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Sunday 4 December 2005

Chuck Feeney being taken for a long and very expensive ride

IT'S SAD to see a good man suckered, and the Irish-American Charles (Chuck) Feeney is a very good man. Feeney could afford to live like an emperor, yet he owns no property, flies economy class, dresses off-the-peg and wears a $15 plastic watch.

Having given his children modest endowments, he is engaged in the considerable job of giving his enormous fortune away before he dies: "giving while living" is his motto. Yet, though he is highly intelligent and well-read - and became a billionaire through flair, courage and industry - Feeney has been badly suckered.

No philanthropist has poured money into Ireland like Feeney. Between 1992 and 2002, his foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, gave $702m - $548m of which was to the Republic. If the presidents of our universities don't say prayers daily in gratitude for Feeney's munificence, they are an ungrateful bunch. They have no other way of rewarding him, for Feeney hates publicity and wants neither honorary degrees nor buildings named after him.

Feeney's areas of interest dictate where and on what Atlantic Philanthropies focus. In 2004, of total grant funds of $165.7m, 43 per cent went to projects in the US, 17 per cent to Vietnam, 13 per cent to South Africa and - considering the size of our little island - a whopping 13 per cent ($22.1m) to the Republic and 2 per cent ($3.2m) to Northern Ireland. The charity's new focus is on disadvantaged children and youth, ageing, population health, reconciliation and human rights.

There's no doubting the integrity and compassion of Feeney and the board of Atlantic Philanthropies. The problem is that the republican movement has taken cynical advantage of them.

Feeney was introduced to Gerry Adams in the early Nineties. "I talked to him and I liked him," said Feeney. "He was very straightforward."

Feeney spent much time and money encouraging the republican movement down the political path: from 1995 for three years he, personally, (Atlantic Philanthropies is debarred by its constitution from funding political movements) provided the Sinn Fein office in Washington with $720,000.

"The goal was to establish a Washington office to put Sinn Fein on a respectable platform where they could say 'this is what Sinn Fein does, we're not the IRA'."

It was during this period that the IRA, under Adams, broke its ceasefire with a bomb at Canary Wharf that killed two newsagents.

Feeney has to be too shrewd to have gone on believing Sinn Fein and the IRA to be separate, but he was undaunted. Post-Agreement, he began directing large sums of money towards rehabilitating green and orange paramilitaries. In 2002, for instance, £1,968,000 went towards helping politically motivated ex-prisoners become involved in "positive political and community development".

That same year, £85,000 was awarded to Community Restorative Justice Ireland (CRJI) under a programme called 'Equality, Rights and Justice', followed in 2003 by a three-year grant totalling £926,000. Northern Ireland Alternatives (NIA), its loyalist equivalent, got £860,000.

Feeney's objective was to stop the knee-cappings and beatings, and worse, by providing some kind of non-violent community alternative while policing was being sorted out. Three years on, while NIA is cooperating with the police, CRJI refuses to do so: its 14 schemes have institutionalised parallel policing in its ghettos.

So, as Atlantic Philanthropies invested millions in human rights programmes, it had been suckered into bank-rolling people who interrogate children suspected of anti-social behaviour and intimidate those who offend them.

SDLP MP Eddie McGrady said: "Sinn Fein's strategy of promoting restorative justice as an alternative to the police enables them to maintain their control over communities and use it to substitute the community control exercised by the IRA."

He said he had received reports of restorative justice members carrying out "stop-and-search patrols on local youths" in South Down.

The third suckering of Feeney was the Centre for Public Inquiry, in 2004 awarded €4,000,000 "to promote a high standard of integrity, ethics and accountability across the public and private sectors in Ireland".

The Centre's executive director, Frank Connolly, brother of Colombia Three Niall, is a republican of long standing whose clear agenda is to dig dirt on political parties other than Sinn Fein. This was obvious to sceptics. Rumours were rife of his having travelled on a false passport to Colombia in 2001 with the IRA's Padraig Wilson.

Unfortunately Feeney - like Mr Justice Feargus Flood and Professor Enda McDonagh, whom Connolly recruited to the board - took him at face value, even after the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice pointed out he was dodgy. Now that there appears to be proof of Connolly's crime, they all face serious embarrassment.

I once suggested to Sinn Fein that the party adopt the slogan: "Never give a sucker an even break" ("Na tabhair orlach don oinseach," as John A Murphy obligingly translated it). How much more betrayal will it take to convince Feeney and good people like him that republicans are as brilliant as they are ruthless in suckering even non-suckers like himself?

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards