An Honest Review Of ‘Voices’ From Kevin Bean

Thanks to Liam O’Rourke for passing this on to me:

Kevin Bean (Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, UK) review of: Ed Moloney: Voices From The Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland (London: Faber and Faber, 2010)

When this book was published in early 2010, it received a great deal of media attention because of a number of claims made by Brendan Hughes about Gerry Adams’s role as a senior member of the Provisional IRA during the Troubles. The main focus of interest was on Hughes’s account of Adams’s part in a number of the most controversial incidents in the Provisionals’ campaign, including “Bloody Friday” and “the Disappeared.” This controversy and the response of Provisional politicians to the claims show that the issues raised have not yet passed into history, but remain very much alive in Northern Ireland’s politics.

Thus, the reception of these allegations revealed that the mutually agreed vow of silence between the region’s leaders and the polite understanding that they would not raise the skeletons in their respective cupboards held firm: if unionists turned a blind eye to revelations about Gerry Adams’s part in the war, then Sinn Féin would not be so indelicate as to mention Ian Paisley’s career on the wilder shores of unionism or Peter Robinson’s private conversations with loyalist paramilitaries. Ed Moloney’s book seeks to undermine this collective amnesia and challenge the moratorium on historical enquiry that this mutually beneficial truce has imposed on many areas of public life in Northern Ireland.

The book is built around interviews with the late Brendan Hughes, former Provisional IRA commander in Belfast, and the late David Ervine, a former UVF member and leader of the Progressive Unionist Party. The interviews were carried out as part of a Boston College oral history project that aimed to record the views and experiences of a range of participants in Northern Ireland’s Troubles from the late 1960s onward. One of the conditions of the research was that interviews would only be available for publication with the consent of interviewees or upon their death. Given these strict conditions and the controlled nature of the undertaking, it is to be expected that this project in general, and this book in particular, would prove a rich source for historians of the conflict.

In that we are not disappointed, although perhaps not in ways that we, the author, or indeed Brendan Hughes and David Ervine might have expected. Moloney uses the accident of their early deaths to make use of their interviews to construct two linked, if not exactly parallel, lives. There are some very broad similarities in class and social background, along with some overlapping points of contact, in which both Hughes and Ervine could be said to have touched the life of the other. However, this is a somewhat forced conjunction in general, although Moloney does use the different reception accorded to Gerry Adams at their respective funerals to telling effect as perhaps the only real example of the conceit that frames their individual stories.

It is in the contrast between the two men and their war in Ireland that the great value of this book lays. The greater part of the book is devoted to Brendan Hughes, reflecting perhaps the depth and range of the original interview from which Moloney draws. David Ervine’s interview, on the evidence of his section of the book, appears to be much less comprehensive. This may well reflect the skill of the original interviewer, but given that Ervine refused to discuss his specific role in the UVF, in contrast to the detail given by Hughes of his (and other people’s) activities, it is more likely that this more guarded response was a carefully considered one on his part.

This points to the underlying and fundamental contrast between the two men that goes beyond their individual personalities or their individual stories. Moloney presents them as representative characters standing for much more than themselves: this is not just “two men’s war in Ireland”; in Moloney’s hands the story of the Troubles as a whole is refracted through Brendan Hughes’s and David Ervine’s individual experiences.

Brendan Hughes is determined to escape the condescension of posterity and ensure that on this occasion at least history will not be written solely by the winners. He recognizes that his project has been defeated and he uses the interviews to explain why and how he thinks this has happened. His exposition combines the political and the personal given his close relationship with Gerry Adams and the role that Hughes ascribes to Adams in the betrayal of Provisional republicanism. Moloney is surely not exaggerating when he finds in that trope of treachery an echo of classical tragedy or sees parallels with historical Irish republican fratricide.

In contrast to Gerry Adams’s frequent denials of any involvement in the IRA, Brendan Hughes does not shy away from his role and his responsibility in the Provisional campaign. For example, he is candid about his role in the case of the Disappeared and his activities with D Company in the Lower Falls in the early 1970s, along with other aspects of the armed struggle he conducted over more than twenty years. His account is permeated with a great sense of subjective agency and belief that it was republicans who were making history rather than waiting on events to shape their fate. At no stage does Brendan Hughes portray himself or his comrades as merely passive actors, swept along by the confusion of the times. While he expresses regret and sorrow at particular actions, there is no general recantation or repudiation of what he did as a member of the Provisional movement. Indeed in these interviews Brendan Hughes continues to argue strongly that the IRA’s campaign was a justified and necessary form of violence to achieve political goals.

This issue of legitimation is at the heart of Hughes’s position and clearly animates the feelings of betrayal that provide such a strong element in his part of the book. He argues that the current Provisional leaders have abandoned the cause and settled for a settlement far short of the movement’s revolutionary aims. They have done this by not only turning their backs on old comrades and old principles, but have carried out an even worse betrayal by both denying their own history and retrospectively delegitimizing the republican struggle as a whole.

David Ervine’s account is very different, both in tone and content. While Brendan Hughes seeks to shape his own epitaph by apparently revealing all, David Ervine remains very much the public man who guards his own reputation carefully. His account of the impact of the Troubles in the early 1970s portrays the loyalist community as essentially reactive: his assessment of his own experiences stresses that he too was caught up in this communal anger and was swept along by an urge to strike back at the enemy. Ervine’s account of these currents is interesting as is his portrayal of the ideological and psychological confusion that loyalists faced when confronting their “own” British state. However, he does not discuss the details of his paramilitary involvement nor does he fully explain his own political development toward a form of unionist laborism, much less explore the ideological evolution of the UVF and the PUP in general. We read about loyalist contacts with the Dublin government and are provided with some interesting vignettes about the peace process negotiations, but somehow the substance and the significance of what happened is denied to us. It would have been useful to hear more about these political debates within loyalism and the ways in which David Ervine persuaded his comrades that unionism had “won” the war and that it was the peace process that would secure the Union. Given recent developments in the PUP and UVF following Dawn Purvis’ resignation from the leadership of the party, these issues continue to have resonance for contemporary unionist politics. Running through David Ervine’s account is the difficulty of sustaining a viable loyalist political project with a distinct class identity, especially given the historical relationship between mainstream unionism and its less constitutional loyalist cousins.

One conclusion that we can draw from Ervine’s interviews is that, despite his personal abilities and public profile, he too was unable to solve this political problem, and that although unionism as a whole has indeed won the war, it seems unlikely that a distinctive loyalist political project will be able to win the peace.

An earlier period of Irish Troubles left us accounts of varying quality and value by such as Dan Breen and Ernie O Malley. While we yet await our Ernie O’ Malley, thanks to this book and the oral history archive on which it draws we have more than a Dan Breen-style ripping yarn to help us understand what was happening in Northern Ireland since the late 1960s. Ed Moloney’s book is a valuable contribution to our knowledge, both for what Brendan Hughes and David Ervine say and, more importantly, for what they don’t say. He has rendered historians and other researchers an inestimable service by ensuring that these particular voices from the grave will continue to be heard for a long time into the future by anyone who wishes to know what the Troubles were really about.

from: Democracy and Security, 6: 302–305, 2010

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