The ‘inside a party’ or ‘inside a government’ investigation is a well-established subgenre for political writers.
In the US, Bob Woodward has been a leading exponent with his many books on US administrations from Nixon through to Trump. Another best-selling example is Michale Wolff’s highly entertaining, but not very authoritative, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.
There is a rich seam of seminal books on Irish politics and the Northern conflict in this category, including The Boss by Joe Joyce and Peter Murtagh; The Provisional IRA by Patrick Bishop and Eamonn Mallie; A Secret History of The IRA by Ed Moloney; and Say Nothing by New Yorker journalist Patrick Radden Keefe.
All purport to get behind the protective carapace and give an insight into what is really going on, who makes decisions and how they are made, the personal dynamics, the egos, disputes and blunders. This particular approach combines detailed research, multiple sources (many anonymous) and a literary style that is focused on achieving a smooth and readable narrative.
There are many potential pitfalls. The subject matter may not co-operate. That leaves the author relying on alternative sources, many of whom speak on the proviso that they not be named. Inevitably some will have fallen out with the administration, or have become disillusioned, or nurse a grievance. Contributions can therefore be highly subjective and, occasionally, unreliable. Ergo, it makes it tricky for the author to draw authoritative conclusions.
Aoife Moore’s The Long Game is almost a textbook example of this genre, where an organisation, Sinn Féin in this instance, refuses to co-operate with the author. The extent of this refusal is set out in an extraordinary “note on sources” at the outset of the book.
Moore is an award-winning political journalist with a reputation for breaking significant stories. She comes from a working-class nationalist area in Derry and has built up impeccable contacts in the republican movement. Few were better placed to write a history of the gestation of Sinn Féin over the past decade.
Party leader Mary Lou McDonald, with whom she had a good relationship, was the first person she told when awarded the contract for the book. Moore wanted to write a fair recent history “without fear or favour”. She assumed the party would be willing to deal with her according to its own lights. McDonald seemed open to the idea.
The sequence of events that followed could have come straight out of a Putinesque playbook. Despite the early positive noises, within a month the shutters came down. Sinn Féin people were told not to talk to her. Over time, McDonald also began blanking her when they passed each other on the corridors of Leinster House.
Sinn Féin later offered a limited rapprochement but, according to Moore, it was minimalistic. She was now dealing with, essentially, a hostile witness. The writing of the book became a formidable task. Unlike other political parties that shed the last of their militaristic skin in the mists of time, modern Sinn Féin retains the residual culture and mindset of the Provos.
Prime among their traits is secrecy. As Derry commentator Eamon McCann astutely observed of the outlook in Colm Bairéad’s documentary on Martin McGuinness in 2020: “If you are a member of a secret army it has to be a secret that you are in the army.”
For other parties in Leinster House, leaking “secrets” to the media is a daily occurrence. Not so Sinn Féin. It is still in many ways a secret society. Moore overcame formidable obstacles by dint of perseverance. She managed to talk to multiple sources, mostly anonymous out of necessity.
What emerges is a compelling and revealing account of modern Sinn Féin, which sets out in considerable detail the inner workings of the party, its dynamics, its power games. It is written with gusto and verve. Moore’s deft writer’s eye for the good anecdote makes for a very readable account.
The scope is ambitious, spanning four decades, looking at Sinn Féin north and south. The “without fear or favour” quality is evident throughout, with unflinching references to IRA atrocities. The early years of the party and its danse macabre with the IRA is cycled through, cursorily in places. We go from the Belfast Agreement to McGuinness becoming Deputy First Minister in the blink of an eye. The point Moore makes is that the party absorbed many former “army” personnel and was organised along military lines, with control concentrated in the centre.
A former MLA told her: “You don’t do anything without checking. You didn’t speak to the press, or put out statements or vote on anything without consulting the leadership.”
The end goal, of course, was (and is) a united Ireland. Staff were urged “never to lose focus of the end goal of a united Ireland, no matter how far off it might be”. The other non-negotiable (and that’s still there too) was an unapologetic stance on the armed conflict.
The book comes into its own from page 118 (a third of the way through) when Moore begins analysing the party in its more modern guise, thematically and chronologically. Despite its discipline and central control, Sinn Féin was poorly equipped to function as a “normal” political party. Moore discloses in detail how incompetent the party was when it first entered Stormont. There was also its questionable practice of availiing of every imaginable allowance that was going even when not strictly entitled to it, and recouping parts of salaries from its own people. An ex-MLA told Moore that when it came to the expenses system Sinn Féin “milked it dry” unashamedly.
In thematic chapters setting out the party’s inability to deal sensitively and humanely with real-life issues and lived experiences, there is a particularly compelling account of its abject failure to deal with the case of rape victim Mairía Cahill. Moore herself broke the story of the party’s leadership in Derry being stood down and there is an authoritative account of it here, with Martina Anderson and Raymond McCartney coming in for some sharp prose. Jonathan Dowdall’s history with the party is covered, as is a spate of resignations by local councillors. There is little new material on either of those two episodes. The point being made is of failures, both political and human, with pointed criticism of poor candidate selection, and of poor judgment, during a time of rapid expansion. The corollary, as Moore points out, is the party could see history repeat itself if it wins big in the next election.
The most contentious chapter relates to the sexual crimes committed against Gerry Adams’s niece, Áine, at the hands of her father Liam Adams, Gerry’s brother. Adams’s alleged delay in dealing decisively with his brother when the abuse became known to him is harshly criticised. Moore claims that his poor handling of it prompted an aborted heave against him following Liam’s conviction in 2014. It includes a dramatic new revelation: that Martin McGuinness was part of the group who wanted him to step down from the leadership but Adams faced them down.
It’s an explosive claim. Moore writes that when it came to the crunch, McGuinness “didn’t want to be leader and was either too unsure or too intimidated to say that he definitively wanted Adams to go.”
Does this stand up? Gerry Adams confirmed to The Irish Times last week that McGuinness, who died in 2017, had “offered to step in for me if I needed some time”. It’s a partial confirmation but it’s hard to be conclusive on whether or not he ultimately wanted Adams to step down permanently at that time. I spent most of a year researching McGuinness’s life for a TV documentary and find it hard to envision him being intimidated by anybody. It’s more likely he was unsure. He was also one of those politicians who could make people feel he was on their side but without ultimately committing himself.
In such a situation you cannot be definitive on anything: a combination of non-cooperation and anonymity will lead to conflicting accounts and contested conclusions. For every “truth” there will be others.
Elsewhere, there are big jump cuts from one theme to another where more context or explanation would have been helpful. For example, Sinn Féin’s Lazarus-like performance in the 2020 general election, after a woeful local election in 2019, is dealt with in half a page, with Eoin Ó Broin getting most of the credit. Moore has justified criticism of McDonald elsewhere in the book but there is a mote in the eye here on why Sinn Féin won so big. That was down – solely – to McDonald’s remarkable performance during the election campaign.
Overall, the value judgments on McGuinness are far more positive than those of Adams, and that of Michelle O’Neill (marginally) more positive than McDonald.
While I admired the style of the book, I got tired of the liberal use of “f bombs” by anonymous sources in quotes – I counted over 50. To me, it was too much. Quite a few should have been excised. There are also errors that should have been spotted. The former Sinn Féin finance minister in Stormont is Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, not Micheál. Former national director of publicity Seán Mac Brádaigh, who grew up in Dublin, is described as a “Belfast native”.
Inevitably, a 300-page book on a big subject across a long time span will have some shortcomings. Ultimately, though, these do not detract from what has been achieved by Moore overall – an incisive, well-written, if critical, insight into the Sinn Féin of the here and now.
The Provisional IRA by Patrick Bishop and Eamonn Mallie (1988)
A pioneering book published in 1988, it was the first to describe comprehensively the development of the Provisional IRA: who its leaders were, its structures, its modus operandi. In the course of their research, Bishop and Mallie interviewed dozens of IRA activists including those at a senior level. The authors had no compunction in naming Adams and McGuinness as holding the key leadership positions in the IRA.
A Secret History of the IRA by Ed Moloney (2002)
A former Northern editor of The Irish Times and The Sunday Tribune, Moloney’s book is an extraordinary account of the transition of the IRA from paramilitarism and violence to politics. The central focus of the book is Adams and his dual role, with the first definitive account of his secret negotiations with John Hume, and with the Irish government. It is a critical history and Moloney received no co-operation from Sinn Féin.
Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe (2018)
The subtitle of this polished and accomplished book by the New Yorker writer is A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. The murder is that of Jean McConville, a widow with ten children, who was abducted by the IRA in 1972 and was never seen alive again. It took 31 years before her body was finally found by chance on a beach in Co Louth. The book also examines the history of informers in Ireland. Adams is also a central figure in the narrative as he is alleged to have been the de facto leader of the IRA in Belfast at the time of McConville’s disappearance.