This is the best book yet written about the Provisional Irish Republican Army. It traces the rise of the Provos from the angry ashes of Catholic working-class streets incinerated by mobs of loyalists and cops in August 1969 to the enclosure of the movement’s leadership within conventional bourgeois politics through the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. It explains why the current hiatus in the peace process will, sooner or later, probably sooner, be healed, for the same reason that made agreement possible in the first place: There is no fundamental contradiction between the politics of the Provo leadership and of the British ruling class.
This is one of the key truths of the Northern Ireland conflict, obscured by the smoke and sulfur of the past three decades but now shimmering into focus again as the fog of war fades. It’s a truth that the Provos would rather not face. Or at any rate, not yet. For the moment, they prefer to present the recent period as the penultimate episode of Ireland’s ancient struggle for freedom, in which the IRA, against all odds and in honorable fashion, fought the might of the British Empire to a stalemate. Now their political wing, Sinn Fein, personified and led by the charismatic Gerry Adams, strives against British intransigence and unionist bigotry to preserve the integrity of the deal and thereby keep a peaceful path clear toward the final goal of the Republic.
Moloney casts a colder eye. A former Irish Journalist of the Year, successively Northern editor of the Irish Times and the Sunday Tribune, he has reported on the Provos for more than twenty years. It is a measure of the solidity of his reputation that Sinn Fein supporters began rubbishing his book months before he delivered the final draft. According to the Irish Echo, Sinn Fein’s US representative, Rita O’Hare, declared that Moloney couldn’t possibly have anything interesting to say, since “no one in the IRA has talked to him for years.” In fact, it’s evident from the text that he has received unprecedented cooperation from members and ex-members of the IRA. This is a close-up picture of one of the most secret organizations on earth during, perhaps, the final phase of its tumultuous existence.
The shadow of Gerry Adams falls across almost every page. Moloney recounts his IRA career: joined as an 18-year-old volunteer in D Company on the Falls Road in 1966; went with the Provisionals in 1970 when the movement split under the impact of the assault on Belfast’s Catholics; commander in the West Belfast housing estate of Ballymurphy in 1971 and then member of the Belfast Brigade staff; second in command and then Belfast commander in 1972; interned in 1973; released in 1977 and joined the ruling Army Council; briefly chief of staff in 1977; Northern commander in 1979; and so on and on. Adams remains a member of the Army Council today.
Loyal Sinn Feiners denounce all this as downright lies. Adams insists that he was never in the IRA, that his time in republicanism has been spent exclusively in Sinn Fein. In his 1996 autobiography, Before the Dawn, he provides a sometimes lyrical account of his day-to-day political involvement from the 1960s to the ’90s without mention of even passing entanglement in paramilitary action. He isn’t fazed by the fact that he was flown to London by the Royal Air Force in 1972 as part of an IRA delegation meeting British officials for truce talks. That’s irrelevant, he’ll insist. He doesn’t know why both the British and the IRA chief of staff at the time, Sean MacStiofain, had it in their minds that he was an IRA delegate.