June 26, 2019


The woman who haunts the IRA (JENNY MCCARTNEY, Jun. 26th, 2019, Unherd)

The abandonment of the IRA 'armed struggle,' which came as such a relief to the rest of the world, had left many of its former combatants psychologically high and dry. If - seen through Price's eyes - the involvement of the British state in Northern Ireland was indeed Big Brother, then the 'armed struggle' had ended with Big Brother still in situ, and the IRA responsible for roughly 1,800 dead.

Adams would assure his supporters that he was playing the 'long game' and that Irish unity could be pursued more effectively through political strategy. Time may or may not eventually prove him right. Since the ceasefires, Sinn Fein has retrospectively sought to cast the IRA campaign as more about 'civil rights' than a united Ireland (the dissident republican Kevin Hannaway, Adam's cousin, countered this tendency with: "If they were out for an Irish Republic, they failed. If they were out for civil rights, they got it in 1973. So what the f[*****]ng hell was the other 30 years of war for?") For ex-IRA members such as Price, however, who had gone through imprisonment, hunger-strikes and force-feeding for a united Ireland, Adams' long game felt more like 'game over'.

As Keefe writes: "Price felt a sharp sense of moral injury: she believed that she had been robbed of any ethical justification for her own conduct." Extreme means had left their scars, even on those who dispensed them, and ends had not been delivered. Meanwhile, there were growing revelations about the degree to which the inner circle of the IRA had been penetrated by British intelligence.

As Price talked openly about the details of what had gone on, she made one particularly explosive allegation: that Adams had a decisive role as her 'officer commanding' in ordering McConville's murder and disappearance.

Her claim was backed up by the late Brendan Hughes, a prominent former Belfast IRA man and one-time close companion of Adams, when Hughes gave evidence to the controversial Boston College academic project. The project confidentially recorded testimonies from the Troubles on the basis that they would only be released after the interviewee's death or with their consent. Hughes died in 2008.

Along the way, the Irish republican revolution had devoured many of its own children, in particular those who - for personal or political reasons - felt they could no longer be part of the enveloping post-conflict Sinn Fein worldview. It did not, however, devour Gerry Adams, who emerges from these pages as an icily strategic figure with an unusual ability to compartmentalise his personal history. He has always denied being in the IRA, a position which may have begun as a practical strategy to avoid arrest but has ended up looking like a canny distancing from the bloody reality of what the IRA did.

Yet Hughes and Price both alleged that it was Adams himself who gave orders for McConville not only to be killed but also 'disappeared' (despite the objections of the veteran IRA hard-liner Ivor Bell who, Hughes said, argued for McConville's body to be displayed openly as a warning to others accused of defying IRA edicts). Their emphatic recollection sits in direct opposition to what Adams personally told the McConville family - that he was certain the IRA had killed their mother, but he had no idea who authorised it.

In 2014, Gerry Adams was arrested and questioned over Jean McConville, but prosecutors later announced that he would not face any criminal charges. Ivor Bell, in contrast, was charged with involvement in the McConville murder, but the prosecution was abandoned on the grounds that the elderly Bell was 'unfit for trial'.

Of all the ghosts created by the IRA, it is perhaps Jean McConville who has returned to haunt the organisation most relentlessly and powerfully. In this book, Adams's insistence - as alleged by Price and Hughes - on 'disappearing' McConville would seem to echo Adams' wider strategy through his long and morally complex history: to bury stomach-churning realities, layer them in ambiguities and denials, and forever seek to elude wider judgement.

That strategy, broadly speaking, has served him well. Today, Adams' Twitter feed is a curated mixture of social justice campaigning, jokes, poetry and sanitised Troubles reminiscences. Last year he published a 'Negotiators' Cookbook' full of homely dishes that he said sustained the Sinn Fein team in the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement.

He is TD for Louth, the very county in which Jean McConville met her lonely death with a shot to the back of the head. And he appears now to be officially feted in the US as Ireland's most authentic representative: in 2018 the New York Mayor Bill de Blasio publicly awarded Adams freedom of the city and anounced that he was renaming St Patrick's Day 'Gerry Adams Day' while the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, looked on. Throughout, Adams has appeared to suffer little of the psychological distress which clearly beset Price, Hughes and numerous other ex-IRA members.

As a journalist who grew up in Northern Ireland, I am familiar with many of the histories in Say Nothing, but Keefe weaves them together with gripping clarity and skill. He adds some fresh hypotheses of his own, chiefly the suggestion - arrived at by piecing together information from Dolours Price and other sources - that it was Marian Price who fired the shot that killed McConville, something that Marian Price vehemently denies.

This book should be read by anyone who wants to understand Northern Ireland during the Troubles, its sadness and squalor, and its complex, feverish texture. Keefe grew up among the Irish Americans of Boston, a community that - as he says - has tended to view IRA violence through "the sentimental attitudes of tribal solidarity". But there's no touch of green mist permeating the writing here - or, indeed, mist of any variety. For those of us who have grown weary of selective ambiguities, it comes as a relief to watch a stranger take our murky, disputed past and lay it out, as clearly as he can, under the light.


Posted by at June 26, 2019 12:00 AM