The Troubles of Memory

Militarised childhood. Belfast, 1970s.

It is now more than 30 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, bringing at least a nominal close to one of the most brutal and intractable conflicts in European history. The major paramilitary organizations decommissioned their stockpiles of weapons, the savage tit-for-tat rhythm of atrocity and reprisal ended. People in England, the Republic, and Northern Ireland moved on. Except for those who didn’t.

Ex-gunmen from both sides who had killed and bled for the cause simmered with rage at the vanity of their sacrifices, sometimes flaring back into spasms of pointless violence. And then, more tragically, there were the victims: survivors and the families living lives scarred by bombs, bullets, beating, and lives cruelly extinguished.

Faulkner’s famous remark, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even really past,” applies with similar perfection to Ireland as it does to the American south. The question of the backstop and the possibility that the looming Brexit will result in the return of the hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic have put the matter of a revival of the bad old day, or at least some aspects thereof, back on the table.

In Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, journalist Patrick Radden Keefe investigates the ways that violence and memory are woven through the skein of life in Ulster. Keefe’s story is one of hard men and women on both sides of the law, of informants and enforcers, of guilt, and innocence, and lonely graves. And through it all, like a red thread, runs the story of Jean McConville, whose kidnap and murder by the Provisional Irish Republican Army in December 1972 constitutes one of the most dreadful incidents in the grim history of the Troubles.

McConville, a recently widowed mother of ten, was living in Belfast’s notorious Divis Flats housing project when she somehow ran afoul of the IRA in late 1972. According to one subsequent justification, advanced by former IRA activists such as Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price, was that she was passing information to the British authorities via a transmitter hidden in her flat. Another account had her identifying IRA members to the security forces while hidden under a blanket. Neither story is plausible. The first one (which is the most commonly repeated) is particularly threadbare since the walls of the Divis Flats were notoriously so thin that conversations at any volume were generally audible.

The reasons for McConville’s murder will probably never be known. She was a protestant widow of a mixed marriage living in one of the most intensely Catholic nationalist areas on Belfast. Her family remembers her giving comfort to a British soldier wounded in one of the frequent gun battles that broke out in the projects in those days, resulting in their door being graffitied by angry neighbours. There is no evidence for this story in the records of the British authorities, nor is there any evidence that she was an informer (a “tout” in the local terminology). Perhaps her death was a case of mistaken identity, or a sort of “stand alone complex” generated by the overlapping webs of deceit, rage, and intercommunal violence that were the trademarks of life in Northern Ireland from the 1960s to the late 1990s.

What is now known is that sometime in December 1972, McConville was taken to a secluded spot in County Louth by a three-person IRA execution squad, shot, and buried in an unmarked grave. Her murder was singular not only for its utter senselessness but also because her body was never recovered. Political murders in Northern Ireland, especially of those accused of acts of treachery, usually resulted in the bodies being left in the open, the better to serve as a reminder and disincentive to others. All told, only around twenty victims were counted as “disappeared” among the more than 3,500 lives lost in the Troubles.

Much of Keefe’s narrative is carried along by tracing the careers of two important IRA figures. One was Dolours Price. A former civil rights activist from a Republican family, Price joined the IRA along with her younger sister Marian in the late 1960s. Young, beautiful, and ideologically committed to the point of fanaticism, the Price sisters became the sort of rock star face of the Provos. They took part in the full range of IRA activities. They were members of the Unknowns, a squad tasked with the elimination of informers. They participated in the bombing campaign in London in 1973, were arrested and imprisoned, and took part in that most Irish of protest actions: a hunger strike which extended to 200 days by the British government’s brutal policy of force-feeding.

Eventually, the Price sisters were repatriated to serve out their sentences in Northern Ireland. Dolors Price parted ways with the IRA and was released on humanitarian grounds in 1980, but the damage was done. She suffered from anorexia nervosa, as well as addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs for the rest of her life. She worked to build a “normal” life for herself, marrying the actor Stephen Rea, having children, working as a journalist. But the spectres of her life with the gun never left her.

The other major figure in the story is Brendan Hughes, the consummate IRA street operator. Nicknamed “the Dark” for his swarthy complexion, Hughes grew up on the bleak street of the Lower Falls Road, another of the enclaves of Belfast’s Catholic nationalist community. Hughes joined the IRA in 1969, at the age of 19. He sided with the Provisionals when they split from the Official IRA in 1970, rising quickly through the ranks of the Provisionals’ Belfast Brigade. Hughes was the operational commander of the so-called “Bloody Friday” bombing campaign, a horrific series of attacks in July 1972 that left 9 dead and 130 injured.

Arrested on the Falls Road in the summer of 1973, Hughes was sent to the infamous prison camp at Long Kesh. There he, along with other Republican prisoners (including Gerry Adams) honed their knowledge of Irish history, but also their understanding of urban struggle and the way forward for the movement. It was during this period that the strategy of “the Armalite and the ballot box” was conceived which would later be carried forward to a victory of sorts by Gerry Adams, the head of Sinn Féin, the IRA’s “political” wing.

As the title suggests, a large element of Keefe’s narrative addresses the role of memory in the conflict. This is a particularly complex subject for a conflict whose roots go back to the 12th century, and whose partisans routinely undertake rituals commemorating events that took place more than 300 years ago. Yet the roots of the conflict the broke out in the 1960s are rather more recent. They begin with the British partition of Ireland in the wake of the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921). Exhausted by a conflict that seemed endless (although they were arguably on the point of winning), the British government sought to cut their losses by splitting off six of the nine counties of Ulster. These contained the bulk of the Protestant population of Ireland, but also the vast majority of the heavy industry, centred in Belfast.

The subsequent four decades saw periodic outbreaks of intercommunal violence, which the nationalist narrative sees as central. As Michael Farrell argued in his seminal text Northern Ireland: The Orange State, the British government opted for a policy of arming and financing violent unionist hegemony in Northern Ireland, systematically thwarting repeated attempts by middle-class Catholics either to participate fully in economic life or to see their grievances via the mainstream political process. In this respect, the rebirth of the IRA in the late 1960s was a symptom.

Even in the context of a general increase of militancy in the 1960s, the rebirth of paramilitary struggle had its limits. Ideological issues caused a split in 1969-1970, with the traditionally oriented Provisionals parting ways with the more Marxist inflected Official IRA. The split was disastrous and might have spelt the end of physical force struggle in Northern Ireland. By the beginning of 1972, the Provisional and the Officials barely had the operational wherewithal to clip the occasional policeman (or one another’s activists). But they were given new life by the bungling of the British government. The killings of 13 unarmed civil rights marchers in Derry on 30 January 1972 by elements of the Parachute Regiment constituted a filip for physical force Republicanism, giving it an institutional and operational momentum that would carry it to the end of the 1990s.

For much of the last two decades before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the IRA, the loyalist paramilitaries, and the British military and security services fought a war in the shadows, where perception and reality mixed in an environment of high surveillance and catastrophic violence. The British managed to infiltrate both groups of paramilitaries, although in the case of the loyalists it would come out later that they were actively colluding with them. It would also come out later that British had turned a number of high-level IRA figures, most disturbingly Freddie Scappaticci. Ominously codenamed “Steaknife,” Scappaticci was a central figure in the Provisional IRA’s feared Nutting Squad, the organization tasked with extracting confessions from suspected informers. As such, Scappaticci was implicated in dozens of murders, which the British security services viewed as just one of those things.

It is this shadow war and its aftermath that form the basis for the latter part of Keene’s narrative. The trail toward resolution of the conflict was blazed by Gerry Adams refashioning himself from Belfast IRA OC to well-heeled Sinn Féin politico. This, and particularly Adams’s frequent assertions that he had never been a member of the IRA (when it was common knowledge that he had been) struck many in the organization as a devaluation of their service. It was while this was happening that a group led by the journalist Ed Moloney began a secret project of compiling oral histories from former paramilitaries on both sides. Angered by the direction that matters were taking, both Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes agreed to take part.

The story of the formation of the secret archive, stored at Boston College and meant to be closed until all (or some) of the participants were dead is intermingled with the story of Jean McConville, and that of Gerry Adams, and the peculiar question of truth in the Troubles. The reasons behind McConville’s torture and murder are known and unknown. One tactic occasionally employed by British security services would be to lift someone and then let them go in such a way as to raise suspicions that they had cooperated. In the highly charged environment of Troubles-era Ulster, this often amounted to a death sentence. There is no way of knowing exactly how McConville ran afoul of the IRA. But the questions of what happened, and who was involved are now mostly matters of record.

Likewise, Adams’s history is both known and unknown. His history is an open book, especially since the records from the Boston College oral history project were successfully subpoenaed during the long-delayed official investigation into McConville’s death. Yet it is arguable that such closure as has been achieved in the long and vexed history of the modern conflicts in Northern Ireland have been facilitated in crucial ways precisely by the public conspiracy of forgetting the allowed people like Adams and the Derry hard man Martin McGuinness to morph into participants in the mainstream political process.

Both conflict and reconciliation are based on memory and forgetting. The historian Richard White once wrote that “history is the enemy of memory.” Memory is the fuel of conflict allowing it to stretch it beyond years and generations, reconfiguring facts in order to construct meaningful narratives. The process of reconciliation often involves processes that seem to participants like a failure in fidelity. Say Nothing shows, among many other things, the truth of the old Irish adage that time cannot erase history, and that sometimes in order to remember it is necessary to forget.

Photographs courtesy of Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916. Published under a Creative Commons license.