From the late 1960s and into the 1990s, the conflict in Northern Ireland was a regular feature in the world media. Euphemistically known as The Troubles, the struggle was characterized through the imagery of 20th century urban warfare and occupation: car bombings; the black balaclavas of the IRA (Irish Republican Army); British soldiers in full military regalia policing the streets of Belfast and Derry; IRA funeral processions; Unionist parades designed to provoke and inflame the opposition; children and teenagers, Molotov cocktails in hand, astride ancient stone walls and piles of rubble.
In recent decades, those images have all but disappeared. In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed by the British Prime Minister, the head of the IRA and Unionist leaders; peace was declared. But as Patrick Radden Keefe shows in his devastating new book, Say Nothing, the armed conflict may have ended — with speeches and the decommissioning of weapons — but a full accounting of this dirty war has never taken place.
There never was a process of ‘truth and reconciliation,’ as there was in South Africa. That process had some serious flaws, but at least it showed an acknowledgment that a process was necessary for the country to move on. Without it, some horrible acts of war become subsumed into a nation’s collective subconscious. In Northern Ireland, the psychological scars, not to mention questions of legal and moral culpability, are as present today as they were during the heaviest years of the conflict.
As a journalist, I covered the war in NI in the 1980s. I interviewed Gerry Adams, who was, by all accounts, leader of the IRA’s political wing, on the Falls Road as an IRA funeral procession proceeded all around us; I interviewed Andy Tyrie, head of the UDA (Ulster Defense Association) and his number two man John McMichael at the organization’s heavily-guarded headquarters in East Belfast (McMichael was later murdered by the IRA and Tyrie narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by car bombing); in 1985, I attended the Sinn Féin ard fheis (annual conference) in Dublin, when Adams and other leading lights of the party officially adopted a path of political engagement that would, in many ways, lead eventually to the Good Friday Agreement; I met Brendan Hughes, known as “the Dark,” one of the most dedicated “freedom fighters” in the IRA’s recent history who is a central figure in Keefe’s book.
As anyone who was exposed to the realities of Northern Ireland knows, the Troubles were a moral and ethical quagmire; people on both sides felt righteously justified in committing all manner of atrocities. The situation encapsulated the ugly residue of colonialism in its final stages, with the United Kingdom, in the person of Margaret Thatcher and subsequent Prime Ministers, believing that it was presiding over two squabbling tribes, both of whom were “hopelessly Irish.”
Keefe is a regular contributor to the New Yorker magazine, where he publishes long, in-depth articles, and the author of a previous book on the smuggling of undocumented immigrants in New York City’s Chinatown. He knows how to tackle a complex story and provide the necessary context. He does a stellar job of taking the modern era of the conflict in NI back to its roots in the late-1960s. Much of this history has been covered before in hundreds of books and documentaries, but the author keeps it fresh by focusing on the development of individual players in the drama. Primary among them are the Price sisters, Dolours and Marian, who grew up in a fierce Irish Republican family in West Belfast. As young girls, their father used to lecture the children about the safest method for mixing improvised explosives, with a wooden bowl and wooden utensils, never metal, because “a single spark and you were gone.”
Despite this, initially, the sisters – inspired by the example of the Civil Rights movement in the Unites States – adopted a strategy of non-violent resistance to British rule in NI. That all changed in 1969 with the infamous ambush at Burntollet Bridge, when the Price sisters, along with dozens of non-violent student protestors, were set upon by Unionist thugs and members of the British auxiliary police known as the B-Specials. The brutally repressive nature of British authorities to any and all social activism had a way of radicalizing the minority Catholic population in the North, and the Price sisters were no exception. From that point on they became dedicated rebels in the fight for a united Ireland.
Keefe chronicles the politicization of the Price sisters with sensitivity and a certain amount of ironic humor, as they become counter culture celebrities in the mid-1970s following their arrest for having planted a number of explosive devices around central London. By then, the sisters were committed operatives; already, they had taken part in a dark criminal act that serves as the centerpiece of Keefe’s haunting narrative.
In 1972, Jean McConville, a 38-year old mother of ten kids, was snatched from her apartment in Divis Flats, a “dank and hulking public housing complex in West Belfast.” McConville, who was Protestant, was a widow whose Catholic husband had recently died from a grueling illness. She was believed by the IRA to be a “tout,” or snitch, who was secretly reporting to authorities about goings on at Divis, which was a pro-IRA stronghold. McConville never returned to her family. She was taken to a remote location and executed, with a bullet to the head.
Decades later, Delours Price admitted to having played a role in the abduction and killing of Jean McConville. Brendan Hughes, the Dark, admitted to having organized the operation.
At the time, no one knew what happened to McConville; she simply disappeared. There were well-founded rumors that she’d been executed by the IRA. At the time of the Good Friday Agreement, her death was something all parties involved seemed willing to forget. It was merely one of many unresolved horrors of the Troubles.
The truth might never have been known were it not for a project initiated by Boston College in 2000 to document the Troubles. In the wake of the peace accord, and in the absence of any official truth and reconciliation efforts, it was felt there was a need to record this history. A project was initiated in which key players on all sides of the conflict would be interviewed, with a promise that these interviews would not be made public until after they were dead. The Belfast Project, as it became known, was more or less conducted in secret. It might have remained that way until 2003, when the decimated remains of Jean McConville were discovered in a ravine outside Belfast and identified through DNA testing.
An investigation into the death of McConville remained open for years; eventually, police in NI learned of the existence of the Belfast Project. Through court order, they forced Boston College to capitulate and turn over many hours of interview tapes – including those in which the Dark, Delours Price and others detailed the execution of Jean McConville. Named in those tapes as the person who had authorized the murder was none other than Gerry Adams.
In the years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Adams had emerged as a prominent statesman, Sinn Fein president, and spokesperson for the Catholic minority in NI. To some, he was a figure on a par with Nelson Mandela and other political leaders who had developed his philosophy while in prison and stood up to the powers that be. He was also one of the primary architects of the peace process that led to the 1998 agreement.
For years, Adams had been denying he ever was a member of the IRA, much less its nominal leader. Most everyone knew this to be patently absurd, but his supporters accepted it as a concession to the fact that the IRA was an illegal organization; had Adams admitted his involvement he might have been removed from political office. But to hardcore operatives like the Dark and the Price sisters, Adams position was a betrayal of the IRA rank and file. In the Belfast Project interviews, they detailed Adams role in the IRA and particularly his involvement in the “disappearing” of Jean McConville.
Needless-to-say, once these tapes were in the hands of British authorities, the results were explosive. Adams was arrested and accused of the murder. He’d been denying involvement for years. He was later released and cleared of any charges. The Dark had died in 2008, Delours Price in 2013. In 2018, Adams retired as the leader of Sinn Fein, a position he had held since the early-1980s.
It is in the latter half of Say Nothing dealing with the fallout from the Belfast Project that Keefe’s book truly excels. Though it’s clear that the author believes Adams has blood on his hands from the McConville killing, and that he’s lying about his past IRA involvement, there is the issue of collective guilt. In the rush to condemn Adams, Keefe rightly asks: “Who should be held accountable for the shared history of violence? Would the British soldiers who shot unarmed civilians on Bloody Sunday be subjected to the same justice?” The answer is no, because British authorities have not shown themselves to have the stomach to fully acknowledge this incendiary recent history.
As Keefe notes, Northern Ireland remains a geographic oddity, a strange holdover from the U.K.’s long period of colonial hegemony. Often looked down upon and shunted aside by the British government, it’s now at the center of England’s desire to leave the European Union. British citizens residing in NI do not support Breixit. Writes Keefe: “It would be ironic, to say the least, if one inadvertent long-term consequence of the Breixit referendum was a united Ireland – an outcome that three decades of appalling bloodshed and some thirty-five hundred lost lives had failed to achieve.”
It would also serve to underscore the central theme of Keefe’s masterful book: the notion that history, left unattended, may one day come back and bite you on the ass.
T.J. English is the author of eight non-fiction books, including Havana Nocturne, Paddy Whacked and The Westies.