20 April 2006

He's IRAte


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SONGS OF FREEDOM: Shane Coleman performs "Grace" on the tin whistle to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Irish Hunger Strike.

What happens when an Irishman visiting Philly refuses to turn spy?

by Jenna Portnoy
20-26 April 2006

Shane Coleman hadn't visited his friends and family in the United States in a decade, so four days before St. Patrick's Day, he boarded a plane in his native Northern Ireland.

During Coleman's 11-day vacation, City Councilman Jack Kelly invited him to play "Grace" on the tin whistle at City Council's recognition of the 25th anniversary of the Irish Hunger Strike. Coleman's only concern as he approached the podium was whether the beers he had at Finnigan's Wake the night before would affect his performance. (They didn't.)

"Everything was 100 percent, brilliant," the 29-year-old father of two says in a thick brogue.

He spent the rest of the trip sightseeing and was ready to return when he got the phone call.

On the line, he says, was a U.S. Customs agent asking him to arrive early at Newark International Airport to address a problem with his visa. "When immigration wants to talk to you," he explains, "it's not good because it could jeopardize you coming into the country again."

He got to the airport early and met a female agent who took him into a backroom while another agent escorted his girlfriend and son to check-in. Coleman says the woman asked him whether he was involved in any terrorist activities—he had indicated "no" on a form—and questioned him about his assault on a police officer in Ireland seven years ago.

At this point, Coleman says, he still wasn't panicked: "I just thought I was doing my duty," so he wouldn't have trouble returning to the U.S.

The woman left the room and returned with two men.

"How's it going, Shane?" said the first, who had an English accent. "By my accent you can surely tell where I'm from."

"You're obviously Scotland Yard," Coleman replied.

"No, MI5."

He immediately recognized the tactic. British intelligence officers wanted to recruit him to spy on the Irish Republican Army, a paramilitary organization dedicated to ending British rule in Northern Ireland.

"Fancy meeting you guys over here," Coleman said, sitting back and preparing for a long haul.

The men told him they flew to the airport just to see him, as if he should consider the meeting a special privilege. They knew he quit his job as a subcontractor for a courier company two weeks earlier, even though Coleman hadn't yet registered with the government as unemployed.

"Clearly they've been watching me a long time," he says. They went on to say he has some "associates" they were interested in and mentioned the name of a friend he plays Gaelic football with. "They're telling me I'm in a good position to get in on some stuff."

As the two-hour long meeting wore on, Coleman says they offered him money and asked if he wanted to go back to New York, or even Hawaii, to think it over.

"I know where this conversation is going and I'm not interested," Coleman said, insisting he was not and has never been involved with a paramilitary group.

"We know you're not stupid," said the second man, who had an Irish accent. "The pot's overflowing."

They gave him a phone number to use in case he changed his mind or ended up in a "tight spot." Coleman told them he works five days a week and plays football two or three days. "On that schedule I couldn't imagine anything that would jeopardize my liberty," he says, "unless somebody sets me up."

Still, the men said they could get him off the hook in case he was arrested for something serious.

He again refused to cooperate and they eventually let him go home.

It was difficult to find officials who'd corroborate Coleman's version of events.

Calls to the airport were referred to Customs and Border Protection, which referred questions to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement press office, under the Department of Homeland Security, which did not return messages. One CBP spokeswoman asked for the name of the federal agent who first contacted Coleman, and said, "Without a name, I can't substantiate anything." Finally, Lorraine Turner, a spokeswoman for the British Consulate-General in New York said, "We don't comment on security issues."

Coleman, however, didn't want to stay quiet. Once back in Ireland, he heard that a former member of the IRA-linked Sinn Féin party recently exposed as a British spy was found shot dead. He decided to tell the Daily Ireland newspaper about his ordeal. "I'm not scared," he says, "because the more you expose them the more chance they won't come after you."

Recounting the incident during a cell-phone interview last week, he said taking the agents' bait "would never cross my mind. I see myself as an Irishman all my life and you can't all of a sudden stop being an Irishman and start working for British intelligence and betray your people."

Considering the close relationship between President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Coleman says he believes American agents are assisting the MI5. "Whenever you think of America, or even Philadelphia, and the amount of Irish people who live here, and all the work Irish people have done for America, it just seems like a betrayal," he says.

Paul Doris, the Philly-based national director of Irish Northern Aid, an organization that supports a united Ireland, places blame squarely on British shoulders. "I don't think anyone has anything to fear of the American government," he says. "It's just the British; they can have their claws in anywhere."

Upon getting the news, City Councilman Kelly sent letters to U.S. Sens. Rick Santorum and Arlen Specter, making them aware of Coleman's situation. He hopes someone will perform an inquiry.

"We should be telling any foreign country, 'When people are visiting our country, we're not going to allow you to harass or intimidate or interview them. We're not going to be part of it,'" he says.

Doris encourages others who have experienced anything similar to come forward. "Most people in Ireland understand what the British are up to," he says, "and they'll go to any distance to undermine what progress we've made."

Meanwhile, in his rural home of Ardboe, Coleman is back playing football. And, he's applying for another visa so he can visit again this summer, while realizing that might not be possible:

"I would say my chances of getting back in aren't good."

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