By Mary Vespa
March 22, 1976 12:00 PM

Matthew Higgins is saint or sinner, depending on the judge. To New York City Council President Paul O’Dwyer, Irish-born Higgins is a “quiet” man of “integrity and honesty.” To British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Higgins and men like him are “playing the role of vicarious merchants of death” in supporting the terrorist Irish Republican Army from a comfortable 3,000 miles away.

Higgins, 76, accepts all judgments about him with indifference. A soft-spoken man with old-world manners and the face of a leprechaun, Higgins seems far more like the retired clerk that he is than a leader of an organization suspected on both sides of the Atlantic of collecting money for illegal rebel arms.

He is a director of and spokesman for an organization called the Irish Northern Aid Committee (Noraid). Officially it raises funds through dances and dinners to help the families of dead or imprisoned supporters of the Irish Republican movement. Higgins condones the smuggling of arms into Ulster without qualification. “You’ve got to have guns and ammunition to conduct a fight,” he says. “It’s either that or abject surrender.” But he swears that Matt Higgins has nothing to do with it. “It’s not our line of work,” he says, and adds coyly, “We haven’t got the money to finance it, unfortunately.” A Justice Department spokesman declares, however: “The British have been saying that the majority of Noraid money goes to buy guns.”

British officials furthermore have estimated that up to 85 percent of captured IRA weapons are American-made. Individuals who have been members of Noraid have been accused—and in one case convicted—of arms smuggling. But the organization itself has never been implicated, although it is believed to be under local and federal surveillance. Since Noraid was founded six years ago, it has raised $1.2 million through some 70 U.S. branches. The amount is remarkable given Nor-aid’s small following in this country. Although there are 15 million Americans of Irish descent, Noraid has only 2,800 members. “Our people are too easy. They don’t realize this is a life-or-death struggle,” says Higgins.

He is resigned to the apathy but not to criticism within the U.S. of aid to Irish terrorists. “I don’t know what they are expected to fight the British tanks with,” he says, “stones—or what?”

Higgins is not a native of Ulster. He was born in Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland, and spent his first nine years there and in the U.S.—his father worked here as a butler for a rich American. When Matt was 10, the family moved to England, and at 15 he went to London as a clerk. A year later, the 1916 Easter Rebellion of Irishmen against the British army, Higgins says, “brought a lot of us to our senses.”

In 1920 Higgins joined the London Battalion of the IRA which made terrorist raids inside the city and procured guns. The next year he was arrested by Scotland Yard and interned in Ireland for seven months. In 1927 he emigrated to the U.S. and eventually became a citizen. He married an Irish-American girl in 1934—who died 12 years later—and he worked his way up to assistant to the secretary of a freight company. When a vacancy occurred in the Noraid leadership two years ago, Higgins was the natural choice. “No one,” says Paul O’Dwyer, “would ever question how he handles the money.” O’Dwyer himself says the charges of arms shipments from the U.S. to Ireland are “grossly exaggerated” and calls them “good British propaganda.”

Higgins, who lives alone in a rent-controlled walk-up in Queens, leads a spartan life. He indulges in little casual drinking and gave up cigars, one of his few pleasures, eight years ago. For relaxation he reads an occasional Agatha Christie mystery or attends Irish football and hurling matches in New York. He went back to Ireland in 1966 after his retirement and took a bus tour of the homeland he had left almost 40 years before. “That trip was the high point for me,” he says. “I don’t ever expect to be back again.”