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Book Review: Voices from the Grave - Two Men's War in Ireland

How do you document the history of a conflict in which illegal organisations are among the central players? Voices from the Grave, by the veteran Northern Ireland correspondent Ed Moloney, is an intriguing attempt to answer that question.

Ed Moloney, Voices from the Grave: Two Men's War in Ireland, Faber and Faber, £14.99 paperback.Voices from the Grave

This book is based on a series of interviews conducted with members of the IRA and the UVF for Boston College, on the understanding that the resulting material would not be released without the interviewees' permission until their deaths. As such it was made possible by the death of PUP leader David Ervine in 2007, and of former IRA commander Brendan Hughes a year later. Hughes' story in particular has been much anticipated, not least because he was for many years a close associate of Gerry Adams, before becoming a bitter critic of the Sinn Féin leader.

It has a compelling larger interest, giving a sense of what it is like in the intense world of a modern day armed-struggle organisation as it wrestles with larger political and democratic forces. Here, the cliche that war is politics carried on by other means enters into personal relations and lasting hatreds. 

Like Adams, Hughes came from a republican family with a history of involvement in the Belfast IRA. With the outbreak of the troubles in 1969-70, he joined the Provisionals, then emerging as a militaristic splinter from the Official IRA.

Dispatched one night in April 1970 to engage the British Army in the nationalist area of Ballymurphy, Hughes found himself held back by the local IRA commander, who wanted to avoid gunfire and keep the local population involved in rioting instead. This, according to Hughes, was his first encounter with Gerry Adams, one which encapsulates the relationship of operator and strategist which Moloney ascribes to the two men.

Along with another Belfast IRA figure, Ivor Bell, they formed a trio which ousted the old guard Provisional leadership - before breaking up in the way that triumvirates tend to do.

According to Hughes all three were centrally involved in the huge wave of IRA bombings that killed 9 people and injured 130 others across Belfast in 21 July 1972 - Bloody Friday. He also claimed that Adams was responsible for the decision to 'disappear' informers rather than execute them publicly as was the traditional IRA policy.

These allegations were strongly denied by Adams in a blog post which pointed out that both Moloney, and Anthony McIntyre, the former republican prisoner who interviewed Hughes, were both longstanding critics of his. A number of republican ex-prisoners have come forward to back Adams' version of events, while others have come out in support of Hughes account.

At this point the story becomes more detailed. Few doubt the basic facts of Adams' rise through the ranks of the IRA, but there are elements of Hughes story that even Moloney admits are open to question. Hughes blamed Adams for ordering the death of Patrick Crawford, a republican prisoner found hanged in Long Kesh in 1973. Yet he admits that he believed Ivor Bell was responsible until Bell told him otherwise. This arguably leaves Hughes open to the charge that he was re-interpreting events in light of later factional recriminations.

He and Adams remained close friends well after the period that is the subject of his most damning allegations. Only later did he come to believe that Adams had washed his hands of his IRA past. Moloney backs up this charge up by suggesting that Adams' disavowals of IRA membership are qualitatively different from the pro forma denials of most IRA members. The latter point implicitly acknowledges that Hughes' revelations rather than Adams' concealment could be seen as the real break with the IRA's clandestine tradition.

These competing claims of disloyalty are perhaps only symptomatic of the deeper issue between Adams and Hughes - their different attitudes to the peace process. Early on they had shared a common analysis of the conflict founded on their experiences of the intelligence struggle against the British Army.

The story of their encounters with the British Army's undercover Military Reaction Force have been told before, notably in Martin Dillon's the Dirty War, for which it now looks as if Hughes may have been an important source. Moloney notes that the MRF was disbanded in 1973, but not that it was reorganised as the Special Reconnaissance Unit, a fact which might explain the renewed attempts to penetrate the IRA which Hughes describes in the following period. Hughes and Adams came to believe that these plain-clothes units were attempting to stir up sectarian conflict between loyalists and republicans, while stringing along the IRA in a ceasefire that the old guard believed was a prelude to British withdrawal.

That analysis would inform Adams rise to became the leading figure in the republican movement by the early 1980s. Hughes spent the same period in prison, taking part in the blanket protest and leading the 1980 hunger strikes, which ended in disputed circumstances that paved the way for those led by Bobby Sands the following year.

On his release in 1986, Hughes returned to a key role in the IRA, but by now Adams was the MP for West Belfast and the balance of power within the republican movement was shifting towards Sinn Féin. Hughes wanted to tighten up IRA security in preparation for a new offensive. He came to believe that IRA members were being allowed to carry out ill-prepared operations as a way of running down the military wing. The ultimate moment of disillusionment came when an informer, Joe Fenton, was killed before he had a chance to question him, leading him to suspect another higher level mole.

In many ways this aspect of the book reads like a sort of republican Spycatcher. Like Peter Wright, Hughes worked on counterintelligence. Like Wright, his role and his suspicions of high-level penetration alienated him from his colleagues, who vacillated between relying on him to clean up the organisation and sidelining him. Like Wright, he produced a sensational insider account while remaining in many ways an unlikely whistleblower.

There is a danger that this counterintelligence-driven perspective could provide the material for a dissident republican Dolchstosslegende. Hughes concludes: "I agree eventually there has to be negotiations but I believe negotiations needs to be fair and just, and a guarantee that they will not move onto another generation. Sinn Fein and the IRA have not done that. They sentenced young people, young republicans and young working-class people to another generation of fighting."

Yet it is hard to see how any alternative strategy would have left republicans better off. Moloney writes that "The 'long war' idea was itself an admission that the violence of the early 1970s could never be repeated" and that the "the "long war" doctrine also seemed to be founded on the hope that if the IRA could survive long enough might come along to improve its fortunes in a dramatic way."

The overall tone is one of anger at how things turned out, wihout any real sense of how they could have ended differently, except with an escalation that would have made them very much worse.

Hughes' dismissive attitude to politics suggests that he never learned the lesson of that night in Ballymurphy in 1970, of the advantages of letting the army make way for the people. His account is nevertheless important as a unique insight into one of the central figures of the Troubles.

David Ervine

The latter part of the book, dealing with David Ervine, appears pedestrian by comparison. It contains much of interest, but largely on matters on which Ervine was outspoken during his lifetime. 

Ervine joined the Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in 1972, he claims because of his reaction to witnessing Bloody Friday.  He was arrested in late 1974 with explosives. (He admits to very little in the way of his UVF activity other than what he was convicted of. This perhaps suggests that the position of Gerry Adams, who was interned rather than convicted, is not as unique as Moloney suggests.) He claimed to have had no knowledge of the UVF's role in the Dublin-Monaghan bombings or even of its role in the Ulster Workers Council Strike. Yet he dismissed suggestions of British collusion in those events as insulting to loyalists.

This is where Hughes and Ervine's accounts diverge most widely, since this was the period when Hughes believed British intelligence was manipulating republicans and loyalists into a sectarian war.

The Dublin-Monaghan bombings are now believed to have been carried out by the Glennane gang, a group of loyalists alleged to have links to a plain-clothes British Army unit based at Castledillon. That unit was part of the Special Reconnaissance Unit, which was most likely responsible for running agents into Crumlin Road prison, where they told Brendan Hughes of similar agents within loyalism. Was Hughes taken in by disinformation, or was Ervine concealing British infiltration of loyalism in this period?

Ed Moloney does not attempt to choose between the two accounts, but he does speculate that the UVF might have been used by British intelligence at a later period in the same way that the UDA was manipulated through Brian Nelson.

Ervine was more forthcoming on events of the 1990s, claiming that the late LVF leader Billy Wright was a British agent, and was colluding with unionist politicians opposed to the peace process.

Ironically, former BBC correspondent Brian Rowan reported last year that informers helped to engineer Wright's expulsion from the UVF, and that its most senior leader was himself a registered source, passing on political intelligence. That perhaps puts a different light on the political acumen that Ervine claimed for the UVF's response to the IRA ceasefire.

By and large, Ervine offers an orthodox apologia for the UVF that contrasts with Hughes's heterodox account of the IRA.

As a result, the structure of the narrative highlights the constraints and divisions that shaped republicans while emphasising the autonomy of loyalists and leaving British intelligence as a mysterious monolith. This may be reassuring for unionists, but it risks playing into a dissident republican narrative that sees the peace process as the product of one-sided manipulation.

Those attracted to that narrative will no doubt be tantalised rather than disconcerted by the air of mystery that pervades the book. A key reference is to an unpublished paper on infiltration of the IRA. The information in the recorded interviews was assessed by David Trimble's former advisor Lord Bew "together with two historians who remain anonymous."

Also anonymous are a number of people whose names are blanked out in the text, including unionist politicians and alleged IRA informers. There may be good reasons for this, but they are not explained, which in itself makes one wonder about the attentions of the D-Notice Committee.

While the authors aspire to "collect a story of the Troubles that otherwise would be lost, distorted or rewritten," what one is left with is the sense of how much has already been lost because neither Hughes or Ervine will ever be able to clarify, defend or expand on the accounts offered here. Voices from the grave are no substitute for a redoubled effort to recover the truth about the troubles before the opportunity to hear the voices of the living is lost forever.

About the author

Tom Griffin is freelance journalist and researcher. He holds a Ph.D in social and policy sciences from the University of Bath, and is a former Executive Editor of the Irish World.


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