Now, this might come as startling news to Sinn Fein supporters but today’s Irish Times has the British embassy in Dublin labeling me as a Provo supporter. Admittedly that was back in 1981, during the hunger strikes and a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then and admittedly it is also clear from reading the report that the diplomat in the embassy who penned all this was a dumb-ass idiot.
This is what the Irish Times report said: “While Whiteway (the idiot diplomat) did not believe there were many IRA sympathisers within the national broadcaster (RTE), he did suggest that there were a ‘scattering of them in the newspapers and magazines’. Of these, he claimed the ‘best known’ were Ed Moloney and Seán Cronin in The Irish Times, Deasún Breathnach in the Irish Independent, Vincent Browne and Gene Kerrigan in Magill , Eamon McCann and Gerry Lawless in the Sunday World and Paddy Prendiville in the Sunday Tribune. That said, it was also made clear that ‘the presence of journalists sympathetic to the Provisionals does not seem to have affected the editorial line of the main newspapers and magazines with the exception of Magill’. Most newspapers remained ‘bitterly anti-IRA’.”
With one exception, and I’ll leave you to guess his identity, I am quite proud to be a member of that group, especially the likes of Vincent Browne, Gene Kerrigan and Eamon McCann. Difficult and frustrating as he can be, Browne is the best newspaperman and editor Ireland has ever had – incidentally I have skin in the game as he gave me my break in journalism – while Kerrigan and McCann are supremely gifted writers. It is a privilege to be included in their company.
A couple of things jumped out at me from today’s piece. The first is just how shallow and badly informed Mr Whiteway was and therefore how badly informed his government must have been. If this is what he had to say about me, I shudder to think what other misinformed garbage about Ireland he was peddling to his masters in Whitehall. It also suggests that either he wasn’t plugged into his intelligence people or they weren’t plugged into anything. No wonder the Troubles lasted for four decades.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not running scared from the ‘Provo fellow-traveller’ label. I was well aware at the time that this is what people said and thought but just accepted it as the price of taking an approach to covering the North rooted in the idea that a reporter just had to take the Provos seriously and report on them accordingly. The best way to avoid the label given to me was to run with the herd and either avoid the Provos altogether or join in the outrage and condemnation, to cover them only while holding your nose. Why be a journalist if that’s how you saw your job?
In this respect I very much took my cue from Vincent. He knew, as I did, that the Provos had deep roots in the North, that they were organically connected to their community and his coverage of them in Magill, in which I participated, very much reflected that approach. I carried on in that manner after I left Magill, first with Hibernia, then the Irish Times and finally the Sunday Tribune.
I like to think that I also learned to be cynical and distrustful from Vincent, that you should never allow the importance of the subject matter or the relevance of the source to distract you from an abiding duty: always look for the hidden motive, the reason to push you down a blind alley. While he certainly regarded the Provos as a subject to be reported seriously that didn’t mean he always believed them. In fact, because they knew that you thought they should be covered properly, his lesson was that you should therefore beware of them taking advantage of you, be on the lookout for trickery on their part and always double and if necessary triple check.
By the time of the 1981 hunger strikes I was well travelled along an increasingly jaundiced learning curve about the Provos and their West Belfast leadership and had learned a number of things, mostly the hard way: they had a very slick propaganda department with Danny Morrison at the core of it; you would be foolish to automatically believe everything he or his minions said; more often than not, they lied like troopers and they could be very vindictive if you crossed them.
This is where Mr Dumb-ass Whiteway got it so badly wrong. If he or the intelligence people who fed him had been up to their job they would have known that the story of me and the Provos during the first and second hunger strikes was one of constant conflict and friction, not the uncritical, fawning support he suggests. In fact I mark the hunger strikes as the start of a process in which I grew increasingly cynical but realistic about the IRA and its leadership; that process ended with me writing ‘A Secret History of the IRA’.
Students of the hunger strikes will remember that the first one, led by Brendan Hughes, ended in controversial circumstances. At its core was a document presented by the British via a Redemptorist priest intermediary. I was working freelance shifts in the Irish Times’ Belfast office the night the hunger strike ended. Danny Morrison phoned the office and invited our reporters to come up and view the document that the British had presented, a document he said that spelled victory for the protesting IRA prisoners.
I didn’t drive up to Sevastapol Street but David McKittrick & Fionnuala O’Connor did. They reported back that there was nothing in the document that had not already been offered; in other words the hunger strike had not budged the British at all. I soon got hold of my own copy and was able to confirm that.
None of this stopped Danny Morrison and the rest of the West Belfast leadership from trumpeting the hunger strikers’ victory. But in the Provo grassroots there was doubt & confusion, a dangerous combination for Morrison and his crew for indiscipline and even rebellion grow from such seeds. A victory parade organised by the leadership had attracted just a few hundred, convincing evidence that few believed the official line. I learned that the Provo leadership was refusing to show copies of the document to its supporters. There was only one copy, they were told, and that had been sent to Dublin. When I heard this from a source I volunteered to drive up to Stormont Castle and get a copy for them, which we did. Anyway one way or another the Provo leadership heard that I was casting doubt on their lie and so I was banned from republican drinking clubs in West Belfast.
Mr Dumb-ass Whiteway and his intelligence people assumed that I was getting my stories during the hunger strikes from the Provos, i.e. from Morrison et al, when in fact the best ones were coming, to Danny’s great irritation, from unofficial sources who were acting either in defiance of the party whip or because of an old-fashioned affection for the truth.
For instance in the run up to the March 1st start of the Bobby Sands protest I reported in the Irish Times that the hunger strike was going to be a staged affair, unlike the first hunger strike, with Sands leading by himself and then followed in ones and twos at regular intervals by other prisoners. This would avoid the weakness of the Brendan Hughes protest when the life of the weakest of their number was ultimately in the hands of all the other hunger strikers. It meant that deaths on this protest were more or less inevitable.
I didn’t get that story from Morrison & Co, needless to say. In fact they were furious. They had been planning a big stage-managed announcement with massive media coverage and I had pricked their balloon. As I say, Mr Dumb-ass Whiteway.
That’s how things stood when the second hunger strike began and the ban was removed. I could drink once more in the Felons, although the truth was that I really didn’t want to. But a truce of sorts was re-established. It wasn’t until death number three or four that things began to turn sour again. The election of Bobby Sands, his death and the rioting that followed, the deaths of Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara happened so fast and so closely together that it wasn’t until the lengthy gap between O’Hara’s death and that of Joe McDonnell that there was time to reflect on what was happening.
The memory I have of that time is of a growing conviction that the Provo leadership knew that the hunger strikes were a winner for them, that the whole of Ireland was being alienated from Mrs Thatcher’s government, that the ambition of entering electoral politics, something I knew West Belfast Provos had harboured for a long time, was much closer to realisation than ever and therefore it would be foolish, tactically, to end the protest.
The answer to all these questions from the likes of Danny Morrison was that the leadership was a prisoner of the hunger strikers. Those on the protest wanted to stay on it, so what could the leadership do? They couldn’t go against the wishes of the prisoners. Morrison’s line was credible because it was generally accepted that the first hunger strike had gone ahead against the wishes of the likes of Gerry Adams, who had calculated that it would probably end in failure. That seemed to give credence to the idea that the hunger strikers were in the driving seat.
Except common sense, and increasingly frequent grumbling from people I knew in the Provo grassroots, said otherwise. The IRA was a military organisation, the hunger strikers were volunteers in a command structure and if the IRA leadership ordered the protest over then it would be. Fr Denis Faul was saying this publicly, and what he said made sense, but also rank and file republicans, especially of the pre-1969 vintage, were saying something similar and expressing real anguish over a hunger strike that was being prolonged, with needless loss of life and suffering, simply for narrow political advantage, not for the benefit of those on the protest. I just didn’t believe Danny.
I like to think that my coverage during the latter half of the second hunger strike reflected this. In fact I know others felt it did. Bernadette McAliskey stopped talking to me at around this time and hostility from leadership Provos was fairly open. In fact I remember virtually giving up on running stories past Morrison and his people on the grounds that I had been told too many lies.
But I was still getting stories from non-official Provos and from others, they were good stories and Morrison & Co were furious. Eventually he approached me, complaining that I hadn’t been checking stories with him. I explained why not and he promised never to tell me a lie again.
A few weeks later, in the last week of September 1981, I heard a rumour that the hunger strike would be called off the following Saturday. I rang Morrison. Was this true, I asked him. “Absolutely not, Ed’, he assured me. Like a fool I believed him. That Saturday, October 3rd, 1981, the second hunger strike was called off. I swore, never again. Never again.
Like I say, Mr Dumb-ass Whiteway.