Interviews with paramilitaries: Histories of the IRA and UVF
Two new books about the Troubles should sound alarm bells about the future
The funeral of hunger striker Patsy O’Hara, from Melancholy Witness: Images of the Troubles (History Press Ireland) by Seán Hillen. Anger over the prospect of a harder border has contributed to the collapse of the North’s powersharing government.
History books generally don’t cover current affairs, but sometimes it can’t be avoided.
There was a time when any account of the Troubles could draw to a close at 1998, with the Belfast Agreement and the arrival of peace.
But today there can be no credibility in a tidy ending.
After almost 20 years, we have yet to see the implementation of key parts of the peace deal that was brokered by the British and Irish governments. Now Brexit has forced the North’s deep divisions back to the surface.
Two new books have provided added reasons for concern: Out of the Ashes: An Oral History of the Provisional Irish Republican Movement by US academic Robert W White; and UVF – Behind the Mask by Belfast-born Aaron Edwards who lectures at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
White recounts how his research into republicanism attracted the attention of the authorities in Ireland and the US, while he said he also faced rumours of being in the CIA. In the preface he writes: “Because reality can be quite boring, there is fiction. Contrary to the beliefs of some, I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of Óglaigh na hÉireann (Provisional, Continuity, Real or any other version) or any other paramilitary organisation (including the PLO and Mau Mau, whose activists I have also interviewed).”
The books look backwards, recounting the history of rival republican and loyalist groups, but they each end with reflections on the future that should sound alarm bells.
Since the 2016 referendum in which the UK – though not Northern Ireland – made the decision to leave the European Union, pro-Brexit voices have dismissed suggestions that the upheaval might damage the peace process.
But anger over the prospect of a harder border on the island of Ireland has already contributed to the collapse of the North’s powersharing government.
And even if a return to violence on the scale of the Troubles seems nearly impossible from where we stand, history warns against a cavalier attitude.
White’s book begins in the year 1170 and shows how our past is littered with bursts of violence separated by peaceful pauses.
By taking the long view, it underscores the achievements of the current peace process and reminds us that it would be a mistake to take political stability, and even the absence of violence, for granted.
Out of the Ashes notes how attacks on the civil rights movement of the 1960s suddenly brought a new generation “into contact with the permanent protestors of the Irish Republican Movement”.
The book walks through the history of the subsequent Troubles, with republicans as the guide.
There are interviews from across decades, while it also draws extensively on previously published material, examining the changes and ongoing tensions inside republicanism.
In the closing chapters, unnamed interviewees are asked a series of questions about the republican movement, including the question: “Who won the war?”
Contributors from Sinn Féin, which this year won record support in the North’s two elections, look to the political path ahead.
‘Is war over?’
A dissident republican voice instead answers: “I’d say there’s no winner at the moment and, is the war over, is the other thing.”
UVF: Behind the Mask offers a history of the loyalist paramilitary organisation, also told largely through interviews with its members.
It recounts the turmoil of the 1960s and how in 1965 the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force was re-established to “put pressure on the ruling Unionist Party seen as weak on Irish republicanism and far too liberal in its views on northern Catholics and the Republic of Ireland”, but this was a “world of half-truths and paranoia” fuelled by mainstream unionists found to be at the centre of that genesis of modern loyalist paramilitarism.
The book has made headlines for its claims that UVF members considered shooting David Ervine, the best-known of the organisation’s peacemakers, while others in the group planned to kill Martin McGuinness at the latter stages of the Troubles.
Had either threat been acted upon, it could have had major implications, given the role that the two men played in securing the peace process.
The book also reveals how a senior member of the Orange Order wrote to loyalist killer Billy Wright to thank him “and his comrades” for the role they played in the Drumcree parade stand-off at the predominantly Catholic Garvaghy Road in Portadown in 1995.
Evidence of collusion
Meanwhile, there is already a large volume of evidence in the public domain on collusion between loyalists and security forces. Much of the evidence is drawn from British records and official investigations.
Out of the Ashes, on the other hand, references the British agent Stakeknife. A pending inquiry linked to that case may reveal more of the inner workings of the Provisional IRA and the role of agents.
In so far as collusion features in the UVF book, it attaches little significance to the role of the state in motivating loyalist violence.
Behind the Mask focuses instead on the often overlooked efforts of those loyalist leaders who worked to forge a peaceful future.
They succeeded in securing ceasefires, but claimed that a failure to re-integrate paramilitaries into society by measures such as removing barriers to employment, made it more difficult to put groups like the UVF out of business, especially in deprived loyalist areas.
“Unsurprisingly, UVF membership now swelled in areas where the twin evils of high unemployment and low educational attainment acted as accelerants on disaffection.”
The book talks of “40 years of a paramilitary subculture” continuing to plague some communities. It recounts the stalled efforts to build a successful loyalist political party, plus criticism of the leadership role of the DUP.
Despite loyalist paramilitary involvement in organised crime and violence, the wider government response has been to encourage loyalist groups to “apply for funding which would ensconce paramilitary leaders with more authority than they had previously enjoyed”.
The author found a “sense of despair”, adding: “For many young men (and women) their role models were more likely to be Johnny Adair or Billy Wright than they were Rory McIlroy or George Best.”
The optimism of 1998 has long faded.
Now Brexit has tempted some in the DUP to stave-off change by seeking to harden the Irish Border and to deepen Northern Ireland’s economic dependence on Britain.
Republicans, meanwhile, seek to tap in to any chance to push for a new constitutional settlement.
Brexit has landed at a time when large-scale republican violence has ended, though small and dangerous dissident groups remain.
Loyalist paramilitaries are fragmented and volatile, while loyalist politicians who raise issues such as educational underachievement in their communities are ignored.
In the absence of a formal process to deal with the legacy of the Troubles, we don’t yet have a full understanding of the factors that shaped the conflict or the peace.
There is a failure to reintegrate paramilitaries, a failure to broker a deal to heal the legacy of the Troubles, plus a failure to make reconciliation in the North a shared priority for all political parties.
Are those failures accidental? Whose interests did it serve to sustain paramilitarism and frustrate reconciliation?
History here has again become a story of unfinished business.
Steven McCaffery is editor of the Detail news and analysis website in Belfast