Spotlight #3 – IRA fundraising, arms shipments, a priest’s lack of repentance, and the slow shift from the armalite to the ballot box #TheTroubles (9pm Tue 24 Sep on BBC One NI and BBC Four)

Tonight’s third instalment in the seven-part Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History series looks at the IRA’s money-raising, their purchase of arms, and their slow shift in strategy from the armalite towards the ballot box.

“I contributed financially as much as I could, some of it out of the mission boxes. I was approached to the situation up north by some of the IRA leaders down here, if perchance I would work for them permanently … They asked me to travel the world and try to get help for them.”

That’s a comment from a chilling on-camera interview with former parish priest Patrick Ryan who acted as the IRA’s envoy, travelling across Europe in a campervan, to launder money through a Swiss bank account and negotiate the purchase of more than 120 tonnes of arms into Ireland from Libya. The arsenal was buried in bunkers. (Ryan was arrested in Belgium in 1988 and transferred to Dublin; extradition attempts failed; and the Irish DPP decided not to initiate proceedings against Father Patrick Ryan.)

Meeting up with the Provisional IRA’s Joe Cahill in Rome, the former east-African missionary flew to Tripoli to arrange a shipment of weapons. Ryan describes Libyan leader Colonel Gadaffi as “a fine fellow, one of the best I ever met, we got on very well”.

The Libyan’s weren’t the only ones to doubt the security of the sea route to Ireland, shipping a mere 5 tonnes, well under the agreed amount, to prevent a potentially larger loss. The boat’s owner was working with British intelligence services and the shipment was intercepted off the south east coast of Ireland.

The role of Mayo-born George Harrison as US fundraiser is also examined, along with the role of south Boston Mob gangster Pat Nee who “persuaded” local criminals to donate to fund a £1.2 million shipment to Ireland on board the Valhalla fishing boat in the autumn of 1984. An informer betrayed the operation, the RAF tracked the boat, and the Irish Navy intercepted the cargo of armalites and grenades. A slightly-bungled FBI plot to infiltrate and break up the gun-running ring resulted in the Irishmen being acquitted in a US court.

Ryan developed an eye for bomb-making technology, and brought back the Memopark timers – used originally to warn people how long they had left on their car parking meters – that reduced the risk of premature explosion as bombmakers finalised their devices.

The programme notes that Ryan’s timers were used in the Hyde Park and Enniskillen bombs, as well as the device detonated in Grand Hotel in Brighton during the Conservative Party Conference (and just two weeks after the Valhalla’s interception). Sinn Féin representatives attended fringe meetings in Brighton this weekend, the scene of this year’s Labour Party Conference.

A former man of the cloth, Ryan remains unrepentantly wedded to his murderous ideology:

“Big regrets … I regret that I wasn’t even more effective … I would like to have been much more effective that I was … but we didn’t do too badly.”

The other thread running through Jennifer O’Leary’s narration looks at the historic reluctance of the IRA to engage in parliamentary politics, tension which had caused of a split and vicious feud in the then recent past. The success of Bobby Sands in the 1981 Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election and Gerry Adams in Belfast West in the 1983 General Election opened the door to the 1986 decision of the General Army Council and the subsequent Sinn Féin ard fheis to do a U-turn make “a monumental shift” and take their seats in the Dáil.

The programme shows viewers a copy of a letter sent by a Redemptorist priest at Clonard Monastery to the SDLP’s John Hume on behalf of Adams before the vote was ratified “offering direct dialogue to a political alternative to armed struggle”.

Spotlight on The Troubles: A Secret History will be screened on BBC One NI and BBC Four at 9pm on Tuesday 24 September.

Video clip credit: BBC Spotlight