When Garret FitzGerald died last month, in the midst of the Queen of England’s trip to Dublin and points south, it was accompanied by what was, even by Irish standards, an excessive degree of exaggeration and distortion of the man’s true role in the defining event in recent Irish history, the Troubles in the North and more particularly how they ended.
The sheet had hardly been pulled over his head before his successor as Fine Gael leader and Coalition Taoiseach, Enda Kenny was proclaiming him as “a true patriot” whose “commitment to peace and reconciliation on the island and between Ireland and Britain had reached fruition” with Her Majesty’s Irish jaunt while his opposite number in Fianna Fail Micheẚl Martin, echoed him – minus the Queen bit – and praised FitzGerald as a “politician who made an immense and lasting contribution to peace and reconciliation on this island”.
To read and hear those as well as remarks from others – Martin McGuinness, who a few years ago might well have had someone shot for saying a kind word about FitzGerald, said the former Taoiseach had taken “great delight” in the progress of the Northern peace process – one could be forgiven for thinking that the peace process was nothing less than the outworking of all he had striven to achieve and teach on solving or at least putting aside the Northern conflict.
There’s no doubt that the way in which the Troubles have ended, with all shades of Irish Nationalism on both sides of the Border accepting the principle of consent, i.e. partition, is something that politicians of Garret FitzGerald’s ilk have long yearned for. That sort of endgame is what he and they were all about and he was never short of company under that tent. The real question is whether we would have got to where we are now if we had all followed Garret’s teachings on the North to the letter.
If there was one thing that defined his stance on the North it was an utter detestation of all things Irish Republican. It lay behind his famous, jaw-dropping denunciation of Charles Haughey when he was made Taoiseach in December 1979. Haughey was, in the eyes of Dublin Four – as FitzGerald’s political camp was less than fondly known in those days – responsible for the creation of the Provisional IRA and by extension had hands dripping with the innocent blood of the North’s dead.
His words in the Dail were: “Deputy Haughey presents himself here, seeking to be invested in office as the seventh in this line, but he comes with a flawed pedigree.” Remember that one of those seven earlier Taoisigh in whose footsteps Haughey intended to follow included Sean Lemass who was one of Collins’ Twelve Apostles, the band of IRA assassins who cold-bloodedly executed fourteen British secret agents, some shot dead in their beds, on Bloody Sunday, November 21st, 1920 – shootings which then led to the massacre at Croke Park – while Lemass’ predecessor was Eamon de Valera whose deviousness and dishonesty were probably responsible more than anything else for the Irish civil war. I would have thought that in the ‘flawed pedigree’ department those two gents could have shown Charlie a thing or two.
He was also the classic victim of his own propaganda. There’s little doubt in my mind that when he and his faithful minions in the Department of Foreign Affairs set out to cajole Margaret Thatcher into signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, he truly did believe that left alone Sinn Fein would have gobbled up the SDLP and all that was decent around them and having conquered the North, then made the whole island into an offshore Cuba from which to export revolution and the downfall of Christian civilization to the rest of Europe.
Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher - Agreed the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement
There was one incident during the hunger strikes of 1981 that stands out as symptomatic of the FitzGerald paranoia about the Provos. It happened one night when a bearded, hairy and doubtless very smelly tramp called at chez FitzGerald in South Dublin, knocked the door and was about to beg for money. His wife Joan FitzGerald answered the door and nearly fainted with fright. That night RTE announced that Gardai were investigating reports that members of the Provisional IRA had attempted to attack the Taoiseach’s family and Mrs FitzGerald was suffering from shock in the aftermath. In other words in the world inhabited by les FitzGeralds there was no distinction between the threat offered by one of Dublin’s indigent poor and an IRA terrorist.
The one thing that obsessed him for years was the fear that the British would talk to the Provos and come to some deal to withdraw, leaving Ireland at the mercy of bloodthirsty IRA gunmen and rampaging UVF bombers. His paranoia in this regard reached a peak during the extended IRA ceasefire of 1974-1975.
The IRA’s leaders and Garret FitzGerald did share one characteristic, loath though both would have been to admit it: they were both conned by the British into believing that the secret talks during that ceasefire were a preamble to withdrawal rather than what they really were, a largely successful effort to debilitate the IRA with a long cessation while preparing the ground for a deadly new security policy – criminalization – which came tantalizing close to finishing off the IRA for good.
So alarmed was FitzGerald by what he and his officials were picking up that he went as far as recruiting Henry Kissinger, then President Gerald Ford’s National Security Advisor and Secretary of State – and the moral giant of his age – to intervene on his side against the British if it really came to the bit and the Brits did indeed start to board their ships in Belfast Lough.
Of course that never happened because the British never intended to do anything like that, not only because they were ideologically indisposed to such a thing but because they had happened upon a whizz of an idea which they thought could really bury the Provos for once and for all. What is astonishing about the episode is that there was an abundance of evidence at the time about the real British intentions but none of it was picked up by FitzGerald and his advisors. That’s the problem with idees fixes – you can’t get rid of them. Another characteristic he and the then IRA leadership shared, an inability to see what was in front of their nose.
Charlie of the Flawed Pedigree - Actually Did Get It Right
So imagine that if instead of knocking on Charlie Haughey’s door in 1986/1987, Fr Alex Reid and Gerry Adams had called round to the Fitzgerald household to ask him if he would interested in talking about peace. The odds are that they would have been given the same reception as that unfortunate tramp back in 1981 and Ireland would still be living with the Troubles. And isn’t it ironic that the man who actually did agree to start talking to them, and by so doing launched the peace process, was the guy with the flawed pedigree? And along with it came a more convincing claim than Garret FitzGerald could ever stake to having made a contribution to peace and reconciliation on the island.
This is one of those weeks when I am glad to be in New York and not Belfast. I’ll explain why further down, but it’s not for the reasons that you think.
Last weekend, dissident republicans, i.e. anti-Provisional ones, killed a young member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in Omagh, Co. Tyrone, using a bomb that was a standard IRA weapon when the Troubles were raging. It was nicknamed by those who developed and used the device ‘an up and under’, an appellation derived from the way it was placed.
Dissident IRA bomb killed policeman in Omagh, Co. Tyrone
An “up and under” was a small bomb, usually packed into a Tupperware-style container that was attached to the underside of a car, usually just beneath the driver’s seat, assuming the driver was the target, and designed to explode while the car was in motion.
It was affixed to the bodywork by a strong magnet and detonated by a mercury tilt switch, essentially a small tube partially filled with mercury that would flow from one end of the tube to the other, thereby completing an electrical circuit, whenever the car was driven on to a gradient.
Once it was flowing, the electric current would detonate a fuse which in turn would set off the main charge. It was the easiest device to place and it took just a few furtive moments to begin the process of hurling someone into eternity. All the bomber had to do was crouch down, slip the package underneath the car and then up into the seat well. Hence the nickname.
The Provisional IRA, whose resourceful engineering department devised this and many other weapons during the Troubles, used this sort of bomb repeatedly. Not only was it an effective weapon that invariably killed but it required little in the way of investment: a few ounces of explosive, some basic intelligence work, one person and a getaway car with driver. One additional bonus was that the hardest bit, placing the bomb, could be done in the middle of the night when the risks of being caught were minimal.
It also terrified those who were its potential targets, mainly RUC officers and members of the Ulster Defence Regiment but also politicians, judges, prosecutors and civil servants whose every day would have to begin with an undignified but possibly life-saving search of the underneath of their vehicles. The bomb was the ultimate psychological weapon, a constant reminder from the Provos to the security establishment that there was a war going on which might tomorrow morning claim their lives, or at least their legs.
Most the weapon’s victims were policemen or UDR soldiers killed as they drove to work in the mornings but there were more prominent casualties as well. John McMichael, the talented UDA leader, was one, killed in the driveway of his Lisburn,
John McMichael, the UDA commander killed by an IRA up and under" bomb
Co. Antrim home by an “up and under” device. His killing, it was widely believed at the time, was carried out by the IRA in retaliation for the assassination bid on Gerry Adams, shot as he was being driven through the centre of Belfast after a court appearance in March 1984.
McMichael was the UDA’s military commander at the time and since he was spotted scouting the courthouse a few minutes before Adams was ambushed, it was assumed, not unreasonably, that he had something to do with it. The Provos bided their time and killed McMichael in December 1987 over three years later.
The timing of McMichael’s death may also have had something to do with an internal inquiry he had launched into fellow UDA member Jim Craig who was
Jim Craig, UDA traitor killed by his own people
killed by his own people a year later. Craig was a UDA traitor and as corrupt as they come. He had been passing on information to the IRA and INLA for some time and was believed, for instance, to have told the IRA where they could best kill Lennie Murphy, the leader of the notorious Shankill Butchers gang who was gunned down by an IRA squad in 1982. Revenge for trying to kill Gerry Adams was certainly one motive for blowing McMichael to pieces but so was the desire to preserve a valuable asset in the UDA.
(The Adams’ shooting had an interesting sequel. The late Tommy Little, who some years later succeeded Andy Tyrie as Supreme Commander of the UDA, told
Tommy Little, learned about the 'top men's agreement'.
me that later on the day of the Adams’ shooting an angry Joe Haughey rang the UDA’s headquarters on the Newtownards Road demanding to know what had happened to ‘the top men’s agreement’. Haughey was an IRA leader from the Unity Flats area, incidentally, who was later charged with, but acquitted of killing Mary Travers, the daughter of Belfast magistrate Tom Travers a few weeks after the attempt on Adams’ life. So why was an IRA commander making angry phone calls to the guys who had just tried to kill his boss? How come he even had their number?
Tommy made some inquiries and discovered that ‘the top men’s agreement’ was just that, a deal between the leaders of the IRA, UDA and UVF that while their respective ‘grunts’ were fair game, none of their leaders would ever be touched. It apparently had been struck sometime in the mid-1970‘s when Belfast’s sectarian slaughter was at its height. Such were the ethical rules of Northern Ireland’s dirty little war: kill the other ranks whenever and wherever you can, but we officer-types are off-bounds! Anyway the Adams’ assassination effort marked the end of the ‘top men’s agreement’, although it is remarkable how many of the ‘top men’ nonetheless came through it all with nary a scrape.)
Gerry Adams (centre, wearing glasses) - John McMichael was killed in retaliation for bid on his life
UDA and IRA had 'top men's agreement' to safeguard their leaders from attack
Nor was the IRA the only republican organisation to use “up and under” bombs. Their most famous victim was the Tory MP, Airey Neave who was killed in 1979 when just such a device placed by the INLA exploded under his car as he was driving up the ramp from the underground car park at the House of Commons in Westminster. The bomb blew off both his legs and he died an hour later in hospital from massive
Airey Neave with Margaret Thatcher
shock and loss of blood. Neave had masterminded Margaret Thatcher’s successful bid for the leadership of the British Conservatives and was slated to be her NI Secretary, which would have been good news for Unionists since he was an avid supporter of their cause.
I mention all this to demonstrate that the sort of bomb which killed Ronan Kerr has been around for decades and there is absolutely nothing new or particularly innovative about their use. But what did I read in the following Monday’s Irish Times but this:
British and Irish security and intelligence sources are increasingly concerned at the technical capacity of dissident republican groups following Saturday’s murder of Constable Ronan Kerr in an under-car explosion in Co Tyrone.
They believe the dissidents are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their bomb-making capability, while the PSNI has described as ‘substantial’ the device that killed Constable Kerr, a 25-year-old Catholic, in Omagh.
The PSNI, Garda and MI5 fear the dissidents are using under-car bombs that are miniature and more difficult to detect.
Reading that brought me back with a jolt to the days when it was often my job to write up such incidents. My abiding memory of that time was that the media, both Irish and British, often felt free, some seemed compelled, to write the most exaggerated, loosely sourced nonsense about such events. The effect was to to paint groups like the IRA in the most lurid of colors so as to emphasize how utterly beyond the pale they were.
In more recent times, both pre and post the St Andrews’ Agreement, there has been a small industry working away with energy and skill to do the same sort of thing with the dissidents, except in their case it is to inflate the perceived threat that they represent.
Before the St Andrews’ Agreement it was mostly Sinn Fein who were in this business and from their viewpoint it made sense. The more they could persuade everyone that only they stood between a fragile peace and a return to the bad old days of the Troubles, the easier it was to extract political concessions from the British and Irish governments and the easier it was to persuade the authorities on both sides of the Border to turn a blind eye to their various, uh, money-raising ventures, like armed robberies and tiger kidnappings on the grounds that such things were necessary to keep the hard men happy and on board.
Post the St Andrews’ Agreement a number of groups have had a vested interest in over-egging the dissident pudding. Some, like this bunch of London-based neocons, are in the business worldwide and especially in the Middle East, of exaggerating terrorist threats but is it not hard to work out either that, in these straitened days, both the PSNI and MI5 have much to gain if we are all led to believe that the dissidents are really, really bad news.
The PSNI and MI5 are, in Northern Ireland, primarily in the anti-terrorist business so the more terrorists they make us think there are and the more fearsome they seem to be, the greater the amount of money, manpower, prestige and bureaucratic clout that will come their way. There are also those, in both these two organisations and in the wider political world, who hope that in such ways Sinn Fein might be persuaded to embrace its Four Courts moment and take the offensive against erstwhile comrades, an event that would, like its Dublin counterpart in 1922, finally seal the peace process beyond any doubt or chance of retreat.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not going the other way and minimising the threat posed by dissidents. Clearly they are capable of killing people. It’s just that compared to the Provos and what it was really like during the Troubles, even in the final years, the dissidents are a faint shadow, a mouse beside an elephant in comparison and they just don’t merit the hysterical, exaggeration-laden coverage of the last few days. I’ve seen reports, for instance, that the dissident groups have 600 members between them. In the name of God, that’s more than the Provos had in their ranks in the 1980’s when they nearly wiped our Mrs Thatcher’s entire Cabinet!
Nor am I necessarily getting over-exercised about the behaviour of the PSNI and MI5. It is an immutable law of organisations that they overstate the need for their own existence. In such ways not only do they get to keep their jobs but they get better and bigger ones. I don’t like nor approve of what they do, but neither am I surprised. And as for nudging the Provos to their Four Courts moment, what would you expect?
What really bugs me, and brought me back in this instance with a jolt to the days when I had to report similar events, is that it is no business of the media to indulge these organisations and interests in the way reflected in that Irish Times report. Of course, reporters must give an account of what such people have to say, making clear these are only claims, and balance the report by putting what happened in context. But no more than that.
To highlight what I am trying to say here, that Irish Times report could just as easily have read:
Dissident republicans kill first security force member in two whole years using booby trap bomb technology developed thirty years ago and inherited from Provisional IRA campaign. Security experts believe dissidents have sourced a supply of smaller Tupperware containers. Attack highlights patchy and fitful pattern of violent activity from dissident groups better noted for incompetence, political confusion and propensity to steal money sent from American sympathisers for prisoners’ families.
The reason why reports like the one in the Irish Times that I have just lampooned bug me is that I know that the reporters are fully aware of all this yet it doesn’t stop them. I can’t speak on a first-hand basis for the situation nowadays but when I used to observe this sort of reporting in situ, I was overwhelmingly aware of the real, albeit unspoken reason and I doubt if it has changed that much.
It was as if the journalists were saying:
OK, I strongly suspect we’re being fed mostly bullshit. But if I don’t go along with it I’ll be accused of not taking the threat seriously which means people might think that I secretly sympathise with those responsible because I don’t want to make them look bad. So rather than be labelled ‘a sneakin’ regarder’, I’ll go along with all the hyperbole and that way I’ll keep my job.
That sort of reasoning is part of what I call the Section 31 syndrome, a nasty leftover from the official censorship and its more insidious cousin, self-censorship that was ushered in by the Irish Republic’s broadcasting law of the 1970’s. The law forbad radio and television outlets from broadcasting the voices of members of certain proscribed groups. The IRA and SInn Fein were the principal targets but it had a chilling effect generally on coverage of the Troubles that lasted for many, many years.
The official censorship filtered into the print media and brought Ireland into an ice age of self-censorship that for many reporters was all about professional survival. Journalists were terrified of being labeled a fellow traveler of the IRA while timidity and mediocrity thrived. In my view Section 31 needlessly perpetuated the Troubles because it inhibited real understanding of what was going on. Simple reportage of the “Last night a bomb exploded….” variety almost entirely replaced efforts to explain what persuaded otherwise normal people to do things as extreme as planting the bombs.
The law was repealed at the outset of the peace process but the truth is that by that stage it was unnecessary to do such things by law; the media were perfectly capable of censoring themselves without any urging from the State. They still are and that this sort of behaviour lingers on in the coverage of bombings like that at the weekend is profoundly depressing and for me a reminder of why I was so happy to leave it all behind. And it’s why this week I’m glad I’m here and not there.
On a slightly different tack the killing of Ronan Kerr has brought the Provos a little closer to their Four Courts moment and that’s important because it helps to explain why the dissidents exist and are so intent on keeping a war alive that everyone else regards, correctly, as a lost cause.
The move came from Martin McGuinness who had these words to say to the media in the aftermath of the bomb:
I would say, and I am standing up to be counted, give the information to the police, give it to the Garda in the south if you have it, give it to the PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland] in the north.
My message is very, very simple: those who are perpetrating these acts, those who are killing our people, need to be apprehended.
These are people who are pledged to destroy the peace and destroy a peace process that many of us have invested much of our adult lives in trying to bring about.
That’s a step up from McGuinness’ comments when dissidents last killed security force members, two soldiers shot dead in March 2009 at an military barracks in Co. Antrim and a PSNI member shot dead in Co. Armagh. That time he called the perpetrators “traitors”. He was roundly criticized by other, non-Provo republicans, and even by some Provos, for his choice of words and that he has gone a stage further this time and called on people to inform is surely significant. It will also spur the dissidents to more violence.
A measure of how significant his words are can be judged by watching, by way of sharp contrast, this extract from a TV interview that McGuinness gave when he was Northern Commander of the IRA and men and women under his command did a good deal more than plant “up and unders” beneath policemen’s cars. “Death”, he agreed with interviewer Peter Taylor, was the fate reserved for those who betrayed the IRA.
Martin McGuinness knows a thing or two about informers. He was centrally involved in the celebrated, not to say infamous case of the Derry informer Frank Hegarty about which you can read more here. The affair ended with Hegarty’s death and a more than lingering belief amongst some at the IRA’s highest reaches that perhaps the wrong informer had been killed.
He also played a part in the more tragic death of IRA informer Caroline Moreland, a 34 year old woman from West Belfast whose offence was, so I have been told, to betray an arms dump containing a single rifle. (Maybe if she had just said that it was an act of anticipatory decommissioning she would have lived. But she didn’t.)
She was killed in July 1994 just a month before the first peace process, IRA ceasefire was called. When the Army Council met to decide, inter alia, whether to confirm her death sentence, IRA and Sinn Fein leaders were faced with a dilemma. Her offence was relatively minor and the war was about to end, so what the hell, maybe she should be spared. But if the leadership let her live then it would have sowed suspicion in the ranks of those in the IRA who still believed the leadership line that the peace process was merely a tactical device to wrong foot the Brits and not a plot to go constitutional. The dissidents-in-waiting, if you like, would have been needlessly alarmed.
And so poor Caroline Moreland was given the thumbs down by those seven men in a room. There was a brief discussion on how to handle her killing. One person suggested that she be disappeared, that is killed, her body dumped in a secret grave and lies told to her family about what had really happened. Who came up with the idea? Well, put it this way, it wasn’t Gerry Adams.
The idea was dismissed by one figure on the Council, someone who was aware that the whole issue of the disappeared of the 1970’s might well return to haunt him and that it would be foolish to add to that problem. And who was that? Well let’s just say it wasn’t Martin McGuinness.
The point about all this history telling is this. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness played roles in the development and selling of the peace process that was a little akin to Mutt and Jeff, the good cop, bad cop routine. Adams was the good cop, whose role was to interact with John Hume and be the public face of diplomacy in dealings with governments, the White House and so on. McGuinness’ role, a suitable one since he had the active service record and Adams didn’t, was to be the bad cop, to reassure the IRA grassroots that there would be no sell out while he was running Northern Command and that if Martin backed the peace process then there was nothing to be worried about.
And it worked perfectly, well almost so. Dissident opposition to the Adams-McGuinness strategy did emerge but it came in two waves and because of that the strategy triumphed. The first was led by people like Michael McKevitt, the IRA Quarter-Master General who was close enough to events and the major players to
Micky McKevitt, the first IRA dissident
get suspicious early on about the real deal that was coming down the pike. But his effort to overthrow Adams was frustrated and then when he broke off to form the Real IRA and made common cause with the INLA and the Continuity IRA against the Adams-McGuinness strategy, the venture was torpedoed by the Omagh bomb.
The next wave came many years later and really didn’t gather steam until the Provos agreed to accept and recognise the PSNI in the wake of the St Andrews’ Agreement which brought them into government with Ian Paisley and the DUP. The people involved in this wave were those who had ignored McKevitt’s warnings, and went along with the leadership’s claim that he was just an ambitious malcontent. They chose to stay within the bosom of the Provos, preferring to believe Martin McGuinness’s soothing words rather than the reality unfolding all around them. But when Martin & Co. agreed to back the PSNI they could deny the reality no longer.
Their determination to go back to war appears therefore to be fueled less by any sophisticated plan to destabilize Sinn Fein or the peace deal and more by their anger at being misled and tricked by the Provo leadership, especially the bad cop, Martin McGuinness. They were always wary of Gerry Adams. He was ever the crafty politician, never to be trusted. But Martin was one of their own. How could he lie so treacherously, they cried?
And so their anger at McGuinness is expressed in the killing of Ronan Kerr. Except that’s not the full truth either. The people they’re really angry at are themselves, for being so stupid, except they won’t admit as much. That’s why they’ll keep on planting “up and unders” and why others like Ronan Kerr will die. And it is why they’re not really a threat and why the peace process will likely survive everything they throw at it.
Not too long ago anyone who publicly doubted the honesty and integrity of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was, in some quarters south of the Irish border, risking the sort of response usually reserved for child molesters and war criminals. Few could be more withering and condemnatory, especially behind one’s back, than Fianna Fail, although to be fair the Department of Foreign Affairs always gave them a run for their money.
I am of course speaking of the days of the peace process, especially pre-Northern Bank robbery, when to suggest that Gerry Adams was anything less than a fountainhead of truth and candour was on a par with concocting a breakfast recipe that featured fattened Protestant babies in the main course.
Now it may have been the case that people like the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and his Northern point man Martin Mansergh truly believed that Adams was being sincere and straight in his peace process dealings but I seriously, seriously doubt it. Something as difficult as getting the IRA to end its war on the terms that were finally accepted was not the sort of project that could be steered to success without a considerable amount of falsification and dissembling. And Bertie and Martin would have known that very well.
So when Gerry Adams or his nom de guerre, P O’Neill, would routinely assure the troops that IRA decommissioning was just not on the cards, my hunch is that Bertie and Martin would look at each other and wink. They would, or should have known via Garda Special Branch that this was nonsense and that plans to do just this were already being laid just as they knew that Adams was aware that decommissioning was the price he’d have to pay to get Unionists to share power with him.
But they would also have been acutely conscious of another peace process reality: lying to and deceiving the Provo grassroots in this way was the only assured route to eventual success. It kept the IRA rank and file content and quiet, lulled into a false sense of security until it was too late for them to do anything about it. In the same way, Bertie and Martin would, I suspect, have grinned and borne it whenever Adams or P O’Neill denied that the IRA robbed this or that bank, knowing this would also keep the grassroots bamboozled, convinced that their leaders were trustworthy, had once again successfully hoodwinked the Irish government and that the IRA would never go away.
Bernadette McAliskey once compared the peace process to pushing a fly down the neck of a wine bottle. Eventually a point would be reached when there was no traction left and the fly would fall, helpless, to the bottom of the bottle where it would drown in the dregs. Mendacity was the stick that pushed the fly down the neck of the bottle.
In fact it would be no exaggeration to say that the ability of Gerry Adams to lie and fool so expertly was the peace process’ most valuable asset. Had Adams been straight and honest with his people about where the IRA was going to end up, he would have been found long before 2005 in a ditch somewhere in South Armagh, trussed up like a Christmas turkey with several bullet-shaped holes in his skull. Without his talent for dissimulation we would never have got to 2005 when the IRA, finally divested of its Semtex and AK-47’s, declared its war against Britain to be over.
The corollary of all this was that a special venom was reserved by the Irish state for anyone in the media who dared suggest that the Sinn Fein leadership had less than a monopoly on the truth. Everyone knows the fable of the Emperor’s new clothes, how a child shames the crowd into admitting the truth, that the Emperor parading in front of them supposedly clothed in finery is actually stark naked. There is a special Irish version of the story with a very different ending. When the child cries out ‘the Emperor is naked’, the crowd reacts by turning on the child and beating it to death.
It is, of course, the job of government to lie and deceive or to connive at others’ lies in the pursuit of implementing policy. And many will say that telling lies in the quest for peace in Northern Ireland was not only excusable but laudable. But journalists are not politicians, or at least they shouldn’t be. They – we – have a special duty to the truth, even if that causes discomfort or difficulty. Whenever I was assailed by government officials, or more often by fellow hacks, for writing stories deemed ‘unhelpful’ to the peace process my response was simple: if this process cannot survive one of my stories then it’s doomed no matter what I write or do not write. Joining in the deception, either by commission or omission, wouldn’t make a jot of difference except to devalue the trade of journalism, to render it a useless and unconvincing charade.
So, I have to say that when I heard that the new Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin had challenged Gerry Adams to tell the truth about his past membership of the IRA, to “come clean” about his “baggage from the past” as he put it, I have to confess that I laughed out loud and long. “There is a fundamental problem for Gerry when he continues to deny his membership of the IRA”, said the bold Micheál, “because every time he talks in this debate during the election about honesty . . . it jars very much with his own position about the past.” Indeed it does Micheál but you didn’t have that problem back in 1998, did you?
Micheál Martin was not only a minister in the Fianna Fail cabinet from 1997 onwards, during the key years of the peace process when there a special premium on Adams not telling the truth, but he is a former Minister of Foreign Affairs whose civil servants not only helped Adams hone to perfection his dissembling skills but often led the charge, employing a special sense of viciousness, against anyone who questioned the Sinn Fein leader’s honesty.
Micheál Martin, more than most people, has known for a very long time that, in relation to Northern matters, Adams and the truth have often been strangers and the fact that he chose this time to let us all in on the secret is a sure indication that in the forthcoming election the Fianna Fail party is headed down the toilet. Truth suddenly acquires virtue, one could say, when political destruction stares you in the face. There was a sense of desperation about what he said, as well as artifice, and I suspect the Irish voter picked up on it.
There was however one line in Micheál Martin’s statement that especially drew my attention and it was this: “Martin McGuinness doesn’t have a problem admitting his membership in the past but I think there is a huge problem for Gerry Adams in a credibility sense.”
Actually not entirely true, Mr Martin. Not only not the full truth but also unfair to Mr Adams. It’s unfair to Gerry Adams because in the narrative of Provo dishonesty peddled by the likes of Micheál Martin, the Sinn Fein leader is depicted as the singular voice of skullduggery in Sinn Fein whereas in fact Martin McGuinness has lied ever bit as flagrantly about his IRA history as Gerry Adams and, I strongly suspect, would have lied as comprehensively but for a few inconvenient pieces of newspaper and television archive.
The Martin McGuinness that I came to know as a journalist covering the Northern Ireland beat was rarely far from the very top of the IRA pyramid. In the mid to late 1970’s he was the IRA’s first Northern Commander, appointed to the job when on Adams’ advice a separate Northern Command was created whose effect, if not purpose, was to take power away from Southern IRA leaders. He then became Chief of Staff and held that post until 1982 when others on the Army Council insisted that he had to give it up if he wanted to run as a Sinn Fein candidate in the elections to Jim Prior’s Assembly.
He always hankered to get the job back and for years afterwards a vicious feud simmered beneath the surface between him and Kevin McKenna who took over the post and held it until he was succeeded by ‘Slab’ Murphy. McGuinness re-entered the military picture in a serious way in the mid-1980’s when, in preparation for the arrival of Libyan weaponry and the launching of the IRA’s version of the ‘Tet offensive’, he was again made Northern Commander with the special job of distributing Col. Gaddafi’s guns to the units on the ground. The task that he performed was done in such a way that it brought him into conflict with Michael McKeviit, then the QMG. McKevitt came to suspect that for whatever reason, McGuinness gave more weapons to units that were most likely to lose them, usually through the efforts of informers.
When the peace process got under way he played two key roles. One as the IRA’s (or at least Gerry Adams’) secret contact man via people like Derry businessman Brendan Duddy with British intelligence and the Northern Ireland Office; the other as Chairman of the Army Council, traditionally the IRA’s chief diplomat and representative in discussions with outside individuals and bodies. When the media would describe McGuinness as the ‘Sinn Fein negotiator’ during peace process talks they got it wrong. He was actually there representing the Army Council, as their official ambassador.
So in all the years between the mid-1970’s and 2005, Martin McGuinness was there at the very top of the IRA or thereabouts, playing a crucial role in both its military and political side.
But what does Martin McGuinness himself say about what he was doing during this period?
Well the answer to this question can be found in the report of the Saville Tribunal into Bloody Sunday, to be specific in the transcript of witness cross-examinations, pages 140-141 of day 391’s business. McGuinness was being questioned by Christopher Clarke QC, counsel for the Tribunal about the “Green Book’, which contains the IRA’s manual, statement of aims and constitution and this is how it reads:
Q. It may well be, sir, you had already left the IRA by the time this document in the form that we have it, came into existence. When did you leave the IRA?
A. Here we go again, on another trawl through the Martin McGuinness fixation.
Q. No, it is not at all, sir, not at all. May I just explain to you, because you have been very concerned, understandably, to be treated in the same way as the soldiers, and it is precisely the same question, word for word, as was asked, I think, of some seven or eight soldiers.
A. Were they asked when they left the British Army?
Q. Yes, simply because it was thought to be relevant to the way in which other people had reacted to what had happened on Bloody Sunday. You do not have to answer my question or any of them, I ask them, and I will not ask them twice, it is for the Tribunal to say whether you should answer them or not: I ask again, when did you leave the IRA, if you did?
A. I left the IRA in the early part of the 1970s.
So during all those years when we thought that Martin McGuinness was Northern Commander (twice), Chief of Staff and then Chairman of the Army Council, he was really a civilian with no connection at all to the IRA. How could he be anything else since he told the Saville Tribunal under oath that he had left the organisation in the ‘early’ 1970’s?
I can almost hear the readers’ response: “Sure, that’s bullshit but at least he admits he was in the IRA, if only for a bit!” And that’s true and it’s more than Gerry Adams has ever acknowledged. But why lie about the three decades or so after the ‘early’ 1970’s and not about the two or three years before it? Is it because there’s more to hide in the later years or because he screwed up in those early years, admitting things about his association with the IRA that he regretted later and which the wilier Adams would never have? And if he had not said or done those things would he too, like Adams, now be swearing to the world that he had never, ever been in the IRA?
Martin McGuinness at an early IRA funeral in Derry
There’s this for instance, something that falls into the rush of blood to the head category, a statement he made from the dock in Green Street courthouse, Dublin in 1973 when he was convicted of IRA membership:
“We have fought against the killing of our people. I am a member of Oglaigh na Eireann (IRA) and very, very proud of it.”
That’s something Mr Adams would never have said.
Then there’s this video of an appearance at an IRA press conference in Derry in June 1972, perhaps an example of McGuinness succumbing to the lure of the klieg lights. He is flanked by IRA Chief of Staff, Sean Macstiofain, Belfast Commander Seamus Twomey and Army Council member Daithi O Connail, and the purpose of press conference was to put forward an IRA ceasefire proposal to the new NI Secretary, Willie Whitelaw. There’s an even more famous television interview, broadcast on ITV but sadly not available on YouTube, in which a youthful McGuinness admits being the Derry Commander of the IRA. Again the shrewder Gerry Adams would have steered well clear of such exposure.
After blatant admissions like these it would be impossible for Martin McGuinness to deny he had been in the IRA in the ‘early’ 1970’s. But after that, in the subsequent three decades, he never made a similar mistake or engaged in such embarrassing frankness ever again and, thankfully from his viewpoint, it was so much easier therefore to resort to the lie.
There’s another part of the story of Adams, McGuinness and the peace process that is vital to an understanding of this period. For sure, Gerry Adams dissembled the IRA into decommissioning its weapons and ending its war with the British but he didn’t do this alone. He couldn’t have achieved it without McGuinness’ help for while Gerry was the Provos’ political leader, he never had the trust of the IRA rank and file that Martin had. The reason was simple: Martin had a military track record and Gerry didn’t. Martin had done the business and Gerry hadn’t. So when Martin would give substance to Gerry’s assurances that all was well, as in this video, it gave the whole project a crucial credibility.
In the days before my book ‘A Secret History of the IRA’ was published in the autumn of 2001, Martin McGuinness toured newspaper and television offices in Dublin and London to talk about it to editors and senior journalists. His purpose was simple, to blacken my name and label me a dissident fellow-traveller. It was partly an effort to do the book down and partly an exercise in intimidation, carrying with it the implied threat that any journalist treating my book sympathetically or seriously risked the same treatment. He even went to see my editor in the Sunday Tribune, Matt Cooper. Matt asked him did he believe Gerry Adams when he denied ever being in the IRA? “Yes” replied McGuinness, not missing a beat. “He looked me straight in the eye when he said it”, recalled Cooper.
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