East German Intelligence and Ireland, 1949-90: Espionage, Terrorism and Diplomacy, by Jérôme aan de Wiel, Manchester University Press, 313 pp, ISBN: 978-0719090738
In July 1966 the leader of the (communist) Irish Workers’ Party, Michael O’Riordan, arrived in East Germany to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish civil war with other veterans of the International Brigades who had fought unsuccessfully to defend the republic. As the Irish state commemorated republicans during the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, O’Riordan had a special request to make in East Berlin: the repatriation of the remains of Frank Ryan, who had led the Irish volunteers in Spain. Ryan had been handed over to the Germans in 1940 and died in Dresden in 1944.
It would have been a minor coup for O’Riordan if his request had been granted, when previous non-communist attempts to bring the republican hero home had failed. He almost succeeded. O’Riordan wrote an article for an East German publication in which he lauded Ryan as “an outstanding Irish nationalist, anti-imperialist and anti-fascist fighter”, but some readers of this publication abroad asked an awkward question: why did Ryan collaborate with the Nazis against Britain during the Second World War? The state security service in East Germany, the Stasi, investigated the issue and the authorities decided that potential international embarrassment would mean the gesture of repatriation would not be worth the risk.
However, East Germany, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), had been anxious to establish diplomatic relations with Ireland, as it had been ostracised in the West until the 1970s. And the question of establishing diplomatic relations between the two states and returning Ryan’s remains became intertwined – “corpse diplomacy” to quote one East German official. Up to five thousand Germans had fought against fascism in Spain, including thirteen members of the central committee of the GDR’s ruling party, and this provided O’Riordan with leverage; his account of the Irish contribution to the International Brigades would be published in the GDR in 1979, and in it he again defended Ryan’s reputation. Now, a seemingly unlikely alliance in Ireland – including O’Riordan, Ryan’s old comrade and Fianna Fáil supporter Todd Andrews, and his son, Niall Andrews TD – backed another effort to secure Ryan’s repatriation. An official request had been made by the Irish government to the East Germans; the wheels began to turn in East Berlin, and the remains were in due course handed over. In Dublin’s Glasnevin cemetery the attendance at the Ryan ceremony included Tomás Mac Giolla, of Sinn Féin The Workers’ Party (SFWP), Ruairi Ó Brádaigh of Provisional Sinn Féin, and O’Riordan, representing the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI). These political rivals were united, briefly, to honour a left-wing icon, while O’Riordan had demonstrated his ability to pull strings in the Soviet bloc. Diplomatic relations were established in 1980 between the GDR and Ireland.
The byzantine manoeuvring involving Irish individuals and the GDR represents the most interesting side in aan de Wiel’s very detailed survey. Acrimony between the CPI and SFWP – ostensibly arising from the latter dropping traditional republican demands and promoting a “peace and jobs” programme in the North – had deepened as both parties competed for Soviet approval. O’Riordan had been to the fore in Irish communism for more than thirty years at this point, and had longstanding relationships in the Soviet-led world, but he faced an increasingly strong challenge from Seán Garland, the SFWP general secretary. In 1983, ten years after Garland had openly aligned his organisation with the Soviet Union, the Soviets bestowed “fraternal party” status on the Workers’ Party (WP), whose TDs had propped up a Fianna Fáil minority government the previous year. The WP’s electoral advance, although modest, stood in stark contrast to the CPI’s microscopic existence, and the Soviets pointed this out to the Stasi. The WP had been keen to develop relations with the GDR’s ruling party, finding the Soviets willing to help.
The Soviet ambassador to Ireland, Alexei Nesterenko, in 1985 outlined his views on this and other matters during a meeting with his East German counterpart. Nesterenko found Irish officials indifferent to his embassy, describing them as “reactionaries” under the influence of Washington and the Vatican. The CPI, he pointed out, was “very feeble” and had no influence. Notwithstanding the influence of Irish conservative and clerical forces, Nesterenko noted, the CPI had no presence in grassroots organisations and would not co-operate with other “progressive” organisations such as the WP. He added that the WP was an “important” political body which the GDR and other Soviet bloc states should recognise. The advances the WP had made in the Soviet world would be reflected in its financial ambitions: the party sought £1 million in aid in 1986 from Moscow; around the same time the CPI asked the East Germans for £300 to attend a conference in Lisbon.
Aan de Wiel’s deeply researched study is based on six thousand photocopies provided to him by the German archive which holds the Stasi records. The thirty-year rule does not apply to the release of these files, allowing him to tell his story of Ireland and East Germany up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. And his Stasi material is complemented by Soviet military intelligence records in the care of another German archive holding the East German military intelligence papers. He also draws on the recollections of former East German officials. This book adds to our understanding of the relationship between Irish communism and the Soviet bloc, complementing studies drawing on then-available Russian archives: Emmet O’Connor’s history of Irish communists and the Comintern (Reds and the Green, 2004) and Barry McLaughlin’s study of three Irish victims of the Great Terror (Left to the Wolves, 2007).
Aan de Wiel highlights communist bloc interest in Irish affairs by outlining how Operation SPLASH unfolded – the delivery of an arms shipment by the Soviets to the Official IRA in 1972. This exercise originated in November 1969, following the deployment of British troops in Northern Ireland, when O’Riordan requested that Moscow supply weapons to the leftist leadership of the IRA, at their request. In this correspondence, published in the autobiography of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, O’Riordan contended that the IRA “unfailingly” accepted communist advice in relation to tactics. If his tiny pro-Soviet group had little or no public presence, claiming to have influence over what would become the Official IRA could have raised O’Riordan’s standing in the Kremlin. However, this discussion is speculative and narrow. O’Riordan had attended an international gathering where the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, instructed communists to support “anti-imperialist” forces, although the Northern Ireland situation was not specifically mentioned. We are told here: “Yet, the Irish Communist leader could reasonably infer from Brezhnev’s words that the Northern Irish crisis definitely constituted an anti-imperialist struggle, hence his asking for support. Moreover, O’Riordan was probably in Moscow’s good books as he had agreed with the recent invasion of Czechoslovakia, unlike the Political Committee of his own party and other parties in the world.” This is fair enough, regarding O’Riordan’s motivations, but what is missing is any attempt to analyse the overall Soviet, or communist bloc, interest in Ireland, which had more than one strand.
The evolution of Moscow’s policies at this time in relation to the Irish state and Northern Ireland can be studied in the British records. The Soviets had openly indicated their desire to develop relations with Ireland. And British fears in relation to a Soviet embassy opening in Dublin, and the ability to cope with the KGB presence there, were given impetus in 1971 following the conclusion of trade talks between the Russians and the Irish. The next year the British prime minister, Ted Heath, wrote a secret letter to the taoiseach, Jack Lynch, warning him of the dangers of a Soviet embassy opening. (The Irish government went ahead and the mission opened in 1974.) So, the Soviets could do more than one thing: make mischief for the British government in the North, while pushing for the establishment of an embassy in Dublin with its potential role as an espionage centre. And they could use satellite states: the Czech trade mission in Dublin had pursued interests other than trade.
The Stasi’s vast intelligence network closely observed the operations of the Provisional IRA which would take its “war” against British targets to western Europe. Aan de Wiel offers observations on East German interest in the dilution of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) as a result of its obligation to send troops to Northern Ireland, particularly at the height of the Troubles in the early 1970s. The Stasi would be well informed of British army logistics. If this meant East Berlin knew that North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces in Germany were weaker than their Warsaw Pact opponents in the event of the latter staging a land offensive, what about the West’s nuclear deterrent? Aan de Wiel draws the dramatic conclusion here that dilution of BAOR strength meant that the northern Troubles had “a serious strategic impact” on the course of the Cold War. While the Provisional IRA got its hands on Czech arms, communist bloc involvement in the ongoing Troubles would be minimal. Quoting a NATO meeting in 1977 which heard that the Soviets and their satellites were not behind the Provisionals’ campaign in the North, he contends that the Western intelligence services had not got wind of Operation SPLASH. Perhaps they had not, in specific terms. However, in 1972 Heath had warned Lynch that a Soviet defector, Victor Lyalin, had revealed that the Russians had discussed O’Riordan’s request for arms for the Official IRA.
Ireland’s two pro-Soviet parties would continue competing for Stalinist approval up to the very end of the Cold War. The WP and the GDR ruling party finally established relations in 1988. But the Berlin Wall would come down one year later in a symbolic moment marking the beginning of the end for the communist bloc. Incredibly, the hardline GDR leadership, which opposed Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform process, had earlier celebrated its fortieth anniversary, with banners demanding change to be seen at the official parade in East Berlin. The CPI, still the GDR’s favoured Irish party, had been invited to this event. As tens of thousands fled eastern Europe, the WP president stated: “What we are witnessing is not the collapse of socialism but birth pangs of a new, more democratic and stronger socialism.” Shortly afterwards two party representatives arrived at the East German embassy in London to discuss a business deal. Many aspects of the evolution of the Soviet-leaning Irish left are revealed in East German Intelligence and Ireland, and it is this, rather than a serious contribution to our understanding of espionage and terrorism during the Cold War, that is its chief merit.
John Mulqueen teaches history at Trinity College Dublin.