The Blanket

Review: A Secret History
of the IRA

Deaglan O Donghaile • The Sunday Times October 27, 2002

The publication of this book couldn’t have been more fortuitously timed. Coming as it did within days of the spy-raids on Sinn Fein’s Stormont office, it is uniquely placed as an insight into the post-Troubles IRA. Rather than presenting an historical account of the organisation’s campaign of violence, Ed Moloney’s book offers instead a thorough political history of the republican movement. As such, it chronicles Gerry Adams’s efforts to gain control over the IRA, presenting an unflattering portrait of the Sinn Fein president.

Beginning with an account of the Libyan arms- smuggling operation of the mid-late 1980s, which Moloney understands to be the linchpin that secured Adams’s campaign to control the Provisionals, the narrative returns to the streets of Belfast and the birth of the Provisionals. Emerging in 1970 from the split with the Official IRA over the issue of recognition of the Stormont, Dublin and Westminster parliaments, the Provisionals eventually became known simply as “the IRA” as they adopted the role of defender of Catholic communities from loyalist mobs, and soon took on the British army as well.

Moloney notes that Adams was slow to declare his allegiance during this split, instead waiting until the majority of republicans in Belfast backed the Provisionals. As Moloney puts it, “he joined the winning team” only after 15 of the city’s 16 IRA companies sided with the Provisionals. He also points out that Adams was not known to have fired a single shot alongside his IRA colleagues.

From then on it was a gradual rise to the top for Adams, which he secured by introducing the Northern Command and its “cell structure”, designed by a fellow Belfast republican, Ivor Bell. The cell structure reduced IRA active service units to small groups of five or six individuals and has gone down in republican mythology as an effective method of resisting infiltration by military intelligence and RUC Special Branch. Moloney maintains that in reality this system failed because Adams’s Northern Command proceeded to centralise its control of all IRA operations. Therefore, a vertical command structure was implemented, along which operations had to be vetted before they were sanctioned. This inevitably left IRA members at the mercy of well-placed, higher-ranking informers, who had access to the vetting process. It also leads Moloney to the conclusion that both Adams and Martin McGuinness, as members of the IRA Army Council, knew about and sanctioned attacks. He proposes that the Army Council, rather than rank-and-file IRA members, planned the notorious “human bomb” explosion of October 1990, when Patsy Gillespie, a Derry man who worked in a British Army canteen, was forced to drive a van bomb into a British Army checkpoint, killing himself along with five soldiers.

Moloney’s history of the IRA shifts into a political mode with its description of the peace process. He dates this back to contacts between Adams and the then secretary of state, Tom King, which he claims occurred as early as 1987. Meanwhile, Adams started to rely more and more on the Think Tank, an Orwellian group of advisors led by Ted Howell. This group manipulated republican thinking to the point of a U-turn, when in March 1998 a Sinn Fein conference voted overwhelmingly to take seats in the Stormont assembly. The Think Tank achieved this through a long-term process of dissembling: “Not meaning what was said increasingly became a defining and acceptable feature of republican political culture. It was to occupy a central place in the peace process strategy.”

Significantly, Moloney reminds us that the IRA’s first breach of its 1994 ceasefire was a robbery in Newry in which Frank Kerr, a postman, was shot dead. This murder pointed to the criminal direction now being taken by the IRA, and the book could have bene-fited enormously from an analysis of the IRA’s descent into a profoundly localised mafia-style, family-controlled organisation.

Another improvement would have been an analysis of the barbaric attacks that are carried out by the Provisionals against anybody they perceive as a threat. The detailed chapter on the discussions of the IRA’s adoption of the Mitchell Principles could have shed light upon the organisation’s failure to adhere to the fifth principle — “To urge that ‘punishment’ killings and beatings stop and to take effective steps to prevent such actions.”

Despite these omissions, Moloney’s book stands out as the most compelling and comprehensive account of the organisation to date. His study serves as a macro- history of the IRA, charting its personalities and their conflicts with each other. He demythologises the IRA and gives a unique insight into the personalities involved in it over the past 30 years, an insight complemented by an appendix of brief biographical descriptions of the key players. It is also distinguished by the author’s consistently critical approach towards the IRA, and by his ability to resist clichéd representations of post-ceasefire politics.


This article was first published in The Sunday Times and is carried with permission from 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

3 November 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Addressing Organised Crime
Billy Mitchell


Leading You Back To The Start
Anthony McIntyre



Carrie Twomey


Review: A Secret History of the IRA
Deaglan O Donghaile


Review: Making Sense of the Troubles: The Story of Conflict in Northern Ireland
Buffy Maguire


Yes, Palestine Is Still The Issue
Aine Fox


Support & Solidarity
Davy Carlin


31 October 2002


The Real IRA
Eamonn McCann


A Stick To Be Beaten With
Anthony McIntyre


A Modest Proposal

Tommy Gorman


Minimum Wage or the Abolition of Wage Labour?
Liam O Ruairc




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