Troubles. Only problem is that this time it isn't one of the newly elected Louth TD's ideological enemies, or some embittered former comrade, but Kadar Asmal, former Trinity Professor and hero of the anti-apartheid movement, who remembers in his newly published memoir, Politics In My Blood, how he first contacted the Provos to train ANC men in Ireland, and later requested help from the IRA in blowing up an oil refinery back home, and how Gerry sent out two Volunteers to muck in and get the job done.

Kadar Asmal died in June, so presumably Adams will resort to mumbling and spluttering, which has increasingly become his last defence against the growing chorus of witnesses with the temerity to remember him back in the day when his involvement in Irish politics took a more direct form than raising points of order during Dail debates.

Either way, he's quickly running out of options. Former IRA men can be dismissed when they are beyond the grave, as Brendan Hughes was when his claims about the involvement of Adams in the abduction, murder and secret burial of West Belfast mother-of-10 Jean McConville were published by journalist Ed Moloney; but Asmal is a different kettle of fish. No anti-Sinn Fein agenda can be conveniently pinned on him.

What's almost more intriguing than Gerry's ongoing flight from reality is the route which Kadar Asmal took to get to Adams when he initially wanted help in training members of MK, the ANC's military wing.

"I was very keen," Asmal writes, "but it was a delicate task because it would of necessity involve the IRA. None of

us wished to place the ANC office in London in jeopardy or fuel the allegations of connivance between the ANC and IRA." (A strange turn of phrase considering this is precisely what was happening. Why are they still only "allegations" when you're detailing the way it worked?)

He continues: "I went to see the general secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, Michael O'Riordan . . . whom I trusted to keep a secret. He in turn contacted Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein and it was arranged that two military experts would come to Dublin to meet two MK personnel and take them to a safe place for two weeks of intensive training." Later in 1980, when the ANC wanted IRA help with blowing up the oil refinery at Sasolburg, Asmal used the same line of communication to Adams again.

Someone said to me last week that all this made him remember the old Special Branch types who used to keep a beady eye on various Lefties in the Sixties and Seventies, including students and trade unionists and media figures, and "how we trendy young liberals used to regard them as paranoid, worrying about Mick O'Riordan and the Communist Party who were so small and insignificant with their bookshop in Essex Street that they could do no harm to anyone." O'Riordan, he recalled, was seen as a "character", who had fought in Spain against the Fascists and was admired for sticking to his principles, "even if he was really a figure of fun". Now comes confirmation that Special Branch had every reason to believe that more was going on behind the bookshop's closed doors than a few harmless Soviet love-ins.

During those years, Special Branch was also assiduously checking up on Kadar Asmal, when most people were of the opinion that he was merely a decent academic whose only concern was in the plight of his fellow South Africans under an oppressive regime. Special Branch's rationale was that it was necessary to keep all those involved in what is called "radical politics" under surveillance because of the intimate connections between the many various causes and factions. Watch a Communist bookshop long enough and many of the customers are bound to be individuals of interest to those charged with protecting the State against subversion, but still there's a feeling amongst liberal opinion even now that it's somehow "not fair" to be suspicious of these people.

Robert Ballagh, for example, naively complained of Special Branch harassment when he was organising the 75th anniversary celebrations of the Easter Rising in 1991. It isn't much of a leap to conclude that many of those who would be attracted to such an event, whatever about Robert Ballagh's earnest but misguided belief to the contrary, might be "of interest to the guards" as the parlance goes.

That would certainly seem to be the natural conclusion of this latest revelation about colourful Michael O'Riordan, champion of the Irish working classes, whose right not to have his bookshop watched by silent men in unmarked cars can hardly be equated with the right of the victims of subversives not to be killed because the Special Branch don't want to upset middle-class dinner party opinion. The job of these men was to root out these secrets, the better to protect the State from those who wished ill of its democracy, and they did it at great personal cost to themselves and their families. They ought to be honoured, not remembered with shuffling embarrassment as some terribly unsophisticated remnant of a less enlightened age.

Of course, O'Riordan's defenders -- whilst never denying that he was more sympathetic to the struggle in the North than many other internationalist-minded Marxists who tend to be suspicious of narrow liberation movements -- will insist that he was, in this instance, motivated primarily by a desire to help comrades in South Africa, just as Kadar Asmal is quick to state in his book that he never supported the IRA. In both cases, the sound of hairs being split is deafening. It's not possible to mix that chummily with republican terrorists without becoming stained; the conflict could never have continued so long without the weaselly involvement of scores of other likeminded hangers-on.

Perhaps Kadar Asmal should have called his memoir Blood In My Politics instead, because, whatever about South Africa, the meddling of people like him in the Irish situation was never less than disastrous. Special Branch was right to watch them. It's just a pity they couldn't watch them all the time, or more innocent people might be alive today.

Sunday Independent