controversy sells books, A Secret History of the
IRA will fly off the shelves. Extracts from Ed
Moloney's account of the development of the Provisional
IRA were first made public a week ago. The accusations
levelled at Gerry Adams -- particularly the charge
that he was linked to some degree in the IRA's 1972
killing of Belfast mother-of-ten Jean McConville --
attacked Moloney's motives; journalists attacked Adams
for his mendacious denial of IRA membership. The book
has now become a news story in its own right.
book deserves the attention it has received -- it
is a powerful and compelling, if inevitably contentious,
book. Much of the public comment about it has been
chief focus is not on Gerry Adams's murky record of
militarism, but on the republican movement's journey
towards the mainstream. The Sinn Féin president
is more likely to be angered by its depiction of his
political machinations and alleged duplicity than
by stories of involvement in violence three decades
ago. There are real revelations to be found here.
The IRA's plan to assassinate British foreign secretary
Geoffrey Howe in 1987 is made public for the first
time. The betrayal of the Eksund -- the ship that
republicans used in the attempt to smuggle a greater
amount of Libyan weaponry than ever before -- is covered
the book also rewrites the narrative of the peace
process. Up to now, it has been accepted that a meeting
in late 1990 or early 1991 between Martin McGuinness
and an MI6 officer, Michael Oatley, marked the start
of the dialogue which led to the IRA ceasefire of
1994 and, ultimately, the Good Friday Agreement.
so, claims Moloney. He believes that an indirect channel
was opened up between Gerry Adams and Tom King, then
northern secretary of state, as early as 1986. The
Falls Road priest Fr Alec Reid is said to have acted
as a link between the two men.
writes of these contacts that, "Adams was engaged
in an enterprise of which the [IRA] Army Council knew
nothing, and had it been privy to these events it
is likely that it would have heartily and angrily
disapproved. The Reid-Adams initiative was a hugely
dangerous exercise for the Sinn Féin leader."
book also casts new light on issues where the basic
facts are already known. In illustrating the abandonment
of traditional republican dogma by the Sinn Féin
leadership, Moloney draws attention to the way in
which explicit demands for a united Ireland became
more and more rare. The central republican goal was
redefined as `national self-determination' -- a much
more conveniently elastic concept.
a more concrete level, the author notes Gerry Adams's
tendency ruthlessly to sideline potential internal
opponents. Ivor Bell, a key figure in the Belfast
IRA, had been one of Adams's strongest internal allies
in the 1970s, but by the mid-1980s he had become disillusioned
with the direction in which his erstwhile comrade
soon as Bell became a credible threat, he was expelled
from the IRA at the instigation of Adams and his supporters.
According to Moloney, Bell has continued to live quietly
in west Belfast and has never spoken out again --
possibly as a result of the IRA death threat that
is said to hang over him.
major strengths and weaknesses of Secret History
are different sides of the same coin. On the one
hand, it is only possible to write something purporting
to be the inside story of the IRA if the author guarantees
sources absolute anonymity. On the other hand, that
anonymity makes it almost impossible for the reader
to gauge the veracity of much of the information imparted.
arise on crucial points of fact. One of Moloney's
main pieces of evidence `proving' that the King-Adams
contact took place is a letter he says was sent by
the British in response to a series of questions from
the Sinn Féin president. This letter is unsigned
and undated, and King denies all knowledge of it.
Moloney nevertheless asserts that "someone in
the British administration wrote it". His reasons
for believing this so emphatically are unclear, at
least to this reviewer.
use of innuendo in relation to the possible existence
of a highly-placed IRA informer is even more troubling.
Referring to the Eksund, for example, he writes that
"had the vessel and its deadly cargo gotten through
. . . a well-developed peace process would have been
its first casualty. Whoever betrayed the Eksund saved
the process, whether wittingly or otherwise."
remarks are sandwiched by paragraphs about the indirect
contacts between Gerry Adams and Tom King -- contacts,
Moloney emphasises, only Adams and a few of his inner
circle knew about. It is a dubious practice for the
author coyly to guide the reader towards drawing inferences
from this, while offering no evidence whatsoever to
other occasions, Moloney seems to credit Adams with
Machiavellian powers of incredible dimensions. It
is suggested that the disastrous IRA ceasefire of
1974-5 was precipitated by a situation that Adams
and his supporters had a hand in creating.
hypothesis is this: Adams and his allies did not reveal
the existence of 60 Armalite rifles to the IRA's Belfast
Brigade leaders. A weapons shortage pressured those
leaders to declare a ceasefire. The ceasefire was
disastrous and discredited the leadership. Moloney
implies that Adams thus manufactured a scenario that
left him ideally placed to "build his bid for
control of the IRA". It is just too much of a
stretch to expect the reader to accept this version
of events without any hard evidence. Controversy aside,
the book is fluent and detailed. Given that so much
effort went into its writing, it is a shame the editing
isn't better. There is too much repetition; Moloney
is also prone to slowing the pace by going down historical
definitive history of the IRA has still not been written.
But this is a fascinating, if flawed, book. It will
be read, and argued about, for years to come.
Stanage is editor of Magill. This article is carried
with permission and was first published in the Sunday
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