McGuinness urged IRA gunrunner to work with gangster ‘Whitey’ Bulger, says new book

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Martin McGuinness encouraged an IRA gunrunner to work with Boston-based Irish-American gangster James “Whitey” Bulger to secure guns for the paramilitary group, a new book reveals.

US Marine turned IRA man John Crawley says in his just-published memoir, The Yank, that he told McGuinness in the early 1980s he was “extremely uncomfortable” working with Bulger’s organised crime gang in Boston to set up a new arms network in the US for the IRA.

“Little old ladies in Noraid can’t get us M60 machine guns,” McGuinness told Crawley in reply, referring to the US support group that raised funds to help families of IRA prisoners.

New York-born Crawley, the son of Irish immigrant parents, joined the US Marine Corps in the mid-1970s with a view to becoming an IRA member on his return to Ireland.

He became an IRA member in 1980 and remained on active service until September 1984, when he was arrested by the Naval Service when it intercepted the Marita Ann fishing trawler off the Kerry coast carrying arms from Boston destined for the IRA. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Crawley met McGuinness for the first time in 1983 in the pub run by veteran republican John Joe McGirl in Ballinamore, Co Leitrim. McGuinness asked him to travel to the US to buy weapons in gun stores because his American accent would not raise suspicions.

During this mission, McGuinness, then an IRA commander, remained Crawley’s principal contact in Ireland. The two men met regularly in the Botanic Gardens in Dublin.

In one exchange, McGuinness suggested that the IRA would have to attack joint Garda-RUC patrols which Garret FitzGerald, then Taoiseach, was considering along the border at the time.

“Well, we can’t blow up half a police car,” McGuinness told Crawley.

In the book, Crawley dismisses a senior British Army officer’s claim that McGuinness was the IRA’s finest military mind, and British military officer material, saying that he found no evidence of this from his interactions with the IRA commander.

The two men regularly clashed over what Crawley believed was the IRA’s poor military training and McGuinness’s lack of interest in developing a sophisticated arsenal of weapons, emphasising the need for quantity over quality.

Crawley said he became “increasingly frustrated by his military illiteracy”.

“I couldn’t blame him for not having professional training but some of the stuff he came out with was baffling. I began to see a different side to him, a side that gave me my first niggling concerns about our prospects for victory,” he says.

In his book, Crawley writes about his dealings with Bulger, who was later revealed to be an FBI informant and who went on the run for 16 years before his capture in 2011. In 2018, Bulger, then 89, was murdered in a US prison while serving two life sentences for 11 murders.

Crawley said during his time in Boston, Bulger offered to supply false identifications, work and places to live in the city for IRA men on the run, but Crawley believed the Boston gangster wanted “a small army of IRA hitmen indebted to him and under his control”.

In the 1990s, following his release from prison, Crawley reveals that “a sympathetic engineer” working for the ESB provided information to the IRA on which transformers to target in a plot to bomb substations and cripple the electricity supply to much of London and southeast England.

Crawley and the IRA team plotting the attack were arrested just before their planned bombings. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison in 1997 but was later released under the terms of the Belfast Agreement.