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Review: Ed Moloney - Voices from the Grave: Two Men's War in Ireland,  Faber and Faber, 2010

Liam Mac Uaid

18 April 2010

This book may prove to be one of the most influential accounts of the Republican Movement’s rise and political and military collapse. It is the first in a planned series commissioned by the Boston College Oral History Archive on the Troubles In Northern Ireland. It is marred by one of the putrescent conceits of the peace and reconciliation industry, the unspoken assertion that there was a symmetry between the organisations representing the major political currents in society in the north of Ireland in the period that opened in 1968 and ended with Sinn Fein’s entry into government. 

In his introduction to Voices From The Grave Ed Moloney, the book’s principal author, says of Brendan Hughes that he died “believing that the struggle he had waged had been lost and betrayed”. To which we can add that after death his body was humiliated by being dumped in a common grave with UVF ideologue David Ervine whose recollections fill the second half.

Hughes was interviewed in 2001 and 2002 and the deal was all the participants’ contributions would only be made public after their deaths as the historians set out to record eye witness accounts from major figures in the the post 1968 period. Hughes’ account of his own life, told without bragging, goes a long way to explaining why he would not have wanted too much in the public domain while he was still alive.

The man seemed to be most alive when fighting British imperialism and it didn’t make much of difference if this was in gun battles, in prison, smuggling weapons or gathering intelligence. He was active in the IRA when it was dragged from a coma to take part in the defence of Catholic ghettoes against pogroms and went on to spend most of his life in the organisation until he broke with Gerry Adams. The book must make very uncomfortable reading for the Republican leadership. In the Movement’s own terms Hughes is unimpeachable. He immediately returned to active service after a thirteen year prison sentence and was intimately involved in a large number of major operational decisions and internal disputes.

He throws a harsh light on some of the IRA’s actions. In plain defiance of Republican ideology sections of the IRA carried out a number of explicitly sectarian killings of Protestants. Adams, Hughes and their co-thinkers were outraged by this, correctly indentifying the low political level of some cadre as a problem. This problem, according to Hughes, had been amplified by a counter-insurgency strategy of selectively arresting those in the IRA leadership who were opposed to it. The response developed by Adams while in prison was to develop a “politically educated rank and file”.  However Ed Moloney displays a better grasp than did the IRA leadership of how incidents like Bloody Friday, in which large numbers of shoppers and workers were killed by IRA bombs in Belfast, isolated the Movement and made possible the destruction of the defended ghettoes in Belfast and Derry.

This lack of political clarity was a constant thread. If Hughes is to be believed Martin Mc Guinness felt that it was going to be possible to use weapons supplied by Libya to launch an Irish Tet Offensive to  break the British will to stay in Ireland. This would mean that a fighting organisation of, let’s be generous and say 1000, would wear down the British Army militarily resting on a very narrow social and geographical base and with a defeated mass movement following the Hunger Strikes.

There were big contradictions in Brendan Hughes politics. In the same interview he says both “The revolutionary socialist direction… that I was fighting for has been dropped. And all Sinn Fein has done and all the IRA has done is just to become another SDLP” (p.292) yet on the previous page “I always saw myself until I served a few years in prison as a soldier, not a politician”. In those sentences he perfectly expressed the big failing of militant Republicanism. While he accepted the necessity of turning a military campaign outward to a political struggle he did not feel that part of his responsibility was to help elaborate the politics. His preference was for fighting and organising. This meant that by the time he had developed a critique of the Adams’ leadership’s trajectory he was not in a position to do anything about it. In common with many other dissenters he framed the politics in terms of betrayal. He more or less openly asserts in the interviews that the British state went through another process of selective killings and arrests to breed a leadership team around Adams which was sympathetic to ending the armed struggle and the subsequent compromises. However given that the militarists lacked a strategy beyond more and bigger bombs in England the end result was inevitable.

No Republican leader ever satisfactorily explained in public just how the armed struggle was supposed to defeat the British. It was simply asserted as an abstract and timeless right. By the end the level of penetration of the IRA from top to bottom was astounding. Hughes was offered the job of restructuring counter-intelligence but refused on the grounds that there was no in Belfast he could trust for certain. Corruption and unambiguous criminality made that a lot easier for the state. One British agent had been offering mortgages, cash and transport to senior IRA figures. Hughes claim that he was killed to prevent a thorough investigation into the extent of the corruption. On a lower, perhaps more squalid level, he was disgusted by the relationship between some building firms and Sinn Fein. The firms employed former prisoners who were given their below minimum wage pay packets in pubs owned by the same people. It was a small symptom of the Movement’s degeneration.

What of Adams’ plan to create a “politically educated rank and file”? Hughes verdict is recognisable to anyone who has followed Sinn Fein’s “debates”. “We’ve been told all along that this is not a leadership led movement that this a movement led by the rank and file. That’s a load of bollocks. This is a movement led by the nose by a leadership that refuses to let go and anyone who objects to it, anyone who has an alternative is either ridiculed, degraded, shot or put out of the game altogether.”  In life that was his fate. In death, through the testimony that he has given in this indispensable book, he may help the next revolutionary generation draw up the failed balance sheet of Republican militarism.

A few brief words about David Ervine. He fancied himself something of a socialist. His was that special brand of working class politics that thought it was perfectly reasonable to shoot a young woman of eighteen who was going out with someone of a different religion. That’s what Karl Liebknecht was thinking of when he talked about “a bastard edition of socialism for stupid people.” 


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