John Crawley was at the heart of IRA operations. He’s now breaking his silence about his role, and pointing the finger at republican leaders who spied for Britain. Our Writer at Large Neil Mackay talks to one of the IRA’s most dangerous men


THERE’S nothing in John Crawley’s childhood to explain the path his life took. After all, how does a well-loved, middle class American boy go from a distinguished career in the US Marines to becoming one of the IRA’s most infamous fighters?

Crawley was hand-picked by IRA commander Martin McGuinness – who’d eventually become Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister – to set up an international gun-running network. The mission would see him team up with some of the most notorious gangsters in American criminal history, including the feared mob leader James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. Crawley would be spectacularly captured on the high seas with £250,000 worth of weapons in his ship’s hold en route to Ireland. Later, he’d plot a devastating attack on England’s national grid and receive 35 years in maximum security prisons. Released under the Good Friday Agreement, he eventually gave up the gun.

Now aged 65, he’s emerged from the shadows to tell his life story in a new book The Yank: My Life as a Former US Marine in the IRA. The Herald on Sunday spoke to Crawley from his home in Dublin. His book will be controversial to say the least. Although there’s already interest from Hollywood, many in Britain – and Ireland – will loathe Crawley and all he stands for. However, his testimony casts fascinating light on IRA operations, the dysfunction and infiltration of the republican movement, and the mindset of men ready to kill for a cause.

Be prepared for more books like this in the near future. In the decades following Ireland’s 1919-21 War of Independence, members of the ‘old’ IRA stepped forward to tell their life stories. With peace in Northern Ireland holding since 1998, former Provisional IRA members are now inevitably surfacing to recount their histories.

Childhood

“I’d a normal childhood,” Crawley says. He was born in Long Island, New York, in 1957, the child of Irish immigrants. His family, though, “wasn’t Irish republican”. His dad served in the US airforce. His parents “would’ve liked to have seen a United Ireland but neither would have supported armed struggle. Irish politics wasn’t really discussed”.

Years later, after his arrest, a Special Branch officer would tell Crawley “you’re probably a decent fella from a respectable family but some evil b*****d got ahold of your brain”. Not true, Crawley insists. Nobody brainwashed or indoctrinated him. However, aged 13 he spent a summer in Ireland and “fell in love” with the country. For Crawley, Ireland became “home”. A bright student, he read voraciously and found himself drawn to hardline republicanism and the notion of taking up arms against British rule in Northern Ireland. In his mind, he linked the American War of Independence with Ireland’s own fight against Britain. It was politics, not religion which motivated Crawley – he remains a confirmed atheist. By age 17, he wanted to fight with the IRA. But how could a kid in America do that?

Then at 18, he enlisted in the US Marines. Why? “To get training, to come home to Ireland and join the IRA.” He was a first rate marine, and became part of the corp’s special operations outfit known as RECON. In three years, he rose to sergeant and became a military instructor. In his fourth year, Crawley quit. He’d learned all he needed. Within a few hours of leaving the marines, he was on a plane to Ireland. “I was determined to join the IRA. I was on a mission.”

He flirted with initially joining Sinn Fein as a way into the IRA, but realised that would flag him to police as a “known republican”. Eventually, he befriended a former IRA prisoner in Dublin. The republican tried to deter Crawley, even telling him – significantly as it turned out – “that the leadership in Belfast and Derry couldn’t be trusted”.

Lives lost

Initially suspicious that an American might be working for US intelligence on behalf of the British, the IRA vetted Crawley thoroughly, but finally in 1980 he was “sworn in”. Crawley remains tight-lipped about operations he took part in. “I must be careful what I say, but I became a full-time active member. I gave my all to it.”

So was he – in IRA parlance – “on active service”? Crawley replies: “Yes, of course.” Based “around the border” for years, he lived in “safe houses with people on the run”. Does Crawley realise that many will see him as a terrorist and criminal, rather than the freedom fighter he describes himself as? He’s aware of that, but adds: “I know bad things happened, but I was never involved in anything personally that I couldn’t stand over or I’d be ashamed of.” He sees the word ‘terrorist’ as “a term of political abuse. The people you don’t like are terrorists, the people you do are freedom fighters”.

What about the murder of innocent civilians – how does that truth sit with the idea of being a ‘freedom fighter’? “Nobody joined the IRA to kill civilians,” he says. “You wanted to fight British military forces. When things went wrong, things that would embarrass you because they were morally wrong and politically wrong, it was terrible for morale. Some of the mistakes that happened, you’d be ashamed and gutted by. We were normal humans with normal empathy. No matter how people try to portray us, we were normal people in a very abnormal situation and it was important not to lose your humanity.”

Regardless of what Crawley says, however, his words will bring no relief to anyone who suffered at the hands of the IRA – and only add to their pain, prompting fury and disgust at how he frames the taking of life. “I know that apology adds insult to injury, and I regret the loss of innocent life. I’m not a fanatic, I was a soldier. I joined with the highest of ideals. Bad things happened and I’m sorry that they did. This happens in all conflicts. There’s no such thing as pure war.”

Martin McGuinness

After proving himself to the IRA, Crawley was eventually summoned to meet Martin McGuinness – the republican paramilitary commander who later became a leading Sinn Fein politician – “in a pub near the border”. McGuinness gave Crawley a vital mission: return to America and establish an arms network shipping weapons to Ireland.

Initially, “starstruck” by McGuinness, Crawley, however, came to doubt his “hero". Crawley – a highly-skilled special forces soldier – realised he could help improve IRA training. The training camps he’d attended were substandard, with faulty information relayed and shoddy weapons handling. If the IRA had better training, Crawley felt, it would be “less dangerous to civilians. If you professionalise, you’re more effective”.

Crawley once “heard two members of the Army Council [the IRA’s ruling body] say ‘a monkey can be trained to shoot’.” As a marine, that incensed him. “It was deeply disturbing”. It flew in the face of British Army claims “that the IRA was the most highly trained, professional, sophisticated guerrilla organisation” on Earth. Crawley said IRA rocket experts were sometimes even used for bank robberies not bombings. “It was very hard to figure out why it wasn’t managed better.”

Crawley “came to the conclusion that [McGuinness] didn’t have the military skill and ability” that the British believed. McGuinness was “affable, intelligent … I liked him, but could detect no real interest in improving our military capabilities beyond a certain level and I could never figure out why”. IRA figures who wanted to improve ‘militarily’, says Crawley, were “marginalised”. His encounters with McGuinness left him “demoralised”.

American mission

Even Crawley’s mission to America was badly planned. He was selected solely because of his accent and simply given £9000 to begin an arms smuggling operation. “They didn’t even say what to buy – nothing.”

Previous American arms networks had been broken up. Crawley hoped his mission could help “standardise” the IRA’s arsenal, as the Provisionals had “a myriad of weapons and calibres”. From a military perspective, “that’s a nightmare”. The IRA’s mix-and-match arsenal didn’t worry McGuinness, though. “I was aghast.”

In a moment from a spy movie, Crawley was given a torn $5 note and told to meet the man in Boston with the matching half. As a “clean skin” – someone never arrested – Crawley returned to America on his own passport.

The underworld

He met his contact – the $5 bill proving he wasn’t an FBI agent planning a sting. Eventually, Crawley was introduced to a man called Jim Bulger. Then unknown outside the American underworld, this was James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, today ranked among the most vicious gangland bosses in US criminal history. Bulger ran one America’s biggest ‘Irish mobs’ and was eventually captured after an international manhunt and killed in jail.

Crawley knew he was entering the criminal underworld but had no idea, he insists, that Bulger was “killing people and pulling their teeth out – stuff like that. I read things about him 20 years later and it chilled me”. At the time, it was thought Bulger robbed banks and ran gambling rackets. Bulger even told Crawley that “he kept drugs out of Boston. I’d no way of doing a background check”. And the bottom line was: Crawley needed guns and couldn’t be too choosey who helped him.

HeraldScotland: John Crawley, now 65, met notorious US gangland boss James 'Whitey' Bulger who wanted to be seen as supportive towards the IRAJohn Crawley, now 65, met notorious US gangland boss James 'Whitey' Bulger who wanted to be seen as supportive towards the IRA (Image: Newsquest)

Bulger gave Crawley $5000 and a bag of guns as a “contribution”. As an Irish-American, Bulger wanted “to be known in the neighbourhood as someone who supported the IRA”. Bulger, though, was never politically committed to republicanism, unlike his gangland rival Pat Nee, another Boston mobster who’d grown up in Ireland. Nee was also an ex-marine so he and Crawley became “close”. “Pat had a genuine interest in helping the republican movement”.

There were times when Crawley feared Bulger might kill him because the gun running operation was “growing legs. These type of guys will shoot you in the back of the head while they’re shaking your hand. They’ll buy you a new car and then next day put you in the boot and throw you into a quarry.”

However, Bulger was valuable to Crawley, even saving him from a possible FBI sting. Crawley was told a Native American crime gang had stolen 900 M16s and wanted rid of them quickly as they were “getting insane heat from the Feds”. The story seemed plausible, but Bulger, who’d contacted in the police, checked it out. The robbery had never happened. Someone – the FBI maybe – was setting them up.

The shipment

Arms were now being gathered, including weapons recovered from old IRA arms caches in the Bronx, and Crawley had secured a ship for transportation. The plan was to set up a legitimate cargo company regularly shipping goods across the Atlantic to European ports, and use it as cover to smuggle weapons into Ireland “maybe three times a year”. The cargo business would even fund the arms network. One part of the plot involved bringing weapons from Libya via Malta. Crawley was arrested before the Libyan plot got underway – though huge supplies of sophisticated weaponry from the Gaddafi regime eventually made it to Ireland giving the IRA a significant boost.

As the gun-running mission firmed up in Boston, Crawley received a ‘comm’ – a message on cigarette paper inside cellophane wrapping - telling him to call a Dublin payphone at a fixed time. An unknown voice on the other end said the IRA leadership wanted him home immediately. “Bring everything and be on the boat,” he was told.

It made no sense. With just 160 rifles and ammunition valued at £250,000, there wasn’t enough weapons to merit immediate transportation, and no reason for Crawley to accompany them. Latitude and longitude coordinates were given and Crawley was told to rendezvous with another ship and pass the guns over.

Informers

The 10-day crossing was appalling, with the boat caught in a hurricane. “But the Irish navy were waiting”. They boarded, and Crawley and his team were arrested. He’d been set up. But by who? The informer was Sean O’Callaghan, later head of the IRA’s Southern Command, and a spy for Irish police and MI5.

Crawley, though, is sure another spy was in the ranks. O’Callaghan had given the location to catch Crawley’s boat, but he hadn’t been the one who ordered Crawley to return home. So who was it? “I’ve my suspicions by I’m not going to say. Only a handful of men at the top knew we were coming. Why did I have to come with material that made no real difference to the campaign?” Yet again, the IRA’s arms network in America was destroyed, and the operation to ship weapons from Libya derailed. “It was a major setback.”

It was now 1984 – the height of the Troubles. Crawley got ten years in Ireland’s Portlaoise Prison. After a foiled escape attempt, he was eventually freed in 1994. Ten days after his release the IRA called its first ceasefire.

England department

However, that didn’t mean the IRA stopped planning operations. Crawley eventually moved to a London safe-house, planning an attack should the ceasefire end. The plot was to hit England’s electricity grid, causing economic havoc. The IRA had learned that attacks in England had greater political, financial and psychological impact than operations in Northern Ireland. But, as Crawley now knows, the IRA was also “heavily infiltrated” – riddled with spies for Britain.

Any planned attack on the mainland required approval from the IRA’s ‘England Department’ which answered to the Provisional’s GHQ, General Headquarters – staffed by the organisation’s leaders.

By now, the ceasefire had collapsed, so Crawley’s operation was live. Then in July 1996, an armed team of SO19 police raided his safe house, firing tear gas through the windows and blinding their IRA targets with ‘ambush lights’ mounted outside.

“How did they know we were there?” Crawley asks. “I can’t go into detail but I’ve good reason to believe there was an informer. You get a bit sick sometimes in the IRA when you do big operations and people higher than you keep informing on you.” Crawley’s team was found with bomb timers but no explosives – so used the defence that they were planning hoax attacks. The jury didn’t buy it, and Crawley got 35 years – convicted on his 40th birthday.

End game

IRA prisoners in English jails were held in ‘special secure units’ – constantly surveilled. “It was a fresh hell,” Crawley says. “You were buried alive in a concrete tomb – a prison inside a prison.” Not long into his sentence, a CIA officer came to visit Crawley, offering him a deal: reveal the location of the explosives in the electricity grid plot in return for “a lot of money” and a ticket to America. Crawley refused and alerted the IRA’s ‘Prisoner Department’ an attempt had been made to “recruit” him. He then settled in to serve most of the rest of his life in jail.

The next day, though, the IRA called its second ceasefire. Crawley was transferred to Portlaoise Prison and eventually released as part of the peace process. With the Provisionals stood down, Crawley ‘retired’ from the IRA. “People say I should be grateful for the Good Friday Agreement, but I’d be more appreciative if the IRA hadn’t been riddled with informers and we weren’t caught in the first place.” Being ‘grateful’ for the Good Friday Agreement, might mean him “being grateful to the people who set me up”.

He adds: “I don’t want people to get the wrong idea. I’m completely for peace. I’m not advocating returning to armed struggle. That would be pointless, useless. I support the peace unequivocally … but I’m very dissatisfied with the political direction, not because I want war, but because I want peace with full freedom”.

Consequently, Crawley doesn’t back the Good Friday Agreement. He sees it as a betrayal of Irish republican ideals, as there’s still no 32-county Irish Republic. “As an Irish republican, I’m entitled to be critical of a process that can’t lead to Irish republican goals.” He was in Sinn Fein for a while, but disillusioned, eventually quit in 2007.

Although many will say that Crawley’s conscience should be tormented for the rest of his life, he insists he has “no regrets”. What plays most on his mind is the informers in the IRA. “There’s people at the top who were at their skullduggery, but hopefully in the fullness of time that’ll come out. They were deeply embedded. I trusted some people who couldn’t be trusted.”


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