Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

IRA memories of Libyan tyrant secreted away

Republicans have historically not been shy of getting into bed with dictators and killers. Why so quiet then about Muammar al-Gaddafi, asks Malachi O'Doherty

Brutal: supporters hold up a picture of Gaddafi who supplied Semtex to the IRA

Irish republicanism has a long history of courting exotic and dangerous friends. This goes back to the days of the United Irishmen, when Wolfe Tone sought backing from the French.

Two attempts were made by French forces to land troops in Sligo and in Donegal to fight the British on Irish soil. A battle was fought near Castlebar. The Donegal landing led to the arrest of Tone. If the invasion plan had worked, we would all be speaking French now.

Even 200 years before that, the Gaelic chieftains had tried to get military help from the Spanish king, Philip. Spain was Catholic and Ireland, from that period, for strategic reasons, more assertively declared itself Catholic, too. But for that opportunity we might all be Protestants now, or Celtic Catholics, or believers in fairies still.

During the First World War, republicans sought help from the Kaiser and he provided 20,000 rifles and 10 machine-guns to Roger Casement, though they were intercepted before he could land them.

The 1916 Rising is usually remembered as an act of heroic self-sacrifice, but there may have been stages in the planning of it when it seemed likely that German troops would land in Ireland, or that Irish troops in the trenches would mutiny and come home to fight the British. Then we might all be speaking German now.

Sean Russell, an IRA leader in the 1940s, died on a German submarine, having tried to make an alliance with Hitler. It was of little concern, apparently, that the Nazis were slaughtering Jews and rampaging across Europe and into Russia.

The chief concern of republicans was that Ireland might be liberated from Britain. They were ready to risk the consequences of allegiances with tyrants to break the Union.

Had Russell succeeded and had Hitler won the war, who knows what terms the Reich would have exacted? We would at least have had to give up our Jewish neighbours for extermination and much more besides. But, in the view of republicans, the Union with Britain was an even greater atrocity.

In 1966, the IRA sought arms from both Russia and China. Both powers appear to have thought that the IRA then wasn't politically astute enough to be of much value.

During the more recent Troubles, the greatest benefactor of the IRA was Libya, though a lot of weaponry came from Irish-Americans in the United States. Loyalists imported guns from apartheid South Africa.

Libya's contribution to the IRA exceeded the gifts of the Kaiser and Hitler, at least in that much of it arrived. Colonel Gaddafi provided them with tons of Semtex plastic explosive and hundreds of assault rifles. He also sent parts for surface-to-air missiles, which would have enabled the IRA to shoot down helicopters.

This part of the shipment was incomplete, or some of it may have been lost to the seizure of another shipment in transit, the Eksund, by the French.

To the IRA, an enemy's enemy was a friend. But, while Gerry Adams and other republicans have shown their respect for other allies, like the Palestinians, Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro, they have been reticent about the legacy and memory of Muammar Gaddafi, though he did more for them than any other benefactor.

The recent BBC Storyville documentary on Gaddafi depicted him as a grotesque and brutal lunatic. It recounted incidents of students being hanged in front of cheering audiences of other students and schoolchildren.

He was a sexual predator who would go into schools and select children for his bed chamber. He was Jimmy Savile with an army and a gold-plated pistol. And he had Savile's gift for exacting respect and even affection from those in power.

Tony Blair, visiting Gaddafi in 2003, was helping to integrate him back into the international community after he had given up his nuclear ambitions. There was oil to be traded. But did he have to bring flowers and hug him?

Gaddafi was an eccentric on the scale of some of the loonier maharajas. When he travelled abroad, a cargo plane went ahead of him to pitch his tent. It brought camels to situate around the tent, yet Gaddafi himself, if we are to believe it, had once ordered all camels in Tripoli shot dead because they spoiled the look of a modern city.

On the programme, one of his female bodyguards talked of how charming he was at first and how she came to fear him after she had been summoned to witness another of the routine executions of students and been ordered to cheer.

Some people still have fond memories of Gaddafi. He had himself crowned King of Africa and travelled around the continent trying to buy influence. In Uganda, he built the biggest mosque in Africa and one man who had met him said he now believed he had a mansion in heaven.

Many agreed that he had changed. He had been witty and intelligent and handsome as a young man and he had had a dream of building a utopia in Libya. Which should have been easy with the oil money. And he had had the courage to stay and fight to the end.

Some people can manage to say good things even about monsters.

The Provisionals, however, have nothing to say about Gaddafi at all. And yet they have so much to thank him for.