The Blanket

Teething Troubles

Ed Moloney's fine history of the Provos' voyage from revolution to reform puts Danny Morrison's old-style republican polemic to shame

A Secret History of the IRA by Ed Moloney; Penguin £20, pp624
All the Dead Voices by Danny Morrison; Mercier Press £8.60, pp208

Henry McDonald • November 24, 2002, The Observer

Tony Blair should as a matter of urgency dig deep into his pockets and buy 860 copies of Ed Moloney's book. The Prime Minister should then post them out to 860 addresses in Northern Ireland, specifically to the homes of the men and women who make up the Ulster Unionist Council - the institution that can help David Trimble restore devolution. Because the message of Moloney's 624-page tome on the modern IRA is: first, the Provos' war is over for good and, second, their project to destroy Northern Ireland by a combination of terrorism and street politics has been defeated.

The overarching theme of this book is the Provos' long retreat from revolutionary 'armed struggle' into the constitutional politics they once despised. Moloney opens his Secret History of the IRA with a prologue of how the Provisionals' most ambitious gunrunning operation - the shipping of tonnes of guns, surface-to-air missiles, millions of rounds of ammunition, hundreds of grenades etc on board the Eksund from Libya - was betrayed.

Realising that the explosive devices on board had been sabotaged, the IRA's director of engineering, Gabriel Cleary, now on the open seas off the French coast, planned to scuttle the Eksund. Instead the boat carrying the largest arms and explosives shipment ever sent from Colonel Gadaffi's dictatorship to the IRA was intercepted by the French navy, under the watchful eye of RAF spotter planes, with British intelligence monitoring the vessel all the way from Tripoli to Ireland.

The author points to this drama as proof that someone in the highest echelons of the IRA in Ireland had compromised the mission and thwarted what Moloney calls the Provos' own 'Tet offensive' against the British Army in Ulster.

Beginning with a nautical story is appropriate because it also provides the best metaphor for describing the modern IRA's and Sinn Fein's 360-degree turn from so-called armed struggle towards the politics of peaceful persuasion. The vast lumbering entity known as the republican movement, an alliance of conservative rural Catholic nationalists and angry young men from Belfast and Derry who grew up under unionist discrimination and British Army repression resembled an oil tanker.

From its inception on the burnt-out Catholic streets of the Falls Road in August 1969 until the mid-Eighties the Provisionals were steering towards an unreachable harbour - a united socialist all-Ireland republic. But with the oil tanker sailing towards the rocks of defeat, the vessel was turned around towards the port of historic compromise. And at the helm for the last 20 years has been the one man capable of changing that course, the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams.

Moloney argues that Adams could never have turned the vessel around unless he was a leading figure on the IRA's ruling body, the Army Council. He claims Adams was in the leadership of the Belfast IRA when the organisation kidnapped and murdered Jean McConville in 1972, whom the Provos believed was spying for the British Army. The mother of 10 children was buried in secret, a policy established by the Belfast Brigade; of which Adams was a member of at the time. The author points out that Adams's protestations over 20 years later that he was in prison when Jean McConville disappeared conflict with the facts. He did not go to jail until July 1973, more than six months after she was abducted.

Although such revelations will take some of the shine from the halo erected over Adams's head by his fawning followers in the Irish and British media, Moloney concedes that the Irish peace process could never have evolved without his strategic genius and determination to bring the 'war' to an end. The story of how Adams and others such as Martin McGuinness achieved this is a narrative of double bluffs, clandestine meetings between leading republicans and British representatives (often behind the backs of the IRA membership) and Machiavellian manoeuvring, with Adams outwitting hard-liners time and time again.

Unlike most other historical accounts of the modern IRA, Moloney's is lucid and illuminating. One glaring omission is the author's failure to discuss the role of leftist intellectuals in Ireland and Britain, whose support in the Seventies and Eighties for the IRA campaign dressed up what was essentially a morally and politically futile sectarian struggle in the trendy garb of international anti-imperialism. But given that his book is primarily concerned with charting the course of the Provisionals' voyage from revolution to reformism, perhaps that is a subject for another day. Another criticism is Moloney's use of the language of legitimacy to describe the illegitimate - the Provisional IRA's armed campaign. Moloney continually employs the language the Provisionals used themselves to described their actions, such as 'armed struggle'.

Danny Morrison, the Sinn Fein spin doctor who coined the phrase 'ballot box and Armalite strategy' employs the same pretentious pseudo-militaristic imagery in references to the PIRA's campaign. In his memoir All the Dead Voices, Morrison draws parallels between Dutch resistance fighters killed by the Nazis and IRA prisoners. He notes that the IRA inmates in H Block used the same method of clandestine communication as Dutch anti-Nazis; messages written on cigarette papers. Again this is an attempt to legitimise the illegitimate and the anti-democratic by subliminal but essentially fake comparisons between modern paramilitaries and the heroes of World War Two.

The strongest segments of Morrison's book are the recollections of the dead; in particular a heartbreaking eulogy to his late sister Susan who died last year aged just 44. His account of her decline due to a degenerative liver disease is deeply moving. There are illuminating flashes of self-doubt over the IRA's violence in the Nineties. Morrison, like the movement he joined in 1970, is also on a journey. But there is still an ocean to cross for this writer from polemic to literature.

In contrast Moloney's book is undoubtedly the best history of Ireland's - and arguably the world's - most enduring paramilitary movement ever to be written. It is a brave and mercilessly honest project that will stand the test of time.


This article is carried with the permission of the author.



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The man who lets a leader prescribe his course is a wreck being towed to the scrap heap.
- Ayn Rand

Index: Current Articles

6 December 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Questioning the Prison System in the North
Liam O Ruairc


Britain's New Moral Authority to Shoot Republicans
Anthony McIntyre


Teething Troubles
Henry McDonald


Setting The Record Straight

Billy Mitchell


Herr Henry Struts Again
Anthony McIntyre


Even the Taxi Drivers Say It: "Likud has Failed"
Uri Avnery


The Letters page has been updated.


1 December 2002


Blanket Special

3 Part Series
Capo di Tutti i Capi?:
The Three Families

Part Three: The Civil Rights Veterans' Story
Anthony McIntyre


Asking the Awkward Questions
Terry Harkin


West Belfast Firefighters Support
Davy Carlin


Crime And The Family

Sean Smyth


Juliana McCourt
Anthony McIntyre


A Glimmer of Hope
Michael Dahan




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