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How American money helped the IRA

American Connection: U.S. Guns, Money, & Influence in Northern Ireland, by Jack Holland. New York: Viking. 272 pp. $19.95. The positive side of Jack Holland's often disingenuous account of the American aspects of the battle for Northern Ireland is the insight he offers about the twists and turns of events over the last decade in Belfast and Dublin, London, Washington, and New York. Holland is an insider, a Belfast Roman Catholic by origin with excellent Irish-American sources (particularly on the left), now an American writer on Irish politics.

He has much to say about gun-running, political financing, congressional and press attitudes, the Reagan policy on extradition of IRA fugitives, and support for Thatcher and the moderates (Holland might say: trimmers) in Dublin. And Holland has an ideology that provides an underlying unity for his disparate chapters.

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The negative side is precisely that ideology, and the cagey, wily fashion in which Holland both camouflages and uses it to stir anti-British emotions and to rationalize nationalist violence. For Holland's line approaches that of the Provisional IRA, which he gracefully whitewashes by dropping ``Provisional'' from its title, thus equating it with the official IRA and treating its terrorism as historically justifiable.

The Provo line is clear: ``Brits out now!''; a united Ireland under leftist and emphatically secular rule; and the settling of accounts with the northern Protestants, whose legitimacy is tacitly denied - despite their majority position in Ulster - and whose militants will be expected (forced?) to depart after unification, much as other ``foreigners'' have fled other newly independent countries. Only then, according to this view, will Ireland find its true self at last, closing the books on English conquest, Protestant colonization, and partition. Is not Provo violence understandable, even acceptable, to right such wrongs? These arguments, never explicitly stated, overhang the book.

And so, therefore, does the shadow of the gunman-hero, becoming tangible in Holland's fascinating chapter on the elderly George Harrison of Brooklyn, the key man behind American arms-smuggling to the IRA until he and his associates were tried - and acquitted - in 1982. In speaking out, Harrison is reaching for a place in IRA history, and the court records bear out his account.

As a teen-ager in Ireland, training with a submachine gun, Harrison imbibed a mystique that shaped his behavior. He credits himself with having obtained over 2,000 weapons, plus ammunition, for smuggling to Ireland in small lots over 30 years. These more than replaced arms captured by the British, and have escalated from handguns to the powerful infantry weapons needed for spectacular operations that will impress the public. Harrison, an ascetic bachelor who has never fired a shot in anger during his passionate affair with Irish - and global - revolution (he applauds the PLO and the Sandinistas), has devoted his life to the gun.

In the process, he has spent about $1 million: ``I was good on prices.'' Where did this retired security guard get the cash? The financing of gun-running has usually been attributed to NORAID (Irish Northern Aid Committee), which Holland estimates has collected $6.4 million since its founding in 1970, allegedly to aid the families of imprisoned nationalists.

Was this primarily for guns? Washington says yes, and Holland first summarizes the government's legal and investigative (FBI) actions against NORAID before dismissing them as ``not proven.'' His own data on the difficult financial position of the Provos suggest how attractive the NORAID money must be. Witness his conclusion: ``Without the constant supply of weapons, the IRA would be lost and the whole republican structure would quickly break down.''

What lies ahead for extreme nationalists in general, for the Provos in particular? Holland is not optimistic. As Irish-American leaders have rejected the Provos, as the Reagan administration has thrown its weight behind the Thatcher government, as British security operations have grown more sophisticated and less bloody, support for the Provos has fallen among both Ulster Catholics and Irish-Americans; NORAID contributions have slipped, for example. The Provos seem just to be holding on, hoping for a break.

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This may come from Protestant militants - who lie beyond Holland's purview - and who are outraged by plans for power-sharing between London and Dublin. The possibility of a Beirut scenario, with British troops withdrawing, and with the Provos (backed by volunteers from the south) fighting it out in Belfast with the Protestant militias, cannot be ignored.

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