By Jack Holland
It’s been more than eight years since IRA volunteer Joe Toner (not his real name) last saw his home in Belfast. That was before they put a price on his head. In the intervening years, Joe has had lots of homes — safe houses in Ireland and the U.S. When he is asked how many, it takes a while for him to count them up.
“At least 16 in Ireland,” he begins, and then pauses and shakes his head. “No — I forgot one. Oh yeah, then there was that other place.” He hesitates again and does a recount. “At least 20 in Ireland, probably more.”
And in the U.S., he is asked?
“Five on the West coast, seven in New York, one in Boston,” he says after a second’s reflection.
The 30-year-old Belfast man is what’s known as an OTR, for “On the Run.” He joined the IRA when he was 18 has been in hiding for eight years — that is, more than half his life as a republican activist. For approximately one of those years he was an OTR in the south of Ireland. He stayed in each safe house during the day playing cards, reading, doing crossword puzzles and sleeping. At night he could go out. In the 11 months or so he was there, he was moved every few weeks, from Monaghan to Mayo, from Dublin to Clare.
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“At least I saw Ireland — by night,” he jokes. Once he stayed in the home of a Fine Gael member. On another occasion he spent a night in at the safe house where Danny McCann, Mairead Farrell and Sean Savage spent their last night in Ireland before heading for Gibraltar and death at the hands of an undercover British army unit, the SAS, in March 1988.
Joe Toner is one of the forgotten men and women of the Good Friday Agreement. The Agreement, signed last April, has provisions for the release of imprisoned members of paramilitary organizations who are on cease-fire and involved in the peace process. But it says nothing about the fate of those who have fled their homes and, in many cases, Ireland itself and cannot go back because they are still sought by the police for actions carried out when the armed campaign was still known as “the cutting edge” of the republican struggle.
Theirs is a complex problem.
To begin with, it is not known how many OTRs there are. They are everywhere from the south of Ireland, to France, to Nicaragua, to Cuba. For a while, there was a lone member of the Irish National Liberation Army in French Guyana. Most, however, have fled to the U.S. to seek haven in its huge Irish-American community and its large anonymous cities.
Since the 19th century, every rebellion or guerrilla war in Ireland has spilled over into the U.S. That the present phase of the Troubles was no different was made clear when in the late 1970s the authorities began arresting republican fugitives to serve them with extradition orders. Between 1987 and 1992, nine were held — Peter McMullan, Dessie Mackin, William Quinn, Joe Doherty, Jim Barr, Kevin Barry Art, Pol Brennan, James Smyth, and Terence Kirby. Others were arrested for offenses here and either deported or threatened with deportation. But even together they probably represent no more than a fraction of the total number of OTRs currently in the U.S.
Neither the Northern Ireland police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, nor Sinn Fein, know how many are involved. A spokesman in Sinn Fein’s Belfast office said, “There was no way of reaching a number” for those on the run. The head of the Friends of Sinn Fein in Washington, D.C., Rita O’Hare, said that “the problem will be dealt with” but as yet the criterion to deal with it did not exist. “It’s not under the remit of Sinn Fein’s Prisoner of War Department,” she said. “There are no guidelines in the Good Friday agreement.” Her answer to the problem is simple. “The Brits should drop the cases,” she said, and cease pursuing those against whom there are outstanding charges.
O’Hare speaks from personal experience. She herself has been on the run since 1971, when she fled across the border to Dublin from Belfast, where she is wanted in connection with attacks on the British army.
Asked about her own case, she said that she believed “it will be allowed to fade,” though she cautioned that she had not been informed officially about any change in her status in relation to the charges. Nor does she expect to be. The British authorities have to avoid any appearance of giving an amnesty to wanted “terrorists.” They have always strenuously denied that any type of amnesty is in effect. However, privately, authorities admit that if the RUC learned that an OTR was back in Northern Ireland, provided that it was an old case (like O’Hare’s) they probably would do nothing.
During the Official IRA cease-fire declared in May 1972 and the Provisional IRA cease-fire which lasted from January 1975 until about September that year, the police marked the files of certain suspects “Not to Be Arrested Unless Seen Actually Committing a Crime.” However, the police deny that any such system exists in the current situation.
The RUC Chief constable has recently insisted that the force remains committed to bringing to justice those responsible for unsolved murders. He said that it was a matter for the judiciary, not the police, as to what becomes of those cases once arrested. He appealed to the public to bring forward any information they might possess about serious offenses.
An RUC spokesman said there were about 1,800 unsolved murders in Northern Ireland, some dating back to 1969. This is more than half of all the deaths that occurred because of the Troubles. However, he stressed that the figure does not correlate with the number of OTRs, not even approximately. To begin with, each murder involves more than one person — it could include as well as those who actually carried out the killing, those who planned it, those who hijacked the car, those who stored the weapons before and after the attack, those who provided a safe house for the attackers, even those who afterward washed the clothes of the attackers. The RUC spokesman pointed to one case where 14 people were arrested and charged in connection with the murder of a policeman.
A man with no past
When Joe Toner arrived in California, following an elaborate route into the country, he was with another on-the-run IRA man. All they had was their fake Irish passports and $1,500 each, which the IRA had given them. They also had West Coast contacts who put them up in safe houses. But within a year, they were forced to flee after almost being arrested. Toner came to New York, where he says he knew no one. His companion eventually return to Ireland.
Toner spent a short time in Boston, where again he narrowly avoided arrest, before returning to New York. For a while, he “lived out of a suitcase” in the Bronx. Then he got into a house belonging to sympathizers. Now he has his own place. He has worked in many different jobs, including as a laborer, and a carpenter. Wherever he works or lives, or with whomever he meets or socializes, no one knows his real name, his identity or his past.
“You have to adjust,” he says, shrugging.
He misses his family most of all. The worst thing that happened to him, he says, was when he was still in Ireland and the IRA arranged for his three sisters to come and visit him. They came down late one night and stayed near where he was hiding in a safe house. The meeting was arranged for the following morning. They were together for only a few minutes when the IRA showed up and told him he had to move at once for security reasons.
Things have been more relaxed in the U.S.
“America’s been good to me,” Toner says. “But I’d give it all up to go home.”
Officials in both the Irish and British governments say that in theory an OTR could go back, and if arrested and convicted, he or she would then come under the terms of the Good Friday agreement and be out of prison within two years. Toner has considered this option long and hard. But he is wanted for a very serious offense and has received mixed signals from Belfast. Recently, IRA contacts warned him that he could return but that it would be a risk, since the current process might break down. He was advised to wait another year or 18 months. In the meantime, he tries to make a life for himself here, staying away from Irish functions, watching from the sidelines as Sinn Fein leaders come and go on tours in New York and elsewhere.
However, in spite of the uncertainty and hardships, the frequent loneliness and the constant threat of arrest, there is no doubt about how he feels about his commitment.
“If I had to, I’d do it again,” he replies with hesitation.
In eight years, OTR Joe Toner (not his real name) has stayed in at least 33 safe houses in Ireland and the U.S. . . . Photo by James Higgins