Former IRA man Eddie Gallagher talked publicly last week for the first time about the political thinking which led him to take part in the kidnapping of Dr. Tiede Herrema 30 years ago this month.
Herrema, chief executive of the Dutch-owned Ferenka factory in Limerick, was seized as he left home on October 4th 1975. His captors demanded the release of three IRA prisoners as the price of his safe return.
Gallagher says that the point of the kidnap was to win the release of the prisoners without killing gardai or prison warders.
Herrema was held hostage for 36 days before being freed after a 18-day siege of a house at Monasterevin, Co. Kildare. Gallagher, then 28, from Donegal, and Derry woman Marion Coyle, 21, were arrested at the scene. They were sentenced the following year to 20 and 15 years respectively. Coyle was released in 1985, Gallagher in 1990.
Gallagher is critical of IRA leaders of the time and suggests that his unit operated with a degree of independence.
"IRA volunteers were given basic training and thrown in at the deep end against well-trained and equipped British soldiers," he says. "When we asked for better and heavier weapons, excuses came down from the top.
"An IRA-chartered 'plane carrying weapons had disappeared over the Atlantic, an IRA weapons purchaser had handed over £80,000 and landed home with boxes filled with scrap, and so on. After a while, we began to suspect that the leadership was afraid to move the struggle on to a higher level because they were nervous that the Free State Government would close them down. It would be interesting to have a case study done on how some senior IRA leaders were placed where they were. At one stage we just refused to tell them what we were about to do, in case we were ambushed when we arrived to do our job."
Gallagher claims that in the early stages of the Troubles, "Free State representatives" had tried to encourage a number of Republicans to assassinate leaders of the Official IRA---he doesn't name the alleged targets---so as to create a leadership politically more acceptable to the Dublin authorities. This echoes an allegation last year by John White, commander of the Official IRA in Derry in the same period, that the late Captain James Kelly offered him a large sum of money to arrange the assassination of Official IRA leaders including Sean Garland, the Workers' Party president now fighting extradition to the US on counterfeiting charges.
"It was a bit like taking a stroll through a reptile pit," says Gallagher of the period.
He says that Provisional chiefs at the time were hugely sensitive to the effects of IRA operations on their media image.
"It was amazing to watch the top dog in the IRA wade through a pile of newspaper articles before he could decide on his response to what we had done the night before. At that particular period I could have steered IRA policy if I had been given editorial control over Irish Press and Independent articles. We had a leadership that was reacting instead of leading.
"The group I was part of tried to keep a distance from the armchair generals, but in some instances took orders directly from them. We made a pact to help each other escape if we were imprisoned. The first arrested was Kevin Mallon."
Mallon had been among 19 prisoners who blasted their way out of Portlaoise prison in August 1974. Gallagher had joined in the escape, having arrived in the prison only the previous day. Mallon was recaptured in Foxrock in January 1975. Mallon, Dr. Rose Dugdale and James Hyland were the trio the kidnap was intended to free.
"He (Mallon) had considerable influence within the IRA. We needed him free to help alter a leadership that was leaking like a sieve and had left the organisation penniless."
Part of Gallagher's role in the IRA at the time was to break prisoners out of jail. After the August escape, he says, "We tried to free others by tunnelling from Portlaoise hospital under the Dublin-Limerick road and into the jail. Sean Treacy, myself and two others were removing foundation stones from beneath the outer jail wall on the night Special Branch and army raided our billet nearby and arrested the day-shift who were asleep in the house.
"A few months later, we borrowed an American-manufactured truck and converted it into an armoured vehicle capable of carrying 40 prisoners."
On St. Patrick's Day 1975, Gallagher led an operation during which electricity to the prison was cut off and vehicles set alight around Portlaoise to divert security forces. A number of gunmen opened fire on prison sentry posts. However, the converted lorry overheated and lost power after smashing down the outer gate---Gallagher says that a mechanic had accidentally cut a water pipe during the conversion---and the engine died just a few feet short of the inner gates behind which 40 IRA men were waiting.
Inside the prison, Tom Smith, a 28-year-old Dubliner serving life, was shot dead---"by panicky Free State soldiers," says Gallagher. Two other IRA prisoners were wounded, neither seriously.
"After every escape or escape attempt", Gallagher recalls, "prison security was tightened until it became impossible to free prisoners without killing guards." And this, he says, brought activists up against a contradiction in IRA's strategy.
"The Provisional IRA was mainly created to protect Six County Catholics who were under attack from Loyalists. Against that background, we couldn't justify an escape attempt which could cause the death of an Irish guard, warder or soldier. New tactics were needed." The specific tactic his unit decided on, he says, was dictated by an analysis of the changing structure and the resultant vulnerabilities of the Southern State.
"In the '70s, successive 26 County governments had a weak economic programme. They sold out our rich fishing waters during EEC negotiations and failed to build a smelter to add value to the zinc mine at Navan.
"They offered a 10-year tax-free holiday to multinational companies who set up shop in Ireland. These companies employed thousands of workers but rarely provided worthwhile training.
"For instance, Ferenka came to Limerick to make tyre walls. The process they brought with them was obsolete and unprofitable. But, as their boss let slip, 'It's cheaper to run at a loss in Ireland than anywhere else in the world.' During their nine years tax holiday, AKZO, the parent company of Ferenka, was developing a modern method of manufacturing tyre walls which was to be sited outside Europe in a low-wage economy. Apparently, AKZO had no intention of allowing Ferenka to remain in Limerick after tax breaks ended.
"I knew that Government ministers of that period were windy, and wouldn't get into their State-supplied Mercs without first investigating the garda driver's identity in case we had substituted our own chauffeur. I decided to probe the weak spot by kidnapping an executive of one of the multinationals and offering to swap him for a few of my imprisoned friends."
The kidnap caused consternation. Within 24 hours, trade union leaders had succeeded in calling off an unofficial strike opver pay which had halted production at Ferenka. The following day, they led a march through Limerick denouncing the kidnappers and demanding Herrema's release. Limerick mayor Thady Coughlan announced that he was seeking an audience with the Pope to press for direct Vatican intervention with the kidnappers. The Provisional IRA leadership denied that any of its members was involved.
Dr. Herrema was later made a Freeman of Limerick and given honorary Irish citizenship.
In November 1977, the board of AKZO informed the Department of Industry and Commerce that Ferenka was to close. The plant ceased production the following month with the loss of 1,400 jobs.