The sulphurous intrigue of the past

This review first appeared in Inside Story on 12 July 2019. It is republished here with the approval of the author.

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland
By Patrick Radden Keefe | HarperCollins | $44.99 | 528 pages

What happened when the genteel world of the university library met the grubby world of journalism and the grim milieu of the Provisional Irish Republican Army? A disaster, that’s what. But here’s the twist: the party at fault was not the terrorists, nor really the journalists, but the professors.

The story comes to us courtesy of Patrick Radden Keefe, who has written what the judges of the Orwell Prize for political writing describe as a “haunting and timely portrait of The Troubles.” His book, Say Nothing, received the prize late last month.

A staff writer for the New Yorker, Keefe traces the history of the conflict in Northern Ireland from its beginnings in 1969 when republicans, most of them Catholic, rioted against the primarily Protestant loyalists who wanted Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom. The Troubles ended nearly three decades later, in 1998, with the Good Friday ceasefire agreement. By then, 3500-plus people had been killed, more than half of them civilians.

Keefe blends a clear explanatory narrative with nuanced portraits of key figures, beginning with Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten who was abducted by the IRA in front of her children, accused, probably wrongly, of being a “tout” or informer, and murdered. Then there are the Price sisters, Marian and especially Dolours, who committed terrorist acts for the IRA but eventually split bitterly with their commander. The commander was Gerry Adams, who held to the fiction that he had never been a member of the IRA, after he switched to leading the political party Sinn Féin and took a key role in hammering out the Good Friday agreement.

It was two years after that agreement when Paul Bew, a professor of Irish history at Queen’s University in Belfast, conceived the idea of commemorating the newfound peace with an archive of oral history interviews with key participants from both sides. Documenting the conflict was a sound academic impulse born, partly at least, of the silence surrounding the signing of the agreement. As Keefe writes, “In their effort to bring about peace, the negotiators had focused on the future rather than the past.” In South Africa, by contrast, the end of conflict in the early 1990s had been marked by the setting up of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Though by no means flawless, the South African process was a serious attempt at a public accounting of the damage wreaked by apartheid. The Troubles concluded without any formal process for commemorating, let alone understanding, what had taken place. “This queasy sense of irresolution,” writes Keefe, “was only complicated by Gerry Adams’s refusal to acknowledge that he was ever in the IRA.”

He quotes Seamus Heaney’s poem, “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing,” one line of which runs, “O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod.” While people in Ireland welcomed the prospects of peace, Keefe observes, “the sulphurous intrigue of the past would continue to linger.”

To advance his plan, Bew teamed up with Bob O’Neill, head of the John J. Burns Library at Boston College in the United States and overseer of its internationally famous Treasure Room, and recruited Ed Moloney, an Irish Times journalist who had reported on The Troubles and had a reputation as a straight, careful, tough-minded reporter. Moloney had deep sources on both sides of the conflict, giving him access to people who not only had committed terrorist attacks but would refuse to talk to outsiders knowing it could bring retribution, even death.

To persuade key figures like the Price sisters and high-ranking IRA member Brendan Hughes to talk, the team needed to recruit other members whose similarly thick contact books were combined with solid academic credentials. Moloney brought in Wilson McArthur, an East Belfast resident with strong connections among loyalists and a degree from Queen’s, and Anthony McIntyre, a tattooed former IRA member who had served seventeen years in prison for the murder of a loyalist paramilitary. Known to all as “Mackers,” McIntyre had got the study bug while in prison and eventually gained a PhD under Bew’s supervision.

Thus began several years of clandestine recordings of interviewees who had been assured their words would remain secret until after they died. One of them, Brendan Hughes, made Moloney promise that after Hughes’s death, his recollections would be published in book form. After Hughes died, Moloney published Voices from the Grave (2010), with a preface by two Boston College academics who described the book as the first in a planned series drawn from the Boston College Oral History Archive on The Troubles.

The book contained stunning revelations. Not only had Gerry Adams been an IRA commander, Hughes testified, but he had also personally ordered murders, including Jean McConville’s, and had directed the notorious 1973 bombings outside London’s Old Bailey courthouse that injured around 200 people. Adams strongly denied the allegations.

Having advertised the secret archive in spectacular fashion, Boston College seemed to be blindsided when the Police Service of Northern Ireland (known before the ceasefire as the Royal Ulster Constabulary) came asking for transcripts of the oral history to build a case against their long-time nemesis Adams.

Urged on by an anxious Moloney and his fellow interviewers, the college initially resisted. But the academics soon realised that they had failed, despite requests from Moloney, to get legal advice when they drew up the contracts they had asked participants to sign. If they had, writes Keefe, their lawyers would have told them that any guarantee of confidentiality would probably not survive a court order, which is what the police were threatening to seek if the college didn’t hand over the transcripts.

It also become clear that the university had failed to create a promised board of overseers when the archive was established. Indeed, the archive had been set up in such secrecy that other Boston College academics were disinclined to support the few who did know about it when they invoked academic freedom as a defence against the police demands. If they were going to stand up for academic freedom, they harrumphed, it would not be for a project conducted by non-specialist historians, one of whom had spent nearly two decades in prison for murder.

Universities are often accused (with some justification) of burdening themselves with overly cautious committees. But interviewing paramilitaries who had committed terrorist acts is scarcely what universities term a “low-risk ethics application,” and would clearly have benefited from more careful planning. The project drew on the expertise and contacts of the journalists but failed to protect them, or to protect interviewees who had divulged life-and-death information. The journalists weren’t blameless — Moloney had been the first to open the vault with the publication of Voices from the Grave, but at least in that book some names had been suppressed for legal and security reasons.

What were they all thinking? Perhaps there’s a clue in the epigraph to Keefe’s book, which comes from Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: “All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.”

For most of us, using violence for political ends can’t be justified. But others see things differently. That doesn’t mean they all sleep easy at night. As Keefe explores in portraits that are morally engaged but rarely judgemental, Dolours Price suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder while she, her sister and Brendan Hughes’s lives unravelled in alcoholism and physical illness, partly as a result of long periods in prison but also because of their struggles to reconcile their political ideals with their bloody actions.

This was one reason why they grew increasingly bitter — and felt impelled to speak out — about their former comrade Gerry Adams, who seemed entirely untroubled by his past. Adams has been questioned by police about the murder of Jean McConville but never charged.

In his Boston College interview, Brendan Hughes compared the armed struggle of the IRA to the launch of a boat: “This boat is stuck in the sand, right, and get them to push the boat out and then the boat sailing off and leaving the hundred people behind, right. That’s the way I feel. The boat is away, sailing on the high seas, with all the luxuries that it brings, and the poor people that launched the boat are left sitting in the mud and the dirt and the shit and the sand.”

It may be possible to sympathise with Hughes emotionally, writes Keefe, but it’s a folly not to acknowledge Adams’s trajectory from activist (at the least) to politician. “He may have possessed a sociopathic instinct for self-preservation,” Keefe writes, “and there is something chilling about how Adams, secure in his place on the boat, does not cast so much as a backward glance at those comrades, like Hughes, who are left behind. But, really, it was history leaving Hughes behind.” Adams may have been callous in his motivations and deceptive in his machinations, Keefe concludes, but he “steered the IRA out of a bloody and intractable conflict and into a brittle but enduring peace.”

And I would add that a reading of Say Nothing underscores both the value and the limitations of journalism and works of contemporary history. Historians like to wait until the dust has settled, but that leaves them prey to gaps in the record, inadvertent or deliberate. Journalists are forever itching to catch the moment, to fill the gaps in the record, but often fail, as George Bernard Shaw once observed, to distinguish between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilisation. Contemporary historians like to have a bob each way, but even they need to leave the door ajar: witness the potential for Brexit to reopen the split between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.

If the experience of the Boston project shows just how unhappily contemporary history can end, then Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing shows what can be achieved by combining a historian’s sense of perspective and respect for primary sources, a journalist’s earthy engagement with the here and now, and a novelist’s sense of story and the meaning beneath the conflict that drives it. 


Matthew Ricketson is Professor of Communication at Deakin University and author of Telling True Stories (Allen & Unwin).

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