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A Secret History of the
Great expectations were created by the news of Ed Maloney’s book. Not only was Ed a veteran reporter, with unrivalled contacts within the IRA and Sinn Fein, the Loyalist paramilitaries and the state forces but, unlike the vast majority of his colleagues, he was someone whose sympathies were on the left, distrustful of the pap from official sources and with an understanding of the vast injustices created by the British presence in Ireland and the sectarian monster that the British had created in the North. His analysis of the progress of the Good Friday Agreement and his constant depiction of the dishonesty of the Republican leadership and their betrayal of the core elements of republicanism led one to expect something quite unique in Irish political writing.
That promise is only partly realised. Maloney’s book is flawed, yet still contains an important witness to one of the key moments in Irish history – a witness all the more important given that the actual mechanism of the republican surrender was buried under layer upon layer of ruthless deceit.
A one level the flaws in the book are superficial, typical failings of the journo who turns to a different writing genre. The typical faults are a lack of context and analysis, a tendency to go for the lurid and quotable and an overdue reliance on narrative. We are told what happened but it is often hard to see why things happened or to understand the context in which they happened.
It is when we consider carefully the nature of the narrative presented in the book that glaring faults emerge. A single unbroken story is told from the start of the troubles to the present day, yet halfway through the book we are told that Ed himself had his first serious conversations with republican figures in late 1979. Whose voice are we listening to as this narrative unfolds?
To ask the question is to answer it. We are listening to Ed Maloney’s IRA contacts – a ‘loyal opposition’ opposed to the Good Friday Agreement who still remain inside the IRA as it tears up all the elements of republicanism.
The vision that these sources provide is very seriously skewed and distorted. The IRA and its armed actions are seen as the centre of the universe and the mass uprising that preceded the Provos and remained a potential element of change until the end of the hungers strikes is acknowledged only in as far as it effects ‘the movement’. Maloney seems unaware of these distortions and uncritical of them. The book starts with a tall story of a Provo Tet offensive to be launched with Libyan weapons, where areas were to be taken and held. No mention is made of the fact that the Provos did effectively hold areas earlier in the struggle and lost them in operation Motorman after the militarist barbarity of bloody Friday sickened their supporters. The fact that the Provos never even considered setting up any governmental structures or putting forward a programme for such a government in free areas – something that would be ABC for any left guerrilla group elsewhere in the world passes unnoticed.
The reason for republican shyness in this area is quite clear – it would put it on collision course with Irish capitalism. The book itself makes clear the 40-year ban on any confrontation with the forces of the Irish state. Ed’s informants, who are all of the left, never discuss an alternative. Their leftism is outlined as feelings of sympathy for various national liberation movements – their practice is military action almost totally devoid of politics.
Some of the distortions are pathetically misleading. The standard Provo explanation for Bloody Sunday appears to be that the British attacked civilians in order to draw out the IRA. It never seems to occur to them, despite a wealth of historical evidence, that the British were concerned about the much larger forces that had gathered around the street campaign and were anxious to call a halt to this incipient mass movement – the fact that it was a mass mobilisation that saved the military groups in the earlier ‘Battle of the Falls’ is recorded but ignored.
The real meat of the book centres around the path to the Good Friday Agreement. The allegations of betrayal of the movement by its leadership are astounding. Gerry Adams is said to have led a movement for almost 2 decades in which volunteers went out and died, or were tortured and imprisoned, while having agreed as early as 1982, in secret talks with the Catholic church – a church which had just helped to defeat the H-block struggle – a programme that negated everything that republican militants thought they were fighting for. Later talk of a Hume-Adams deal turned out to be a tissue of lies. The real deal had been done earlier with Fianna Fail – on Fianna Fail’s terms – but neither side felt safe in announcing the alliance.
Adams is portrayed as a calculating monster who single-handedly subverted and sold out the movement. Again the lack of critical analysis means that there is no explanation as to why his critics, who were in the majority, were unable to stop him or to provide an alternative other than to fight on. Yet the elements of a quite different understanding are all within the book. It is clear that the IRA had no chance of militarily defeating the British. They had to turn political and it was Adams who led the struggle against the old guard and argued for a turn to the left and a new republican politics – something that is represented unconvincingly as a ruse in the book.
Adams defeated the old leadership but failed in an attempt to turn left. The left turn turned out to be a campaign to kill English businessmen! An excruciating moment is when Adams, presenting a new left programme, pulled out a single sheet of paper and was ridiculed by his opponents. The experience of the reviewer is that you could have trawled the whole movement and still have been unable, in a movement filled with apolitical militarists, to better the single page. The truly tragic dimension to the story of republicanism is that it wasn’t Adams that failed but republican politics. The trajectory that he followed then – selling out first to the church, then to Fianna Fail and then to the British, all represent a hallowed trajectory for the republican movement which had, after all, already had two attempts to cut a secret deal with the British behind the backs of its members and had never announced the content of the deals. One of the priceless elements in the books is a declaration by the Officer Commanding Long Kesh Prisoners that no more escape attempts were being made as the British were to give them 50% remission before releasing them! The context of this throwaway remark makes clear what has long been suspected – that the leadership preceding Adams had sold out the prisoners rights to political status and paved the way to the H-Blocks and the hunger strikes.
Ed Maloney’s work contains much that is fascinating and available nowhere else. It will be a valuable reference work for those struggling to understand the collapse of the republican programme. A fatal flaw is that it is not a history of the IRA but a rather uncritical acceptance of the IRA militarist’s history of themselves. In a way the book mirrors on a small scale the deadly illusions of a left republicanism that is incapable through its own efforts of making the transition to socialism.