Last man standing

Once a feared leader of the Official IRA, Seán Garland now faces extradition to the United States on foot of international counterfeiting charges. More isolated than at any other time in his life, it may represent his toughest test yet. Profile by John Byrne

On 1 March 1975, Seán Garland was on his way to his home in Ballymun, the high-rise public housing scheme on Dublin's northside. He was with his wife, Mary, when a group of INLA men ambushed him, shot him repeatedly at close range, and left him for dead.

He spent four months in hospital. Later, he contemptuously dismissed those who had tried to kill him, and resumed his post as National Organiser of Official Sinn Féin, and whatever role he may have had in the Official IRA at the time, undeterred.

Thirty years on from that night, Seán Garland, now chairman of the Workers' Party, finds himself under attack again. But this time, his assailants are the US authorities. They have issued a warrant for his extradition, accusing him of laundering huge quantities of "superdollars" – high-quality, phony $100 bills "produced" in North Korea. The CIA says he is part of a global Marxist conspiracy to destabilise the American currency, and at the same time is lining the pockets of his own revolutionary organisation.

He was arrested on 7 October 2005 in Belfast by the RUC on the basis of a US extradition warrant. He was released on £30,000 bail. He denies the charges.

In many ways, Seán Garland is even more isolated now than he was on that night in 1975. His political organisation, The Workers Party, is now little more than a rump of the party that returned seven deputies to the Dáil in the 1989 General Election. Many allies are long dead. Many more departed the Workers Party with Proinsias De Rossa, Pat Rabbitte et al in 1992. His life history is marked by broken friendships and severed alliances, his circle of friends and associates diminished by years of bitter feuds and violent rows.

Now an older man, suffering from diabetes, he is also geographically isolated from his family, confined to Northern Ireland as he awaits his fate. But Seán Garland remains defiant. His stated life mission (from some time in the early 1960s) has been to destroy imperialist capitalism, and now that it – in the form of the US government – has come for him, he will fight.

Seán Garland was born in inner-city Dublin on 7 March, 1934. His family was working class, and not overtly republican, but he grew up in the same area as some well-known republican figures: Cathal Goulding, who would later become Chief of Staff of the IRA and one of the Official IRA's iconic figures. Brendan Behan was another neighbour.

He was educated by the Christian Brothers, and after seeing an advert in the United Irishman newspaper in 1953, he joined the IRA. The young Garland's first major operation was to join the British Army in 1954, infiltrate it, and provide information to his IRA comrades for an arms raid on an RUC barracks in Gough, Co Armagh. It was a success, and Garland was allegedly in Gough barracks on the night of 12 June 1954 when it was raided by his IRA colleagues.

He later became involved in the "border campaign" of the late 1950s, which saw a large number of prominent IRA figures interned and the organisation greatly weakened during an intermittent campaign along the Northern Irish border.

At 22 years of age, Garland lead the IRA unit which made a failed attack on Brookeborough barracks in Co Fermanagh on 1 January 1957, during which Seán South and Fergal O'Hanlon were killed by the British. Garland himself was seriously wounded and escaped over the mountains and into the Republic.

The next few years were spent in and out of jail. Colleagues came to know a hard, fearless, dour young man who shunned the drinking and story-telling that many of his comrades enjoyed while "off duty".

During the 1960s, Seán Garland was much taken with the fashionable Marxism of the time. It did not then involve the abandonment of republicanism (that came later) but it did incorporate uncritically a mechanistic view of Marxism, involving the states theory of development, which propelled the republican movement into strange areas – for instance, support for industrialisation, irrespective of environmental consequences.

When sectarian violence broke out in Belfast in 1969, the IRA was nowhere to be seen, the Marxist emphasis was discredited in the eyes of many traditional republicans, there was impatience with a policy of gradualist reform of Northern Ireland (demands for a civil rights Act) and a reversion to demands for Britain to leave Ireland and the unification of the country, irrespective of the wishes of a majority in Northern Ireland. It led to the infamous "split" in the IRA and Sinn Féin, with a Provisional movement (both paramilitary and political) breaking away, led by Seán MacStiopháin, Ruairi Ó Brádaigh and Dáithi O'Connell in the South and the likes of Billy McKee, John Kelly (later of arms trial fame) and Gerry Adams in the North.

It was a bitter and deeply personal split, only partly ideological. Goulding and Garland remained in what became known as the Official Sinn Féin and Official IRA, along with Tomás MacGiolla and Joe Sherlock.

The two movements feuded with each other for a few years, the Official IRA being just as murderous as the Provisional IRA. Then, after two outrages which traumatised the Official IRA – their murder of a young Derry man home on leave from the British army, Ranger Best, and the Aldershot bombing, which killed six cleaning women and a priest, in "retaliation" for Bloody Sunday, the Official IRA declared a ceasefire.

It was a ceasefire in name only for well over a decade. Unofficially, the Official IRA continued to murder people. They also continued a campaign of criminality until well into the 1980s and perhaps beyond, involving robberies, racketeering and counterfeiting. In 1983 gardaí found $1.5 million in counterfeit $5 notes in a Dublin warehouse rented by a publishing company of which Garland was a director.

Official Sinn Féin, like the present-day Provisional Sinn Féin, was massively resourced, with offices around the country, an expensively produced newspaper and full-time officials. And throughout all this time there was a concerted denial of any criminality or violence or impropriety of any kind by associates of the movement.

There was also at this time the infiltration of trade unions. Secret branches were formed to "coordinate" political action within unions and this extended to RTÉ where the operation of secret branches facilitated the effective control of crucial television and radio programmes. The "line" of Sinn Féin the Workers Party (as it had become) was propagated relentlessly, association with criminality, murder and violence was indignantly denied. The Provisional IRA was roundly condemned for its persistence with its campaign of violence in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, there was a further split in the Official movement. In 1975, Seamus Costello, perhaps the ablest and most charismatic member of the then Official leadership, broke away and formed the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) and an accompanying paramilitary organisation, the INLA. In October 1976 the Official IRA murdered Seamus Costello as he sat in his car on East Wall in Dublin. Subsequently, the INLA murdered the Official IRA member believed to have been responsible for Costello's murder, Harry Flynn. And it was in the course of that feud with the INLA that Garland was himself almost murdered in 1975.

In 1977 Garland had sponsored a change of name to Sinn Féin – The Workers Party and this was later shortened to The Workers Party in 1982.

Meanwhile, the Official movement sought to ingratiate itself with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and, thereby to usurp the position of the Communist Party of Ireland, which was the party "recognised" by the USSR. Money was sought from the KGB, trips were funded to Moscow and North Korea. And, in a celebrated overture in September 1986, a letter was sent on behalf of the Workers Party to the Soviet Communist Party seeking a £1 million grant. The letter said that most of the shortfall in the party's finances were met by "special activities." It was signed, "Yours fraternally, Seán Garland, general secretary; Proinsias De Rossa TD, chairperson, Executive Political Committee." De Rossa denied any knowledge of the letter during his successful libel action against the Sunday Independent, ("I didn't write it, type it, author it, sign it, post it."). Garland said he had sought funds from the Communist Party without authorisation.

If Seán Garland were to walk into the Dáil bar today, Pat Rabbitte, Proinsias De Rossa, and Eamon Gilmore of the Labour Party would be elbowing their way towards the fire exit in a sweat. All three are former members of the Workers' Party, and prefer not to dwell on their association with Seán Garland. They claim not to have had any idea what Garland was up to during the 1980s, but as the 1990s arrived, they became uncomfortable with him. Just before the 1992 General Election, they decided they wanted nothing more to do with him. They left to form Democratic Left (which was subsequently subsumed by the Labour party). It was another damaging split for Seán Garland, leaving him with a marginalised, tiny organisation which would play no further significant role in Irish politics.

Then, a decade later came the "superdollar" allegations. The CIA, which was investigating North Korean production of fake 100 dollar bills, became interested in Garland. His visits to the North Korean embassy were logged by Russian police, and "superdollar" couriers arrested by the British police allegedly claim that Garland ("the Colonel-in-Chief of the old-style IRA") organised the handover of the fake currency in Moscow.

Panorama broke these allegations in 2002 (the programme also claimed, somewhat embarrassingly for the lifelong socialist, that Seán Garland was staying in the most luxurious hotels available in Moscow), but it was not until earlier this year, while at the Workers Party ard fheis in Belfast, that he was arrested by the RUC.

Seán Garland could face up to 20 years in prison if found guilty. But although the former hard man of the Official IRA is now physically weakened, his persona is unchanged. Conversations are peppered with swear words (former Workers Party member Eoghan Harris is referred to as "a cunt"), and is apparently looking forward to defending himself in an American court, should he end up in one. He knows, at this stage, that his mission to bring about a socialist state in Ireland has failed. But what is important to him is how history will view him. An appearance before an American jury, in front of the world's media, may give him his last chance to get his side of the story across.p