The Blanket

A Wilderness of Mirrors

Seaghán Ó Murchú

When the Byzantine historian Procopius’ court chronicle “A Secret History” appeared, its scandalous and even salacious portrayals of Justinian and Theodora shocked and titillated the public. Similarly, although nothing matches the depiction given to the former circus dancer turned empress taking on five lovers at once, Ed Moloney’s Secret History reveals heretofore only rumoured accounts of court life around the republican palace. A contradiction in terms: a purportedly socialist entity masking the new boss same as the old boss. In both renderings, a powerful and popular leader receives damaging testimony from a highly placed observer who has gained access to witnesses to court machinations. Whether or not the emperor deigns to listen to his unsettled subjects remains to be seen.

What’s to be shocked about? Less than the publicity machine might let on. The shameful story of Jean McConville had already received much press, and the space given to its retelling here occupies no more than few pages. The allegations that Gerry Adams had long plotted his scheme to render arms “beyond use” and to jerry-rig the ballot-box in the IRA Conventions in favor of his cronies seems no more surprising than watching the rise of Prince Hal on Shakespeare’s stage. Readers of The Blanket know the ending of that plot. So, what does our court chronicler provide us that merits our attention? Especially those of us who may have tales of our own as courtiers fallen from favour.

Moloney’s strength lies in his ability to synthesise for a beginning reader the complications involved in military and ideological shifts over the past three decades and more. He achieves this while never oversimplifying the account for the more experienced in his audience. As J. Bowyer Bell always acknowledges in his prefaces, so must Moloney: we simply will never be able to “prove” what any historian or journalist must rely upon for much of the anecdotal evidence from anonymous or --unique to Moloney’s effort-- Dr McIntyre’s “embargoed” source files. But the weight of the gathered testimony witnesses to discontent and betrayal of the rank-and-file by the current IRA and Sinn Fein leadership. What The Blanket has insisted upon and what has previously been discounted by mainstream media and republican supporters with Moloney’s revelations can no longer be dismissed as the rantings of the rabble or the mutterings of the ousted old guard.

Many reviews of this book have given you thoughtful overviews. In my version, I will note particular insights that to my knowledge have not received sustained notice at least in other books on the IRA and the Troubles. Moloney opens with the capture of the Eksund and the collapse of the Libyan arms connection. Here Moloney corrects Martin Dillon’s assumption that earlier meetings between IRA and UDA members in Tripoli had been done at the urging of one “Mister Eddie,” rather than Qaddafi’s own wish to forge an anti-imperialist front against the British. In his account of the 1969-70 split, Moloney succinctly connects DeValera’s pragmatism with Adams’ elasticity. From Dev’s 1938 Constitution, Moloney extrapolates the IRA’s aim not to oust the imposters from the Dail, but the British from the North. This presages the IRA’s eventual recognition of the Southern state and its wish to enter Leinster House-well before the acceptance of the Stormont and (soon to come) Westminster assemblies.

Such tracking of the long war strategy and its calibration --a bit to the left here, then a move to the center, back again to the far left, correction to the middle-- at the eye of Adams provide Moloney’s trajectory. What kept me reading? How nimbly -- and at times clumsily, in light of the disastrous operations often carried out by an increasingly Adams-dominated Northern Command at odds with an often “detached” public persona of Adams -- this came about makes for dramatic tale-telling.

A helpful comparison sets the secular against the sectarian vision of republicanism in the context of the late 18th-century Defender movement. Defense, especially in the North, would supplant political ideas for the next two centuries. Set against a wider Irish tendency to integrate idealism into the cause, this division emerged again in the Ruiari O Bradaigh/Daithi O Conaill leadership and their Eire Nua policy and its Northern-led opposition post-1970. Early on, Adams manipulated the spin to weaken Kevin Street after the 1974-5 ceasefire, claiming that the leaders were to blame when in fact Adams knew the game all along. Similarly, Moloney covers the rise of the Second Belfast Battalion from Ballymurphy and the Lower Falls to show how Billy McKee’s power became undermined by the Adams faction. In two instances, Adams convinced the local Provos to hold back from armed defense, in order to radicalise the people themselves. This long-term strategy may be credited to Adams’ own leftist leanings; in hindsight it also served to strengthen Adams’ hold upon his base of power and help aid his own takeover.

“Active abstentionism” exemplifies Adams’ mastery of political doctoring; by the time you wonder what he means, it’s too late to ask. The mutual exclusivity of the local armed struggle and the wish to bring the Provos into a swing vote to effect the balance of the Dail contradicts itself, Moloney stresses, and the “long war” could not sustain itself under this tension: Danny Morrison had to put down his armalite to hold on to the ballot box. You cannot shoot straight with one hand.

Ivor Bell’s role in the Belfast leadership has been shrouded in previous IRA studies. Here, Moloney clarifies Bell’s wish to imitate Qaddafi in a variety of ways: a Revolutionary Council and People’s Committees; a curb upon the Army Council’s domination of the IRA in favour of a more anarchist/socialist broad-based appeal; a “Green Book” to instruct the masses. Adams undermined Bell, however, when it proved that such a widening of the pyramid’s base might weaken his own ambitions to climb to its top. Whether military scaffolding or cellular remodeling, the structure remained the same. The radical poses to enrage Ruari and Dave often were briefly held by Adams and his followers, only long enough to assure that the Dublin-based leadership would increasingly find itself that in name only, geographically and ideologically isolated.

Christin ni Elias’ support for Eire Nua proves a cautionary tale. In my own research on this policy, she had been merely a footnote in the accounts I consulted. Now, Moloney gives her role a full chapter, “Our Dreyfus,” to illustrate the character assassination the Adams camp could be skilled at to weaken their foes within the movement. Curiously, at the same time a harder socialist influence was imported by the British Trotskyist “Peter Dowling,” who assumed the Roy Johnston role fifteen years later for the Provos, only to be discarded once Ruari and Dave had again been cowed. Policy, despite Adams’ claims, proved expendable. Soon the purity of the cause weakened as seats were contested, and after the hunger strikes, Sinn Fein having glimpsed the role it might assume in the 26 counties, the entry into the Dail proved as inevitable as it was for Dev’s Fianna Fail. Truly a complete “flip-flop.” Furthered here with details on how that Ard Fheis suddenly doubled in size for the crucial 1986 vote. This Cage 11 agenda, Moloney analyses, however parsed by Adams, could never repair the friction with the armed struggle.

Another aspect little considered before, the Redemptorist role as mediators throughout the Troubles, gains full coverage. Moloney explains Clonard Monastery’s links to the Adams family, and how Fr Alec Reid and his confreres provided crucial assistance in the emerging negotiations with the British. Like Moloney’s knowledge of the Ballymurphy background to Adams’ rise, this local context more satisfactorily accounts for Adams’ hold over his Belfast base of power. Although I found much of the second half of the book tough slogging due to an overreliance on diplomatic exchanges covered in other accounts already, Moloney’s inclusion for the first time of the secret British reply to Adams’ letter to Tom King shows us why this document marks “the philosophical fountainhead of the peace process.” Similarly, Moloney ties Haughey’s influence to the 1986 Provo recognition of the Dublin government, and highlights Adams’ simultaneous emphasis on the new Libyan arms conduit to assuage the hard men. By playing the political off the military, Adams eased fears of demilitarision even as he hastened the inevitability that a Sinn Fein teachta Dála could not represent a movement armed against the Six Counties which the Dail would accept as the status quo.

But this drift into respectability proved a hard sell in Tyrone. Again, Moloney departs from the usual emphasis by IRA journalists on South Armagh. Examining the wake of the Loughall assault, he again connects Defenderism with the volunteers away from Belfast, to illuminate how informers could be more highly placed in the Adams-led IRA structure to cause even more damage than in the old rank system. The shadow of the grass lurks over the rest of the book; in Derry, as well, the damage done to the movement receives its own chapter. Moloney here distinguishes Derry’s non-sectarian tendency in IRA operations, and explains why the Peace and Reconciliation Group under the Lampens effected an earlier halt to the IRA’s activity there than in Belfast before the first ceasefire. Speaking of sectarianism, a helpful examination of the Army Council and Executive’s role appears for the first time in detail. The almost “mystical” or “spiritual” power it possessed as the inheritor of the remnant of the 1916 Republic given it in 1938 by the rump of the Second pre-Treaty Dail may seem laughable to all but the true believer in republican legitimacy to speak for all Ireland. Yet Moloney correctly claims that no understanding of the hold of continuity across the dead generations to the living in republican doctrine can be gained without this line of apostolic succession. After the latest putsch, Gerry Adams having assumed the throne of St. Patrick (Pearse) and with McGuinness holding the doughty crosier, the electors in the General Army Convention acclaim their new papa.

At what price has the pearl of peace been gained? Dissembling, creating a Borgesian garden of forking paths or, as one of the masses sees it, “a wilderness of mirrors.” Since 1982, when the taking of seats was first mooted as merely a tactic, not a genuine acceptance of another Irish government, ambiguity permeated the Adams lexicon. Brits out vs. Dail (Stormont, and now offices in Westminster) in. Many accept this as the cost of realpolitik, and acclaim Sinn Fein for finally having given up the gun. The two translations given of the 1980s acronym TUAS, however, show how this acceptance has been managed. To the hard men, the insiders, many readers of The Blanket: fifteen years ago these faithful knew this as “Tactical Use of Armed Struggle.” To the infidels, the nationalist allies, those outside St. Pearse’s: “Totally UnArmed Struggle.” Here again, Moloney reveals the doublespeak that discredits a movement claiming a higher moral legitimacy. In the denouement, Moloney offers the 1996 Army Convention in great detail, to show how skilled the Adams camp had become at end-running around the opposition. Today, if Frank McGuinness’ ride had delivered him to the Convention instead of leaving him stranded not accidentally, the whole story might have had a different ending. Whether we would be happier than with the “phony war” that the long Irish struggle has brought us to now is up to you.




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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

24 November 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Blanket Special

3 Part Series

Capo de tuti Capo?: The Three Families

Part One: Bridie McCloskey's Story
Anthony McIntyre


A Wilderness of Mirrors
Seaghán Ó Murchú


Revenge of a Child
Uri Avnery


Political Violence's Victims

Paul A. Fitzsimmons


22 November 2002


House of Cards
Michael Dahan


It's Gone - Hip, Hip, Hurrah!
Sean Smyth


In Search of an Alternative World
Anthony McIntyre



Brian Mór


Kilroy Nouveau

Brian Mór


Kilroy Redux

Brian Mór




The Blanket




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The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
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