Friday, March 01, 2013

Book Notes: A Secret History of the IRA by Ed Moloney

For many years Ed Moloney was the Northern Ireland correspondent for The Irish Times, and in the course of his many years covering 'The Troubles' gained unparallelled access to sources within the IRA. This book is the compiling together of his lifetime of research, detailing for what is claimed to be the first time, a detailed and accurate record of the internal history of that organisation. Many people have written before about the public faces, military strategies and terrorist outrages perpetrated by the IRA - but Moloney adds to this enormous insightful detail about the political machinations, power struggles, shifts and empires within Irish Republicanism, much of which I suspect would not have been safe for him to reveal prior to the Provisionals cease fires and retreat from armed struggle.

The story he tells is shocking, alarming, intriguing, fast -paced and completely engrossing. If even half of what he writes is true, it is one of the most strange, surprising and unusual political stories of modern times.

When I was a child, the letters 'IRA' on the news meant death, pictures of bombed buildings, grieving families, funerals, and bloodshed. Their sinister balaclava'd faces firing rounds over coffins at vast paramilitary funerals added a ghoulish element of 'cartoon-evil' to their inexplicable actions both in distant Northern Ireland and where I grew up near London. Of course, I knew nothing about them, their ideology, grievances, history, structure, organisation or reasons for violence - to me like most British people they were either purely evil or merely psychopathic. Either way, the political claims of Sinn Fein were completely drowned out by the sounds of gun-fire, bomb-blasts and decades of weeping. It is therefore fascinating to read about the thought-processes and reasoning of the people behind this terror, how 'armed struggle' began in Ireland, why it gained mythological status in Republicanism and why in successive waves it has been abandoned by people like Michael Collins, then Eamon De Valera, elements of the OIRA and finally the Provos.

Much of this book focusses on the Adams, and then Adams-McGuinness leadership of Republicanism. The story of Adams rise to the top of the movement reads like Stalin's manoevering to seize power in Russia after the death of Lenin - repeatedly isolating opponents only to subsequently adopt their platform. This goes in some way to explaining the odd ideological shifts within the movement. In the early stages of the book Adams is an opponent of engagement with politics, an advocate of only armed struggle. Later he appears as a proponent of the 'armalite and the ballot box strategy', while latterly he is seen endorsing purely political ends. Needless to say, at each stage of these shifts enemies were removed, and the whole narrative is encased in horrible violence. Moloney goes as far as hinting that key enemies of Adams were betrayed to the British forces by moles within the IRA some of whom were killed as a result at critical moments for Adams' leadership.

It's all here in Moloney's book, the Provisional's split from the OIRA and their seizing the initiative, the escalation of the 'war' in the early 1970s, the effect of the internment on the IRA, and the attitudes and policies of successive Belfast, Dublin and London governments. The stagnation of armed struggle, the hunger strikes, and the Republican's entry into elections, the passage of highly secret negotiations between all parties - notably Adam's route via Fr Alec Reid to the SDLP and governments, and the faulting path in the direction of peace. The publicity for the book majored on the fact that it reveals 'for the first time' the internal workings of the IRA Army Council and Adams role within it', that meant both leading it in actions of murder, terror and 'war', as well as in leading it away from that and into mainstream politics.

Adams' manipulation of the peace process and his interactions with the IRA are detailed in perhaps the most startling element of the story Maloney tells. His version of events suggests that Adams and McGuinness lied to the IRA about the possibility of a cease-fire, before leading the movement to a point when it was inevitable. The extraordinary lengths Adams went to in order to isolate opponents who opposed the political direction of the movement (notably the Micky McKevitt faction who subsequently formed dissident terror groups) are all documented here. Using the threat of losing control of the movement to these people, Adams is also pictured as winning concession after concession from the 'Good Friday' negotiators, which he continued to do long after these people had been removed from the equation.

Another amazing thread through this story is the IRA's external relations with hostile foreign governments (a history that goes back to their murky overtures to the Third Reich) such as Eastern Bloc governments during the Cold War and Gadaffi's Libya who would supply the Provos most sophisticated weaponry and large sums of money during the last decades of the conflict. This is interlinked with details of the incredible extent to which the IRA was infiltrated by moles giving away both military and political information to London and Dublin - of countless foiled operations, deaths and arrests. Some of these informers are known and named, in other cases Moloney documents the nature of the information and what was done with it - but either does not know or cannot name the informant. The most significant of these is the betrayal of the Eksund, a boat filled with a vast military arsenal from Libya with which the IRA hoped to bring the conflict to a bloody, violent and abrupt Republican victory which they names the 'Tet Offensive' after the VietCong's final push.

Maloney's work is incredibly detailed and insightful - yet its reads very easily. Interestingly, despite now living in America Maloney is still very guarded about many of his sources. The work is massively footnoted, and thoroughly referenced, but if you take a moment to follow the most revealing and alarming footnotes the will not reveal much more than, "119: interview with IRA source, November 1999" for example.

The book concludes at the completion of the peace process and the power sharing Stormont Government in the 'Chuckle Brothers' era of Paisley and McGuiness. Moloney charts the way in which Adams was able to use the skills he had honed in manipulating Republicanism to his desired ends to do the same to the wider political landscape. This process was mirrored on the Unionist side and so Sinn Fein displaced the SDLP in the same way that the DUP eclipsed the UUP - and the book ends tersely when he describes the handing of power over to the new executive:
"[Blair] and Bertie Ahern had brought final peace to one of Europe's most troubled regions, but at the cost of handing it over to the least deserving, most adamantine elements of that society." (p592)
This is a quite brilliant read, which anyone interested in the history of Ireland should take time to consider.

No comments: