18 December 2005

Minister 'defending against IRA sleepers’

Sunday Business Post

18 December 2005
By Paul T Colgan

“IRA-Sinn Féin were well on the way to creating a state within a state. They were using well-placed sleepers and collaborators – some of them pillars of society – to achieve that end.”

The Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, April 9, 2005.

They are already here among us. It could be anyone.

Your solicitor perhaps, your banker, your accountant or even your favourite newspaper columnist. They might be living right next door to you.

Republican “sleepers'‘, having for years successfully evaded the attentions of the gardai and the media, lie dormant within Irish society awaiting their orders to rise up and seize the apparatus of the state.

This is the scenario unveiled by Michael McDowell at the Progressive Democrats' party conference last April. According to the Minister for Justice, Sinn Féin - aided and abetted by the muscle of the IRA - had, only months earlier, almost succeeded in creating a “state within a state'‘.

Analysis of McDowell's speeches over the past year uncovers a clear line of thinking on republicans.

Speaking in early March, he claimed: “The truth was and is that the [IRA] Army Council were preparing to transform the movement by stealth into one in which . . . a lightly-armed IRA gendarmerie. . . would in future act as the enforcers for the criminal and control strategy underpinning Sinn Féin's drive for political power.”

His choice of the word “sleepers'‘ to describe the alleged republican strategy is particularly savvy.

Popularised in recent years by the rise of al-Qaeda, the sleeper cell theory brings to mind the sort of cold-hearted, steely-minded political fundamentalists who crash airliners into buildings and detonate bombs on busy commuter trains.

The month before McDowell's April speech, Phil Flynn, a government trouble-shooter and confidant of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, was questioned about an alleged IRA money-laundering ring in Co Cork. No charges relating to money-laundering have ever been brought against him.

Flynn, a former chairman of the Irish subsidiary of the Bank of Scotland, denied any wrongdoing after a company he had invested in was alleged to have laundered the proceeds of the €38 million Northern Bank robbery.

Flynn insisted that the company was “clean'‘ and had nothing to answer for.

The audacious robbery seemed, however, to help crystallise the “sleeper'‘ theory in McDowell's mind. Here you had an alleged IRA operation, apparently designed to swell the coffers of the republican movement, with links to hitherto unblemished “pillars of society'‘.

In recent days, McDowell has revisited this theory to explain why he brought down Frank Connolly, executive director of the Centre of Public Inquiry (CPI).

McDowell's claims that Connolly was central to an IRA plot to secure “tens of millions of dollars'‘ from Colombian rebels in exchange for bomb-making expertise, have caused huge damage to the CPI's executive director.

Connolly denied the allegations and accused McDowell of having usurped the function of the DPP and the Garda.

McDowell's initial claim that Connolly had travelled to Colombia on a false passport came only hours before the CPI's main benefactor - US billionaire Chuck Feeney's Atlantic Philanthropies charity - withdrew funding worth €4 million.

The comments, made under Dáil privilege, followed McDowell's decision to leak documents that allegedly referred to Connolly, to the Irish Independent.

The minister told the Dáil last week that he had spoken out against the former journalist because he believed Connolly would use the CPI to undermine the state.

It does not take a forensic analysis of McDowell's words to see how he views Connolly's raison d'etre at the CPI.

Connolly has described McDowell's actions as a “witch-hunt'‘, while Mr Justice Feargus Flood of the CPI has described them as part of a “drumhead court-martial'‘.

Fine Gael justice spokesman Jim O'Keeffe said he had “grave concerns'‘ about McDowell's behaviour, while Labour justice spokesman Joe Costello said the minister had set an “extremely dangerous precedent'‘.

McDowell had been busy behind the scenes over the past year briefing journalists and other interested parties on who he viewed as a “threat'‘ to the state. Far from seeking to disguise this fact, McDowell appeared to take great pride in his uniquely proactive approach to the justice portfolio.

Following his appearance on RTE Radio's News at One last Monday, when he admitted leaking the forged passport application form allegedly used by Connolly, McDowell said he was “delighted'‘ to have been able to do so.

Speaking in the Dáil later in the week, he said it would be a sorry day when a justice minister chose not to act as he did when faced with similar circumstances.

McDowell is unlikely to incur political damage from this strategy. Despite speculation early last week that his overeager admissions might come back to haunt him, such pronouncements are more likely to enhance his standing among the “law and order'‘ set, while strengthening the PD brand.

Indeed, given McDowell's unwillingness to back down over the Connolly allegations, he may even seek to “expose'‘ more “pillars of society'‘ in the coming months and years.

Individuals or organisations targeted by the minister have so far had little in the way of legal recourse. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said last week that if Connolly wished to clear his name, he could initiate legal proceedings. While Connolly could conceivably sue the newspapers that published articles in 2002 about his alleged trip to Colombia, he may have more difficulty suing McDowell.

The Daily Ireland newspaper has discovered that it can be difficult to claim defamation against a government minister. The newspaper's owners brought a libel case against McDowell last month after he compared the Belfast publication to a Nazi propaganda sheet.

In a 3,000-word broadside directed against various political opponents and published on the Department of Justice's website last January, McDowell had written: “Will it [Daily Ireland] be to Irish democracy what the Volkischer Beobachter was to pre-World War II German democracy?”

He went on to repeat the claims on RTE Radio and said the paper, which had yet to publish its first edition, was driven by the IRA.

Daily Ireland publisher Mairtin Ó Muilleoir claimed the comments had put his staff at risk and said it was an attempt to “bully the readers, workers and investors of Daily Ireland'‘.

However, the minister's lawyer pleaded “sovereign immunity'‘ and said the statements were made on behalf of the government. He also said that no statement of claim had been put before the court to corroborate claims that workers' lives had been put at risk.

Judgment has been reserved in the case, but legal observers do not anticipate a successful outcome for the paper.

McDowell's critics have questioned whether it was likely that a clandestine and over-arching republican plot actually existed to undermine the state. Last April, he claimed that the money accrued through IRA robberies would be used to fund Sinn Féin in its pursuit of political power in the south.

Yet in September, McDowell accepted the word of decommissioning boss General John De Chastelain that the organisation had disposed of all its weaponry.

Similarly, McDowell, along with the rest of the cabinet, accepts the assessments of the Independent Monitoring Commission that IRA activity has ceased since the summer.

If the war is in fact over, ask the opposition, why did McDowell choose to say what he did about the CPI two weeks ago?

If republicans have abandoned illicit fundraising, which supposedly fuelled the so-called “sleeper'‘ strategy, then the threat to the state he identified in April has dissipated - or at least changed.

Tommy McKearney, a former senior member of the IRA who disagrees with the current republican strategy, said he found McDowell's claims of sleeper cells “hard to believe'‘.

“What he is proposing would simply be too hard to keep secret,” said McKearney.

“I'd be very sceptical of what he says. I can't recall a precedent where a once-revolutionary organisation has sought to undermine a state in such a way.’' He said, however, that attempts to gather intelligence on political opponents was not restricted to republicans and was a simple reality of parliamentary democracy.

“It's par for the course for political parties to seek to gather information on each other. Any party that gets a juicy story on its opponents is going to use it.

“Every party to some extent uses some method or means to trip up the government. But it doesn't go beyond that. It's the meat and bones of parliamentary democracy.”

Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA member now opposed to the mainstream republican leadership, said he believed republicans would continue to seek intelligence on their opponents, but such activity could only be very limited.

“You have to ask how widespread such a thing can be in democratic society,” he said.

“In my view the IRA has made too many mistakes for a network to be widespread. For example, why didn't they see the arrests in Cork coming?

“That was an indication of where they are at.”

Since doubts about the existence of a vast republican conspiracy pervade those critical of Sinn Féin, McDowell's stated belief that the state is under “threat'‘ may be open to question.

It has been suggested that McDowell chose to move against the CPI, not because of any security concerns, but because it was planning to examine the purchase by the state of the Thornton Hall prison site in north Co Dublin.

Sources close to the CPI said it had looked at the Thornton Hall issue, but decided there was not enough information available to warrant the preparation of a full report on the subject.

McDowell presided over the decision to buy the site for €30 million earlier this year. Objectors maintain that the site was only worth €6 million and that other potential sites had been ignored.

It has also been mooted that McDowell acted on a party political basis.

He certainly would have received encouragement from his party colleagues. PD leader Mary Harney recently said: “The idea of some group of citizens setting themselves up with absolutely no justification to the wider public is absolutely sinister and inappropriate.”

The minister denied he had acted improperly and would no doubt maintain that he had access to confidential Garda information suggesting he was right to have spoken out in recent weeks.

McIntyre said: “The contention at the moment is no longer about what McDowell is saying, but about the ethics of saying it at all.

“He needs to be called to account.”

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