KGB approved 1m pounds aid request by party with IRA link: Peter Pringle in Moscow finds evidence in formerly secret archives of how close the Soviet Union came to funding Dublin politicians

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IN AUTUMN 1986, the Workers' Party of Ireland, the Marxist-leaning successor to the political wing of the Official IRA, was being battered like other socialist parties by the strong winds of conservatism blowing through Western nations. Crippled by debt and unable to make headway in Irish politics, where the conservatives were gaining ground, the party turned to Moscow for help.

On a trip to the Soviet capital, Sean Garland, a 1950s IRA campaigner who became the Workers' Party general secretary, and Proinsias De Rossa, then head of its political committee and now a successful member of the Dail, set out the plight of the party in a seven-page letter to the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee.

With extraordinary candour they explained that old ways of making up the shortfall between party income and expenditure were becoming more difficult, referring to unspecified 'special activities of which it is not possible to detail here because of reasons we are sure you will understand'. They told the committee: 'The continued growth of the party in the public domain makes 'special activities' more hazardous for the party which has more than enough enemies in the establishment ready to pounce on mistakes or difficulties.'

They asked for Ir pounds 1m to help them carry out their five-year plan of expansion and to wage a 'successful struggle' against the 'new realignment in Irish politics (in which) the British and Irish governments along with Washington are seeking a more moderate and willing leadership'.

Even though they were a small party, to ask for Ir pounds 1m over five years was not as cheeky as it might seem. Throughout the 1980s, the Central Committee distributed large sums to Communist parties abroad. In 1981, the first year of Ronald Reagan's eight-year term in the White House, for example, it sent more than pounds 18m ( pounds 9.4m) to foreign Communist parties and socialist groups - dollars 2m each to the US and French parties, dollars 700,000 to the Chilean party, dollars 300,000 to the Peruvian, dollars 120,000 to Sri Lanka, dollars 50,000 to Martinique, dollars 10,000 to Lesotho, and so on.

Although the Central Committee had been supporting the Workers' Party in various ways since 1983, it was faced with several problems over Mr Garland's appeal and it took time to resolve them. Few things were ever done in a hurry in the grand offices in Staraya Ploschad, the committee's headquarters. And, if they required consultations with the KGB, in the Lubyanka up the road, appeals such as this one were likely to be delayed for months, even years.

The committee's first action was a political assessment of the Workers' Party by its international department. A report was completed by mid-February 1987 by the department's deputy chief, V Zagladin. He described the party as the 'most influential and promising left force' in Ireland, but warned that it was 'the successor to the nationalist movement Sinn Fein' and 'that is why it is the focus of attention not only of Ireland and Great Britain, but also of the USA'. Such official surveillance would make it 'impossible to conceal the fact of our considerable direct financial support', he wrote.

He concluded: 'Taking all the above- mentioned into account we consider it best to abstain from giving the Workers' Party direct financial support, but it would be desirable to invite a Workers' Party delegation to Moscow to discuss a possibility of rendering assistance in other forms without payments in currency.' These included the usual comradely help of books, paper and printing works. All this aid was subject to preserving 'fraternal relations' with the Communist Party of Ireland, of course. An insignificant political force, the Irish CP had been receiving relatively small sums from Moscow - dollars 50,000 is mentioned in the documents in 1981.

No progress appears to have been made on Mr Garland's appeal until the end of 1988. That December, the then head of the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov (now in jail for his part in the August 1991 coup attempt), apparently received his own appeal from Mr Garland. He recommended co-operation. 'We think it is possible to examine the petition of the Workers' Party leadership and to give a positive answer,' he said in a memorandum, marked 'Very Important', to the Central Committee on 21 December 1988.

He was referring to the training of 'five reliable and trustworthy party members' to 'strengthen the security' in the Workers' Party. He makes no mention of the Ir pounds 1m, but must have known what Mr Garland wanted because he had regular reports from the KGB's Dublin station chief. According to archive documents, Dublin's KGB man, who is not named, had struck up a doverytelni - trustworthy contact - for many years with Mr Garland.

Mr Kryuchkov's recommendation brought an usually swift response from the Central Committee - this time from a K Brutenets. In a Top Secret memorandum, dated 6 January 1989, he wrote that Mr Garland's appeal had been carefully examined with the help of KGB specialists but to fulfil it meant to run a 'serious risk'. His memo concluded: 'Any leakage of information about our participation in staff preparation of this kind for the Workers' Party - and it is difficult, if not practically impossible to conceal these actions - would lead to serious complications in Soviet-British relations.'

But he advised that 'fraternal relations' with Mr Garland should continue. He noted that Alexander Yakovlev, one of those behind perestroika and a close aide to Mr Gorbachev - and thus effectively the voice of the Soviet leader on the question of the Garland appeal - had agreed with the final recommendation. So, in the end, had the KGB.

Since the 1986 Garland-De Rossa appeal, Mr De Rossa and five of the Workers' Party MPs in the Dail have split with Mr Garland, primarily because they thought he was adhering too rigidly to Marxist ideology. They have formed a new party called Democratic Left, and the Workers' Party now has only one member of the Dail. Mr De Rossa is now regarded as the 'liberal' leader of the new offshoot party. He has taken a consistently anti-IRA position, organising 'peace trains' between Dublin and Belfast to protest at the bombing of the trains by the IRA.