Ex-IRA chief Kieran Conway on life after the struggle
Now a solicitor, he defends dissident republicans but regards NI campaign as a waste
Former IRA intelligance director Kieran Conway. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
Solicitor Kieran Conway was back in the Special Criminal Court last Friday, representing a 52-year-old Dublin man, Patrick Brennan, who was charged with possession of four 400g blocks of TNT and three electrical explosive detonators.
During the brief hearing, Mr Brennan sat in a light blue, striped T-shirt, with his arms folded. When asked by the court’s registrar to stand up, he remained seated, and spoke only to confirm his identity. Asked if he was Patrick Brennan, the Clondalkin man replied: “Yeah.”
Conway said that he had “no questions” for Det Garda Graham Dunne, who said he arrested Mr Brennan earlier on Friday on Irishtown Road, Dublin 4.
Speaking recently, Conway, a former member of the IRA, said he spent lots of time in courts, including “a fair bit of work in the Special Crim” often representing charges of memberships in all three dissident IRAs, the so-called Real, New and Continuity. The 66-year-old, “amicably separated” with a 25-year-old son, works most weekends, picking up the slack for solicitors who prefer their weekends off. He has the time, he says. “They give Conway a ring and they get a percentage of whatever fee I get. It pays well,” he said.
Earlier this month, Conway came back into the public light after it was decided to reopen the inquest into the 42-year-old IRA bombings of two packed Birmingham pubs which killed 21 people and left some 182 injured.
Invariably described as the IRA’s “former head of intelligence” or “spymaster”, or “now a lawyer working in Dublin”, and with the south Dublin suburban accent to prove it, Conway is not everyone’s idea of an IRA man. Behind the accent is a UCD graduate and a self-confessed muddle of contradictions, a “non-practising communist” who drives a Lexus, lives in Foxrock; rejoicing in a daily dip in the Forty Foot and being a master scuba diver.
“When it comes to doing Garda station detentions – I say this without fear of contradiction – there is no solicitor in Ireland with more experience than me,” Conway told The Irish Times. Standing on the kerb outside Kevin Street Garda station, dressed in casual, short-sleeve check shirt and jeans, cigarette in hand, he is indistinguishable from the builders on site, as he waits for a client being interviewed inside.
This is his working life now. The best of his youth was taken by the IRA. A fledgling career in journalism was ended when he was “outed” in Seán O’Callaghan’s book about his time in the IRA, The Informer.
He will be working till he dies, he says. The IRA has no pension scheme. “I wouldn’t mind a pension but failing that, I’d like a medal. . . Yeah, there was talk about it a few years ago but they backed off, for some reason.”
This is all said laconically, with a slight smile, by a man who has interrogated himself more than most, if with slightly different results every time. His insightful and densely written 2014 book, Southside Provisional: From Freedom Fighter to the Four Courts, is “on the prescribed reading list for political detectives” and selling nicely, he says happily.
Right to silence
For all that, he wants to see an end to the right to silence, which probably puts him in a minority of one among lawyers. Who would have expected an old IRA man to argue “suspects should be required to answer the legitimate questions of investigators”?
But while the book gives some insights into his own evolution as a young firebrand, drunk on the romance of revolution, his imprisonment and participation in the hunger strike and his role as a trainer in explosives, it assumes a studied detachment about his own activities on “operations”. By way of explaining his expertise in bombing protocol during media interviews, he has openly admitted to planting bombs. Yet there is no mention of this in the book.
“An accidental omission. . . I participated in IRA activities of all sorts.” Did he shoot people? “I can’t be sure. . . Soldiers died when I was there, though I can’t be sure it was my bullet.”
The Birmingham pubs were not a “legitimate target”, he says. “The commander sent the [bombers] out unprepared in that they were not properly trained for what they were doing.” Had they observed “elementary protocol, there would have been no casualties”.
So in contrast with Birmingham, all the operations Conway was involved in were properly executed and part of a just war? “Yes, everything worked out in everything I ever did. I was fortunate in that respect. I never shot in the direction of anybody but a British soldier. . . Pubs in which soldiers drank and socialised were considered fair game, rightly or wrongly – I believe wrongly now, because civilians were killed”.
He reckons that out of “thousands of bombs that were put out, probably 1 per cent resulted in civilian casualties. It was a low error rate although that’s probably no comfort to anybody.”
He is well aware of the incongruity of a southside boy ending up in bank raids, gun fights, bomb planting and prison. Even the IRA rejected his application for months because he failed to fit their working-class template.
There is nothing in his childhood to hint at what the Killiney-born boy would become. His early formative experiences included eight years in Malaya (as Singapore then was) from the age of three. His father, a civil engineer with the British Colonial Service, sent him to a “very civilised” English boarding school. Like his father, he hated the Irish language and had no sentimental yearning for a Gaelic Ireland. In fact, he longed for the great liberal oasis across the water.
Back home, with his “perfect manners and little English voice”, he was marked down for Clongowes Wood College but ended up with the Jesuits in Mungret, Co Limerick, where for a year he was “very very good and went bananas on religion, reading the lives of the saints”. In second year he started hanging around with the tough kids, smoking, being disruptive, giving cheek to the priests until his parents removed him to Blackrock College, on Dublin’s southside, as a day pupil. “I made lots of friends in Rock, some I’m still in touch with,” he adds.
His turn to the IRA was all about timing. He started in UCD against a backdrop of the student revolts of 1968 and the Vietnam war, and though tempted by the Young Socialists – “mainly because they had the best-looking girls” – he joined no society in first year. Then while working in an English canning factory the following summer, “the North blew up”, and when he returned he joined the marches, like many others, and then became a member of UCD’s republican club.
“I was a communist,” he says, “and a great admirer of Che Guevara and the Cuban revolution and all of a sudden here was a revolutionary situation on my doorstep and I couldn’t have been more delighted. There was going to be conflict and I wanted to be part of it.”At the outset, he said, “it was all romance. . . You weren’t aware of the horrors to come.”
And if he had been aware?
“I struggled with this in the book. . . I was a mass of contradictions.”. Eventually, after debates with a legal colleague, he concluded that he had wasted his life, “three decades”. But after some discussion now, he agrees that the “waste”, as he perceives it, was not because of the bloodshed and grief, but because of the outcome.
“The end result has been the underpinning of partition by the Provisionals, going along with the principle of consent for Irish unity, which has completely destroyed any prospect of Irish unity.”
So if the campaign had blown us into a united Ireland, it would have been worth it?
“Probably, yeah. Although I can see there’s a contradiction there and I haven’t quite thought it through – but I’ve given up thinking about it. I’m not sure I can get through that one.”
Until he ended up in jail, his parents assumed his involvement was “on the edge, in Sinn Féin”. After that, his genteel mother – now deceased – went shopping for books in the Communist Party bookshop to keep him occupied in prison, visiting Marion Coyle in Mountjoy and, unknown to her husband, literally laundering money from a Munster robbery that had been buried in a silage pit.
As he travelled back and forth between revolution and south county Dublin he discovered a “fantastic human infrastructure” of fellow-travellers around the southside willing to lend a hand with B&B for weapons and visiting volunteers: “Stockbrokers, bankers, journalists, government officials, a person from the DPP’s office, a couple of guards.”
He left the IRA twice, first in the 1970s and finally in 1993, although the book is confined to his earlier spell in the organisation from 1970 to 1975. “The later period, from 1981 to 1993,” he wrote in The Irish Times in 2014, “is a bleaker one, closer in time and more difficult to write about without saying things I shouldn’t.”
His struggle to come to terms with the change of direction of the IRA is evident. He retains no loyalty to the modern leaders of the Provisionals, which he uses as a synonym for Sinn Féin. “I dislike the Provisionals immensely. I don’t know any ex-IRA man that votes for them. I despise their hypocrisy, their mendacity. They’re modern Bolsheviks. They will say anything, do anything, to get into power; and God help us all if they end up there. I’d have to learn Spanish and become a lawyer in Spain.”
In the book, Gerry Adams is a string of rude words but now Conway says : “I’ve mellowed a bit because it is a fact , a fact, that he has brought peace to Ireland and he did it single-handedly – he had to get the agreement of others, by force of personality and powers of persuasion – and that is some achievement”.
Does he have nightmares? “No.” Or guilt? “None whatever. I have regret, particularly about the civilian casualties. I have regret also for all the dead IRA men and regret for the British soldiers as well. All of this could have been achieved without a single drop of blood being spilt.”
The old pull to communism remains, however contradictory. “Nothing’s too good for the workers,” he remarks with a smile, quoting Gerry O’Hare. He votes for Richard Boyd Barrett and thinks Joe Higgins is a “fantastic fellow”, but “the Trotskyite position is just crazy”. As for Cuba, his old model of revolution, he visited it last year and was “very impressed – but it’s very dilapidated and run down and clearly needs some capital investment”.
Then phone rings and he’s back on duty, lighting up one last fag as he heads for the “cop shop” and another client who by nightfall could be making the news bulletins.