Last week I attended an academic seminar at Exeter University on the production of knowledge during conflicts and peace processes. A very interesting and enjoyable time was had by all, and all included academics from Israel, Palestine, Serbia, India, France, the US, Britain & Germany. So, many thanks to the Exeter Center for Ethno-Political Studies (EXCEPS) and the delightful Mary-Alice Clancy, our gracious hostess and a fellow refugee from Belfast.
My contribution was an old chestnut that I take out to chew and worry on from time to time: the role of censorship during the Troubles, especially self-censorship in Ireland. My view has always been not just that censorship failed to achieve the goals that its Irish architects and champions like Conor Cruise O’Brien and Garret FitzGerald claimed it would but that it made things worse. It prolonged the Troubles and made the eventual peace process harder and longer to get off the ground and then made the peace process itself unnecessarily long (and awfully tedious) while helping the two parties with more blood on their hands than most to emerge politically victorious at the end (although I do concede that the blood-on-hands contest was a tightly fought affair and for most people the jury is still out!).
During the conference, speculation grew in the media that Martin McGuinness might shake the hand of the Queen of England, and some of my conference colleagues were eager to know what my view was: would he, or wouldn’t he? At this point, things were at the “Sinn Fein pours cold water on the idea” stage because the party had “not been consulted” about a visit the Queen would make to the Stormont parliament and Gerry Adams was in a huff, complaining that there was no “do-able” proposition on the table for a SF-House of Windsor rapprochement. The idea that SF would not have been told about the Queen’s plan was of course ludicrous but it did not deter the media from greeting it with gravity, credibility and significance.
It was all depressingly familiar, a ploy we had seen Sinn Fein execute so many times during the peace process but each time greeted by the media with astonishment and surprise, as if it had never happened before. The classic example of the ploy in motion was SF’s efforts throughout the many years of the peace process to deny that IRA decommissioning was on the cards when for all sorts of reasons, not least self-interest, it was clear that it was.
That particular journey was accomplished in a number of steps which each shared similar levels of dishonesty and manipulation. Stories would be put out, and happily circulated by our credulous media, that this or that move towards disarming the IRA would/could never happen, was the invention of a malicious one or two journalists (mostly myself) and the party’s supporters should be assured that whatever it was, it was just not on the agenda. Then having reassured the base, the Provo leadership would make the move they said would never happen, their supporters would be rendered impotent by their own dismay and confusion while the odd one or two angry enough to voice their frustration could be handily identified as potential troublemakers and isolated in preparation for future needs.
It got to the point when you would think the media would catch on, that when Sinn Fein said something was not going to happen, this was actually a signal that it absolutely would. But it never worked that way. The journalists I knew in Belfast who wrote the story this way were never that stupid or ingenuous. Then as now, I regarded this sort of behaviour as evidence of the media censoring itself in the sense that to act otherwise risked being labelled “unhelpful” to the peace process.
Translating that into simple English, journalists who were “unhelpful” in this way also laid themselves open to the charge that they wanted the process to fail, that they believed the Provos were selling out and that, one way or another they were in the dissident camp and wanted to see blood running on the streets of Belfast once again. That is the sort of accusation that can end a promising career and was a variation and inversion of what happened when the IRA’s war was raging, that to cover the Provos seriously, to burrow into their internal affairs, to explain why they did what they did risked being accused of being an IRA sympathiser, a “fellow-traveller” or “sneaking’ regarder”, to use the argot of the day. Fear was the engine of censorship during the Troubles years and a very effective if ultimately self-defeating engine it was.
By the stage of the handshake story the media should have “wised up”, to use a Belfast phrase and realised that it doesn’t matter any more, the IRA’s war is over for good (against Britain that is, if not against those whose offend it – but that’s a whole other story), while its leaders have their sights set on very different targets. The media should have known that it’s now okay to tell the truth, time to treat sources who have been caught out lying, misleading or hoodwinking time and time again with an appropriate level of mistrust and skepticism and that when Gerry Adams says something is not “doable” then it almost certainly is. But old habits die hard, it seems.
You could see evidence of this when finally the music stopped and the dreary dance ended. The real significance of the promised handshake was overlooked by all but a tiny number of the media who wrote about the story, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it was not incompetence that caused this (although you always have to be careful about that one) but the same old timidity and fear that made media coverage of the Troubles in Ireland so forgettable.
The significance of the handshake is simply that the Queen is not just extending a friendly hand to a former IRA commander/member whose organisation happened to have killed her uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten – as most of the media reported the story – but that Martin McGuinness actually gave the order for him to be killed. Seen in that raw light, it is a very different and meaningful story.
McGuinness was Chief of Staff of the IRA, its military commander, on August 27th, 1979, when Mountbatten’s holiday boat was blown to pieces off the Co. Sligo coast by a remote controlled bomb. He gave the order for the operation to go ahead. That’s how the IRA worked, that’s how all armies work. Operations as sensitive as this one was obviously required a political input, which was given by the Army Council, but the top general always gives the final word in the light of the military circumstances of the day. The top IRA general on August 27th, 1979 was Martin McGuinness. Without his say-so, Mountbatten would possibly have lived for many years more.
So, from the Queen’s point of view (and one can be sure that the intelligence briefing she received from Downing Street made all this abundantly clear, as she has the right to know whose hand she is shaking on these occasions) she will be extending an amicable palm to the man who dispatched her great-great grandmother’s great grandson to eternity (as well his own grandson, his daughter’s mother-in-law and a member of the boat’s crew).
While much of the media coverage has dwelt on the significance of the handshake from the point of view of Sinn Fein, the person who has actually has made the greatest concession here is surely the Queen. Ask yourself this question: if you were asked to shake the hand of the man who killed your favourite uncle as well as an assorted bunch of relatives, would you do it?
(Incidentally, the journalist who came closest to telling the truth about McGuinness’ role was someone who lives furthest away, Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe who wrote, inter alia: “There are many law enforcement officials, Irish and British, who believe McGuinness was running the IRA or was at least on its ruling Army Council, when the plan to blow up Mountbatten was approved.” So, how come a guy who works 3,000 miles away got the story more right than journalists who live right over the shop? Anyway, take a bow, Kevin!)
The inadequacies and failings of the media regarding this story don’t, alas, stop there. There is virtually no historical context to any of the coverage, which is a great pity because there is a direct but unexpected linkage between the peace process being cemented with that handshake in Belfast and the events of August 27th 1979, a linkage that actually makes the story so much more interesting, significant and, in its way, ironic.
About six hours after Lord Mountbatten’s boat was reduced to matchwood, the IRA killed eighteen paratroopers at Narrow Water near Warrenpoint on the shores of Carlingford Lough in Co Down. It was a skilled and audacious piece of guerrilla warfare. A cleverly disguised bomb hidden in a hay lorry detonated as a lorry full of soldiers passed by, killing six. Reinforcements were helicoptered in and the IRA correctly guessed where it would land and another well-hidden bomb killed twelve more soldiers, including the Paras’ CO. The eighteen killed that day was the highest British military death toll at the IRA’s hands since Tom Barry’s legendary ambush at Kilmichael, Co Cork in November 1920.
The combined effect of the two blows produced an unprecedented military and political crisis for the newly elected government of Margaret Thatcher and the IRA came very close to forcing the British to execute a U-turn in security policy, taking control away from the local police, the RUC, putting it back into the British Army’s hands and undoing the myth that Northern Ireland was slowly returning to normality by employing police methods and the courts to undermine the IRA.
That was one point of significance. The other was the impact it had on the IRA’s future direction. In fact it is no exaggeration to say that without the killing of Mountbatten, without the carnage at Carlingford Lough there might well be no peace process today, no reason to shake hands in Belfast.
Martin McGuinness had become IRA Chief of Staff by virtue of series of military and political changes in the Republican movement plotted and planned by Gerry Adams and a small number of his allies while they had been imprisoned in Long Kesh internment camp.
Arrested by British soldiers in late 1973, Adams and his Young Turks could only sit in jail helpless as their largely Dublin-based leaders steered the IRA into a disastrous ceasefire, which the British used to their own ends. They prolonged the cessation with false promises of withdrawal and used the time to revamped security policy by using “enhanced” police interrogation methods to extract confessions which were processed by juryless courts which then sent convicted IRA members to jails which refused to recognise them as anything but common criminals with no political motivation.
The new security approach nearly defeated the IRA and a frustrated and angry group in jail led by Adams argued for the overthrow of the leadership responsible and for a more politically directed IRA constructed in such a way that it would have popular support to fight a long war against the British.
Adams left jail in 1977, the old leadership was deposed and he became Chief of Staff in December that year, until he was arrested three months later. Adams was succeeded by McGuinness. The changes plotted by his group – among them the creation of a special Northern Command, the reconfiguration of the IRA into cells, anti-interrogation training and the creation of a spy catching unit – were nonetheless put in place and when Adams was released from jail in late 1978, he became McGuinness’s deputy and the IRA’s Adjutant-General. The new team was fully in charge, calling the IRA’s shots.
The killings at Mullaghmore and Narrow Water were the first evidence that this reorganisation and reorienting of the IRA was paying big dividends; it enormously strengthened the leadership of Gerry Adams and his young, radical allies and vindicated their uncompromising takeover of the IRA. In its review of 1979, the leadership’s new national newspaper An Phoblacht-Republic News (AP-RN) crowed: “Last year was one of resounding Republican success when the IRA’s cellular reorganisation was operationally vindicated, particularly through the use of remote-control bombs”.
And so a myth was born. Adams and McGuinness had rescued the IRA from defeat and they had the military skills to put the British on the back foot. The killing of Mountbatten was proof of that and it helped make Adams and his allies invulnerable to internal challenge. In undisputed charge of the IRA, the Adams leadership was free to maneuvre the IRA in entirely different directions.
Within three years Sinn Fein had entered conventional electoral politics, the primacy of the gun and bomb was under internal challenge for the first time and Gerry Adams had begun his secret dialogue with the Redemptorist priest, Fr Alex Reid. The peace process was born and soon there were clandestine contacts with the Irish and British governments. The rest, as the cliche goes, is history.
When Martin McGuinness shakes the Queen’s hand in Belfast this coming week, no-one outside a small select circle will know what they say to each other. But here’s my suggestion of what the deputy first minister could say: “Terribly sorry about the uncle, ma’am. But he did die in a good cause.”
This piece of political art has appeared on the slopes of the Black Mountain, the hill which overlooks much of West Belfast, the former Westminster constituency of Gerry Adams. It reads, or appears to read: ‘Erin is our Queen’ (another website says it is actually ‘Eriu’ not ‘Erin’ but it’s not clear. ‘Eriu’ is, apparently, the older Irish word for Ireland, so ‘Erin’ could be a good fit. Also ‘Eriu’ is the name of the ancient Queen of Ireland which makes better sense). I am also beginning to pick up traces of unrest in the Sinn Fein camp about the handshake. We’ll see soon if there is anything more to it than just talk.
Here is a recently produced Sinn Fein poster clearly designed to counter internal Republican criticism of the planned handshake. I can’t recall the Provos feeling it necessary before to answer their detractors in such a way.
The significant aspect of the Sinn Fein poster above is that it portrays Martin McGuinness as someone he has recently, and not so recently denied ever being, that is a member of the IRA. In fact this poster revels in IRA militarism, portraying McGuinness a determined-looking soldier with a face that says ‘I will happily die for Ireland and I will kill for her’, which is the image that made him so useful during the peace process, when the political gymnastics of Gerry Adams and others often confused and dismayed the grassroots.
But while he often played that role to assuage rank and file doubts, he was also beginning to distance himself from his IRA past and even followed in Gerry Adams’ path by denying he had ever been in the organisation. In August 1993, for instance, when the Cook Report broadcast a documentary alleging he had enticed a suspected IRA informer back to Derry with false promises about his safety and that the suspect was subsequently shot dead, McGuinness told the media, “I have never been a member of the IRA”. A month later he told the London Independent: “..the reality is that I am not a member of the IRA.”
He modified this stand less than a decade later when it became clear that the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday would confront him with a TV interview he gave in the early 1970’s in which he did not deny being the IRA’s Derry commander and went on to talk knowledgeably about the bombing campaign in the city and the Derry IRA’s relationship with the Dublin leadership.
So he changed his story. Yes, he said, he had been in the IRA but left in 1974. Not quite in the same league as Gerry Adams who has denied ever being in the IRA but only because the fiction could easily be disproved. Until Adams and McGuinness adopted this approach to membership allegations, IRA activists were never expected to admit their affiliation, not least because they could be charged and jailed, but they were expected never to deny it either, as to do so meant disowning their comrades and everything they stood for.
That half-denial has become McGuinness’ standard response to the IRA question and we all saw it in action during his bid last October for the Irish presidency, on one memorable occasion being confronted by the son of an Irish army private shot dead during an IRA kidnapping in the early 1980’s.
So, the fact that McGuinness, or those acting for him in Sinn Fein, is now enthusiastically embracing the IRA connection by allowing the publication of a photo of himself, the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, in full paramilitary garb suggests to me that there has been more of a kickback against the handshake-with-the-Queen decision than the Sinn Fein apparatchki would normally dare to admit in public. But we shall see. It will all come out in the wash, although I have to say I don’t expect much. The time for that sort of thing was long ago. Too late now, methinks, but perhaps the handshake is one step too far. We shall find out soon enough.
Nice cartoon in the Daily Telegraph, Britain’s foremost royalist newspaper but nonetheless a publication with a sense of humour.