In 1981, following the slow and agonizing deaths of ten men during the IRA
hunger strike at the Maze prison in Belfast, recruits flocked to the 'Provos',
determined to strike back at the government of the British Prime Minister,
Margaret Thatcher, whom they accused of murdering their comrades. Now more
than ever, the IRA needed not only guns to arm the hundreds of new Volunteers
but also heavy weaponry to level the playing field and take on the British
army. It was to America that the IRA's General Headquarters' Staff (GHQ) - the
people who run the IRA's 'war' - turned for help. Across the Atlantic, the
IRA's arms-buying network was overhauled and streamlined. A senior IRA figure
came over from Ireland and told veteran arms supplier, George Harrison, that he
was being stood down. Harrison had been diligent in his job. Throughout the
seventies, he had shipped over 2,500 weapons and a million rounds of ammunition
to Ireland. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) believe that this
figure is a 'conservative estimate'.
Harrison was telephoned and told, to his dismay, that 'Skinny Legs' would be
taking over. 'Skinny Legs' was Gabriel Megahey, a Belfast republican who had
joined the IRA after the upheavals of August 1969 and had later gone to England
and taken a job in Southampton. He was now being sent to America to put George
Harrison out of business. I met Megahey in New York, where he is currently
fighting deportation, and asked him what his role had been. 'The Federal
Government would deem me to have been the Officer Commanding (OC) of America
and Canada.' I asked him if this was true but he would not elaborate. 'That's
what they have on record,'
My job at that time was to do something to save the hunger strikers. We had
men dying and I felt it was a moral duty to do something about it.
Specifically, I knew Brendan Hughes very well. [Hughes was on hunger strike for
fifry-three days.] I'd been a good friend of his for many years and it hurt me
deeply that Brendan was lying on a death bed.
What Megahey did not know was that the FBI knew he was coming. In the wake of
the IRA's assassination of Lord Mounbatten and the killing of eiighteen British
soldiers at Warrenpoint on the same day in 1979, the FBI had reorganized to
combat the growing threat from the ERA's procurement operations in America.
The British were delighted that at long last the United States Govenunent, now
under President Reagan, had grasped the fact that much of the blood being
spilled on Irish soil was the result of American arms and money. In May 1980,
an FBI 'PIRA Squad' (Provisional IRA) was set up in New York under Agent Lou
Stephens, a veteran of anti-IRA operations in the seventies. At its height,
Lou Stephens' 'PIRA Squad' was running around seven hundred wire taps. One of
them was on George Harrison's phone.
At first the FBI did not know who 'Skinny Legs' was. It was only some time
later, whilst carrying out surveillance on another IRA suspect's house on a hot
summces day that they saw the suspect talking to a man on the veranda in
shorts, who had'very thin legs'. Stephens and his unit put two and two
together, got in touch with their British counterparts, and found that Gabriel
Megahey emerged from the files, Megahey was placed under FBI surveillance. To
Stephens and his team, he became known as 'Panicky' because he was clearly so
surveillance conscious. Another suspect, Gerry McGeough then appeared in the
frame. McGeough came from County Tyrone, had joined the Provisional IRA in
1975, been active during the hunger strike and then gone on the run following
an alleged murder attempt on an off-duty part-time soldier who was working as a
postman. It was decided that McGeough's considerable talents as an Volunteer
would best be used in America so he was sent over to join Megahey's arms
procurement operation. 'The hunger strike had the effect of re-awakening an
Irish American giant,' he told me. 'An Anglophobic one.'
Irish America fulfilled certain functions. They supplied guns, weapons, war
material and financial and moral support. It was obvious to me personally that
if we were going to prosecute a war, we would have to have the right weaponry
with which to do it and I saw my role as helping to get that in place.
McGeough started work in Florida, travelling the state with a young American
woman whose driving licence was used to buy dozens of sophisticated assault
rifles from gun shops and arms dealers. Buying weapons across the counter in
America posed no problem as all citizens have the constitutional right to bear
arms and McGeough had the ready cash to pay for them. They were stored in a
camper van and driven to the North-Eastern seaboard for shipment to Ireland by
IRA sympathizers who worked in the docks and elsewhere. I asked McGeough what
sort of quantities he was assembling. He said the last consignment consisted
of somewhere in the region of maybe forty or fifty weapons, that's Armalite AR
15 assault rifles, Heckler and Koch HK 91 s. McGeough ensured that the arsenal
reached New York docks. Impressed by McGeough's cool efficiency, Megahey asked
him to supervise the most important arms procurement operation ever undertaken
by the IRA in America. Word had come from a senior IRA figure at GHQ, who
today is believed to be one of the most uncompromising members of the IRA's
ruling Army Council, that the men on the ground, in particular in operational
areas like South Armagh, needed missiles to shoot down British army helicopters
and deny the enemy their dominance of the sides. Megahey needed to be told no
We felt that if we could nullify the helicopter, we would be well on the way to
winning the war. A surface to air missile (SAM) or a Red-Eye missile will zero
in on the heat of the helicopter motor and bring it down and you don't need too
much knowledge to know how to use it.
Gerry McGeough's role was to acquire the missiles, do the negotiations and
basically to oversee with me the whole operation in America.
McGeough was enthusiastic.
Taking out British army helicopters would have worked wonders for morale and
boosted our ability to prosecute the war on a wider level. It would also have
had a corresponding effect on the British, not just operationally but in terms
of undermining their morale and weakening their resolve.
Megahey and McGeough were no strangers to the shady world of arms dealing. The
missiles they sought were there to be had if they made the right contacts. At
the time, with wars raging in Nicaragua and Honduras in Central America, some
of which were financed and supported by America's Central Intelligence Agency
(CIA), any weapon could be had with no questions asked if the buyers were
prepared to pay the price.
Megahey says he had $80,000 on hand to finance the missile deal. Neither man
was surprised to be told that negotiations had to be conducted in New Orleans,
a jumping-off point for the arms supply route to Latin America. Megahey told
McGeough to check that missiles were on offer. The rendezvous was a shabby
office on the upper floor of a waterfront warehouse in New Orleans. Megahey
had told McGeough to observe, say nothing and let the man who went with him do
all the talking. In the room were a group of men, some obviously Latinos others
'regular Americans'. The two IRA men were asked who they were and what they
wantsed 'D'ye ever hear tell of the Provisionals?' said McGeough's accomplice.
'Well, that who we are. What we want are SAM missiles.' Did they have the
money? Yes. How many did they want? Five. That would be $50,000-$10,000 each.
The deal was agreed and another meeting arranged for two weeks later at a New
York hotel, when details were to be finalized. McGeough then reported back to
Gerry felt that it was 'a go' and that it was what it seemed to be. We just
had to come up with the money.
Megahey decided to go the meeting himself to make sure the IRA was not being
ripped off and there were no hitches. The meeting was held in a room at the St
Regis hotel. This time, only one arms dealer was present, whom Megahey assumed
to be the arms' nerwork's 'Mr Big'. Megahey introduced himself as the IRA's
'Number One man in the USA' and was surprised to find that before business
began, he was given an intensive interrogation by the arms supplier.
'Panicky''s suspicions were aroused when the man said delivery of the missiles
would be handled by the dealers. Megahey would have none of it. 'You're gone.
The truck's hit. Money's gone. Missiles gone. I'm gone. The only one to lose
is us.' Megahey suggested that they both offer themselves as hostages to secure
the deal. 'I myself will personally go as the hostage,' he said. 'Wherever
you want. I'll sit with whoever you want me to sit with. If I'm going to
gaol, somebody's going down the hole. I know one thing for sure, if any of my
men get nicked, you're dead!' But Megahey also offered a sweetener. 'What
we're dealing with here moneywise is chicken shit,' he said. 'If this goes OK,
then we're prepared to come in with a lotta big money.' It seemed the missiles
were almost home and dry and Megahey and McGeough had pulled off the most
important arms deal in the IRA's history.
Gabriel Megahey left home at 10 o'clock on the moniing of 21 June 1982 to
begin work on a construction site in Manhattan where he worked as a crane and
elevator operator. As he walked off the site, the FBI swooped. 'Federal
agents threw me over a car with a barrage of guns in my ears and took me down
to the FBI's Central Headquarters.' It was the culmination of the PIRA Units'
'Operation Hit and Win'. The arms consignment at New York docks that Gerry
McGeough had helped put together was also hit to reveal around sixty high
velocity rifles and dozens of timer devices destined for the IRA's bombs which
enabled them to be triggered up to a mile away. 'It was better than sex,'
remembers Agent Lou Stephens, 'Three times better. We really saved a lot of
lives.' Megahey was sentenced to seven years. The evidence was
incontrovertible. The FBI had recruited an informer from within Megahey's unit
and secretly videoed the meetings in New Orleans and New York. The arms
dealers were FBI agents posing as gun runners. Stephens had even ordered the
missiles from the Brooklyn Navy Yard with strict orders to de-activate them
first. But Gerry McGeough escaped the FBI's net, and went on the run in America
before returning to Ireland and the 'war'. He was due to return to Northern
Ireland when it was decided that his talents, proven even more in America,
would be better employed in Europe where the IRA was about to reopen the Third
Front in its campaign. On 31 August 1988, McGeough was arrested on the
Dutch-German border in a car in which two AK 47 assault rifles and three
handguns were concealed. It was to be almost four years before his case was
resolved, not by the German courts but by the American authorities who sought
his extradition to stand trial for his gun-running activities. The German
authorities suspended the case before a verdict was reached and agreed to his
extradition. On return to the United States McGeough stood trial in Louisiana
and was sentenced to three years. He was released in 1996 and returned to
Ireland. I asked him if he had any regrets. He said he had none and had only
fulfilled what he considered to be his 'patriotic duty'.