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Opportunists and tacticians, but poor strategists

14 December 2002

12:00 AM

14 December 2002

12:00 AM


Penguin, pp.600, 20

On the back of the dust cover there proudly appears the following quote from the Sunday Times towards the end of last year: ‘Ed Moloney’s authoritative and devastating Penguin History of the IRA is just around the corner.’

Well, up to a point. Ed Moloney is a well respected journalist writing for a Dublin newspaper who, for many years, has specialised in making a close study of Irish republicanism. As far as I can tell he is a reliable guide to the machinations within the republican movement. These apparently different organisations respond to a single leadership group of about a score of persons, many of whom appear in various positions in the two structures, but it also includes some that are not in the apparent leadership of either. All this enables republicans to spread confusion, especially among those who want to believe in hawks and doves.

Obviously we cannot be sure that Moloney’s account of what went on within the republican leadership is accurate, but subject to comments below it will do as an account of who did what and when. Certainly I was reassured by his depiction of Brian Keenan. Not the Beirut hostage, but a gentleman from South Londonderry, nurtured within the wilder elements of British trade unionism who became notorious for his outburst that the only thing that would be decommissioned would be the British state in Ireland. Keenan was depicted as a hardliner. Here he emerges as a long-time supporter of Adams’s quasi-political strategy, whose apparent positioning as one of Adams’s opponents was tactical, a view with which I concur.

I am less certain of his analysis. It is that from around 1986 onward Adams was following a peace strategy which culminated in the 1998 Agreement and that, long before any formal inter-party talks began, the form and outcome of those talks had been prefigured by secret exchanges between Adams, Alex Reid, a Catholic priest based mainly at Clonard monastery in West Belfast, and the British government. John Hume is largely written out of Moloney’s account and he challenges the belief that Reid and Adams first made contact with the Dublin government who then cajoled the British. Moloney claims that the latter were probably engaged first and were in any event willing participants in this secret process from the beginning. He prints the text of a paper by Reid in May 1987 which sets out 12 ‘stepping stones’ which Moloney claims were all incorporated into the peace process.

This and similar claims should be taken with a fistful of salt. It has been commonplace since the early Seventies that the obvious outcome in Northern Ireland could be easily sketched out. Various plans over the years merely shuffled the same pack until the circumstances and the details came right four years ago. Some elements in the Reid paper, such as the need for agreement by both unionists and nationalists, were commonplace with all but republicans. The successes of the security forces and determination of the Unionist community had much more to do with republicans’ reluctant acceptance of consent than Reid’s arguments. Other elements in the paper, such as participation in the talks through direct elections, were bitterly opposed by republicans, and Reid’s ‘principle’ that the British should withdraw decision-making in Northern Ireland remains, in the aftermath of another suspension by the government of the institutions of the Agreement, a very remote aspiration.

Indeed if one were to look at the paper handed by Jim Molyneaux and Ian Paisley to the then secretary of state, Tom King, in 1987 one would see the Belfast Agreement much more closely prefigured. This omission may be understandable as the paper was not published then and those Unionist leaders are reluctant now to admit the clear line of developments. The Brooke and Mayhew talks with the SDLP and the Unionist parties are scarcely mentioned. There is a fascinating issue here. In 1992 the Mayhew talks came very close to agreement. SDLP and Unionist negotiators did reach a tentative agreement on internal structures for Northern Ireland only to see the SDLP leadership fail to ratify their work: a failure that was acquiesced in by the British government. We still do not know the extent to which these decisions were the result of the secret contacts that year between the government and republicans, contacts which were probably known to John Hume, but remained a secret from us until they came into the public domain in mid-1993.

If one regards as welcome the republican movements towards peace and democracy, then this is not a devastating portrait of Adams. What will be seen as devastating by some republicans is the suggestion that this putative peace process was saved and advanced by the repeated failure of IRA operations. The prologue is devoted to a detailed description of the ‘betrayal’ of the Eksund, a vessel carrying some 150 tons of ordnance from Libya for the IRA. It is noted that some security force successes, such as wiping out a key hit squad at Loughgall, removed potential opponents of Adams’s political strategy. Moloney does not actually state or give any evidence for the conclusion to which some will jump. It and another hypothesis, that the security forces were deliberately clearing the way for the would-be peacemakers, I find implausible. The security forces would not in practice have the range of information and opportunity to pick and choose in that way. Nor would any party run the risks involved in either hypothesis. In any event there are far too many conspiracy theories and theorists around. Those who wish to remain sane should steer clear of both in the absence of firm evidence.

There is one other factor which undermines notions of elaborate plans and conspiracies and indeed undermines much of Moloney’s approach. My experience is that the republican leadership are very good tactically, but poorer strategically. I think it is wrong to ascribe a grand design to them. Their position has evolved in the light of circumstances and as a result of pressure. Essentially they are opportunists. The following is revealing:

In September 1995, a year after the first ceasefire, the author had a lengthy session with one of Gerry Adams’s closest advisors

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