The Blanket

A Secret History of the IRA

Niall Stanage • Dublin, Ireland, 6 October, 2002

If 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 -- caused uproar.

Adams 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.

The 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 misguided, however.

Its 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 at length.

Crucially, 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.

Not 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.

Moloney 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."

The 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.

On 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 was moving.

As 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.

The 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.

Problems 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.

Moloney's 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."

These 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 support them.

On 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.

Moloney's 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 tangents.

The 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.

Niall Stanage is editor of Magill. This article is carried with permission and was first published in the Sunday Business Post.





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The man who lets a leader prescribe his course is a wreck being towed to the scrap heap.
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Index: Current Articles

11 Ocotber 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Just Desserts?
Anthony McIntyre


'Robocop' Raid Seen as PSNI Reversion
Eamonn McCann


A Secret History of the IRA
Niall Stanage


Immigrant Slave Labour
Liam O Ruairc


Fighting the Sharks
Sean Smyth


Academics on Independence, Part 2

Paul Fitzsimmons


Wake Up and Smell the Occupation
Sam Bahour


From the Mouths of Babes
John Chuckman


6 October 2002


That Book
Tommy McKearney


"SOS - Save Our Stormont"

Anthony McIntyre


Birds of Ireland
Brian Mór


The Right to Live
Davy Carlin


Interview with Colombian Human Rights Worker



Willpower of Revolutionaries




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