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The Claudia Affair

(Irish News)

Today the Irish News concludes the exclusive extracts from a major new biography of Joe Cahill, former IRA chief of staff and a central figure in the republican movement since the 1940s.

Cahill, who was sentenced to death for the murder of a Catholic police officer in the 1940s and convicted of running guns from Libya in the 1970s, played a key role in the formation of the Provisionals, was a senior IRA leader during the bloodiest days of the Troubles, a crucial influence in the moves towards peace and a key element in the ceasefire announced in 1994...

The Libyan connection: In the early 1970s Joe Cahill became aware that Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi wanted to help the IRA. In 1973 Cahill, then IRA chief of staff, flew to Tripoli where he presented Gaddafi with a "shopping list" of arms and explosives.

However, the journey back to Ireland proved ill-fated for the republican leader as the gunrunning vessel, the Claudia, was seized and he was sentenced to three years in jail.

In this extract, Cahill details his meetings with Gaddafi and the capture of the Claudia. He also reveals that while the IRA lost out on the arms shipment, they were able to retrieve a large sum of money which was thrown overboard during the arrest operation.

"ON that first trip we were eventually taken to a military barracks for the meeting with Colonel Gaddafi. I have to say I was impressed with his grasp of the situation in Ireland and his friendliness.

"He was not aloof in any way, but was a very down-to-earth guy, easy to talk to. He spoke through an interpreter. He had perfect English, but would not use it. He had an awful hatred of England.

"Gaddafi said he did not understand why we did not speak in Irish, and why did we speak in English, the language of our enemies.

"He was quite open about his reasons for wanting us in Libya. He said he wanted to help us because he believed in the cause of the IRA and that Ireland had a right to freedom. He said he would be glad to help in any way that he could.

"I said we would be glad to accept help from him, but there could be no strings attached. I made that very, very clear, but subsequently we found there was never any question of strings being attached to his offer. My impression was that the man was very genuine."

Gaddafi then asked the Irishmen to present their 'shopping list'. Cahill gave the Arab leader a list of what he believed was needed to make an impact on the British – short-arms, assault rifles, general-purpose machine guns and explosives. There was no request for rocket launchers at that stage, because the British army was not yet using helicopters as extensively as they did in later years.

Part of the delay in getting Cahill to Libya was caused by difficulties in finding a safe means of transporting the arms back to Ireland.

According to Cahill, it was a man, known to the others simply as 'the German', who organised the leasing of the Claudia.

"Our people had met the Libyans before I went out, and it was decided that a boat should be moored outside Libyan territorial waters and the stuff could be transferred at sea.

"When the people on board the Claudia could not make contact, they headed into Tripoli, which they should never have done. That was to be the safeguard for the Libyans, but the ship arrived in the harbour and there was a bit of a panic. The Libyans were fair enough. They said they would load the ship where it was. However, for reasons which I did not discover until years later, they did not supply all they said they were going to supply."

The Irishmen were somewhat disappointed, but decided that what was on offer was much better than nothing. While the Libyans had slashed the cargo to about one-eighth of the original, the IRA would still have five tons of pistols, rifles, ammunition and a small amount – "a couple of hundredweight" – of explosives.

Cahill discovered the reason for the reduced shipment when he accepted an invitation from Gaddafi to return to Libya in 1975:

"Gaddafi explained that they had initially been very worried about the ship. He said they had checked out the Claudia and discovered that it had a notorious international reputation and had been involved in smuggling operations - cigarettes and stuff like that. Not wanting to tell us to hump off, the Libyans decided to take a chance and give us a certain amount of stuff, even though they knew there was a chance it would be lost."

It had been decided that the safest way back to Ireland for Cahill and two of his colleagues would be on the Claudia.

The Irishmen were alarmed momentarily when the captain revealed that he had spotted a submarine as the Claudia cruised through the Mediterranean. Cahill, his instincts honed by years of clandestine operations, immediately suspected that their movements were being followed by the Royal Navy.

"We did not pay a lot of attention to it after that and were quite confident we were going to make it to Ireland," Cahill recalls.

Eventually arriving off the Waterford coast towards the end of March, the republicans were further frustrated when they were forced to put out to sea again for twenty-four hours because the cargo could not be unloaded in heavy weather.

'The communication problems which had dogged us in Libya returned and we were unable to make radio contact with our people on the shore at Helvick," Cahill says. On 29 March, the Claudia was spotted by the watchers in the harbour and the launch was despatched to meet her. It was not only the republicans on shore who waited for the vessel, however. Three ships of the Irish Naval Service – two minesweepers, the Grainne and the Fola, and a fishery protection vessel, the Deirdre – had kept a stealthy watch on the gun-smuggling operation. Cahill's instincts about the submarine in the Mediterranean had been correct and its commander's running reports on the Claudia's progress since it left Libyan territorial waters had ensured a hot reception for the Irishmen.

"The people who came out on the fishing launch," Cahill says, "knew nothing about the Garda and naval operation.

"We were still quite happy that all was in order and the operation would be a success.

"Myself, Garvey and Murphy were talking when the captain came in and said there were some people who wanted to talk to us. Before he could say any more, a gun was stuck to my head and I was told not to move. It was quite a shock. The crew and the captain said they did not even see them approaching the boat.

"I told the young fellow with the gun to wise up and take the weapon away from my head. He did so after I told him I was unarmed. They were actually quite civil after that."

Sharp-eyed Irish sailors, however, had spotted something being thrown overboard from the launch. After the arrest of Cahill and his colleagues, a government diver was sent down to search for the mystery object, but found nothing.

"The object thrown overboard," says Cahill, "was a sealed box containing between £40,000 and £50,000, in sterling, I think. It had been given to the boys on the launch to take ashore separately. A few days later, with us in jail and things a bit quieter in Helvick, the IRA sent down their own diver and he recovered the box and the money."

October 24, 2002

This article appeared first in the October 23, 2002 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News