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.

He isn’t exactly lying. A lie is intended to deceive. Adams knows that everybody knows that he was and is an IRA man. Both the reverence he is in receipt of from the republican rank and file and the hostility directed toward him from all unionist directions derive from the fact of his long IRA service. But it’s impossible to have a public conversation with him other than in tacit agreement to pretend it’s not so.

In part, of course, it’s just that Adams, like many another who has come through a guerrilla phase en route to political respectability, doesn’t want the grisly details of the operations he took part in dragged out for public inspection. The section of the book that sparked most intense republican rage when it was released in Ireland concerned Adams’s involvement in the affair of the Unknowns and the Disappeared in the early 1970s. According to Moloney, Adams, as Belfast Brigade commander, established a number of self-sustaining secret cells, the Unknowns, reporting directly to himself, to handle the problem of informers whose punishment might embarrass the movement–volunteers from committed republican families or the likes of Jean McConville. The Unknowns would kill the miscreants and dispose of the bodies in secret.

Jean McConville was a 37-year-old Protestant who had married a Catholic, coverted to Catholicism and moved into the Falls Road. In 1972 she was living in deep poverty in Divis Flats with eight of her ten children. Her husband had died the year before. In December she disappeared. No trace has ever been found. Moloney says she had been a low-level spy for British military intelligence, keeping an eye on the movements of republican neighbors. Her family maintains that her offense was merely to comfort a British soldier wounded by a sniper outside the door of her flat. Whatever. The Belfast Brigade ordered her death, but decided against dumping her body on the street. Publicity about the killing of a widowed mother of ten might have more than offset the value of deterrence. McConville was kidnapped at gunpoint from her home, her children left terrified, bewildered and alone, and taken to a beach near the County Louth border, shot in the head and buried deep in the sand. She had been Disappeared.

In the mid-1990s, as the peace process gathered momentum, McConville’s children launched a campaign to recover her body. Bill Clinton gave them public support. The IRA acknowledged for the first time that they’d killed her and promised to help locate her remains. A hugely publicized search over a number of weeks made for a bleak running story in the Irish media, but in the end yielded nothing–except that it had catapulted the issue of the Disappeared back into public consciousness just at the moment when republican leaders were trying to slough off the muck of terrorism and project themselves as pristine peacemongers. Hence the hypersensitivity now, a few years and further steps toward republican merger into the mainstream, to Moloney’s claim that Adams, even if he didn’t give the direct order to disappear McConville, “must have known all about the circumstances at the time.” Hence, more generally, the anger that he has illuminated so brightly areas of republican activity upon which little light has hitherto fallen. Moloney gives us a portrait crowded with vivid detail where previously we had a rough sketch daubed in darkness.

The detail is sometimes daunting. Like any clandestine armed organization hemmed in by high-tech surveillance and surrounded by psy-ops, the IRA has worked in a world of subterfuge, double-bluff and necessary paranoia. In a series of meticulously reconstructed accounts, Moloney suggests that virtually every major operational catastrophe–the 1987 capture by French customs officials of the steamer Eksund, which was bringing in 150 tons of arms from Libya; the entrapment and slaughter of frontline Tyrone units in the 1980s by a combination of the British Special Air Service and the loyalist Royal Ulster Constabulary; the sometimes lethal unreliability of weapons–can be put down to betrayal at a high level. Each incident, he implies, boosted the covert strategy of Adams and his close associates. Perhaps.

Moloney’s narrative makes no room for romance. There is no sense here that to die by gunshot might be the finest play under the sun. Nobody is presented lightheartedly carrying his or her cross for Ireland. The dominant tone is of anger and pity at cruelty and loss. The unsettling question the portrait poses for republicans is whether the Good Friday Agreement–which, whatever it might augur for the unpredictable future, leaves Northern Ireland constitutionally within the United Kingdom–represents an adequate return on the IRA’s investment of pain, inflicted and endured. In an interview with the Boston reporter Jim Dee some years ago, John Hume, leader of the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), mused that the crunch for republicans would come when a deal was put before them “and somebody stands up at the back and asks, ‘What did Jimmy die for, then?'” Hunger-striker Bobby Sands’s sister, Bernadette, says, “My brother didn’t die for cross-border bodies.”

What the IRA has killed and died for is the Republic. To most outsiders, including outsiders in Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement seems a major step toward this objective–a guaranteed share of power in regional government plus all-Ireland bodies with, arguably, the potential to evolve into institutions wielding executive authority across the island. This, in essence, is the Adams analysis of what was achievable, which Moloney suggests he had arrived at and resolved to settle for much earlier than anyone, including his fellow republican leaders, realized.

The agreement doesn’t represent freedom, then, but freedom to achieve freedom. Not the promised land, but a stepping stone toward it. The problem is that the IRA has differed from movements that republicans have sometimes, depending on who’s within earshot, been content to compare themselves with–the Basque ETA, the African National Congress, the Palestine Liberation Organization–in that it has seen the Republic not as an aspiration but as an actually existing entity. The ideological basis for this has to do with the proclamation of the Republic on the steps of the General Post Office in Dublin at Easter 1916 and its endorsement in the 1918 general election–the last all-Ireland poll before partition. The seventy-three Sinn Fein MPs elected then, out of 105 Irish seats, constituted the first and only legitimate parliament–the First Dail–in Ireland. The 1919-21 War of Independence was fought in defense of the Republic and to assert the legitimacy of that Dail. As successive leaderships–Michael Collins, Eamon De Valera, etc.–abandoned the rocky road of armed struggle for the primrose path of compromise politics and partition of the country, the IRA Army Council became the repository of the 1916 tradition and thereby the only legitimate political authority in the land. In this perspective, any deal that falls short of the Republic cannot be a step forward but has to be seen as an abandonment of position, a shaming retreat. The most hallowed figure in the republican pantheon, Patrick Pearse, the leader of the ’16 Rising, decreed that a man who accepts “anything less by one iota than separation from England is guilty of so immense an infidelity, so immense a crime against the Irish nation…that it would be better for that man (as it were certainly better for his country) that he had not been born.”

This idea of the IRA leadership as the only source of political legitimacy may seem fanciful, mystical, ridiculous. But it has been this conception of its role and historical significance that has sustained the IRA through lean years when it could find little sustenance in the day-to-day world around it. Just as important, it’s this view of the Republic that has provided moral sanction for armed struggle. To end the armed struggle now definitively, to contemplate disbandment of the IRA, as Tony Blair, special US envoy Richard Haass and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern are currently urging on Adams, would be retrospectively to withdraw sanction from those who carried on the struggle at times of fierce condemnation from all except themselves alone. Only the shining reality of the Republic can reflect light on the armed struggle in such a way as to invest it with due grandeur, render even the killing of Jean McConville tolerable, just.

If the struggle has been merely for power-sharing and cross-border bodies, conditions that were on offer at least since 1973–when the SDLP, the Ulster Unionists and the British and Irish governments negotiated the Sunningdale Agreement, based on power-sharing and a cross-border Council of Ireland–then the bloodletting and vicious intrigue described by Moloney has been pointless, sordid and unsupportable. This is how the small bands of republican irreconcilables in the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA see things. Why, then–and here we get to the heart of the matter–has Adams settled for just such a deal, and yet retained huge popularity among the republican rank and file, especially in the cockpit (working-class Catholic) communities of Belfast?

Moloney rightly identifies Adams’s 1983 election to Westminster from West Belfast as one of the most significant plot points in his narrative. He might with advantage have directly quoted the new MP’s exultant first words to cheering crowds on the Falls Road: “Even De Valera couldn’t win the Falls.” De Valera had been hammered in West Belfast in the seminal election of 1918. It was one of only two seats in all of Ireland where constitutional nationalism defeated Sinn Fein. This fact, of which Adams was obviously acutely aware, might usefully be kept in mind by commentators who lazily identify the Falls, or the Bogside in Derry, as “traditional republican” areas. They are not. What gave Adams’s election its sharp significance was that he was the first republican ever elected in the area. What he meant was, even De Valera couldn’t win the Falls for the republican movement.

The Catholic working-class anger that gave rise to the emergence of the Provos as a major player in the early 1970s did not represent a new flowering of republican ideas, an old, authentic, long-repressed tradition suddenly gushing forth again through the cracks caused by the seismic impact of the 1960s civil rights movement. It’s truer to say, as Moloney does, that the tiny republican movement of the time, embodied in Belfast in a few families, like the Adamses, the Hannaways, the Prices and the MacAirts, provided an organizational framework, a channel for expression and a readiness to fight that matched the sudden mood of the Catholic masses and offered a ready-made ideology to lend their struggle seeming resonance at a time when their communities were under siege by Protestant loyalist mobs, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British Army.

One of the most revered rural leaders of the IRA in the 1980s observed a few years ago that “those fellows from Belfast were never really republicans. They were only fighting for their streets.” Fighting for your street, of course, is not necessarily an ignoble thing to do. In certain circumstances–Belfast 1969–it can be no more than neighborly duty. But the impulse to defend one’s locality doesn’t automatically harden into a clear set of ideas. What had pitched whole Catholic working-class communities outside the constitutional arena was not mass conversion to an -ism or a particular conception of history but immediate, material considerations. Most who joined or came to support the IRA did so not out of a sacred duty to “free Ireland” or in pursuit of a historic mission to vindicate the Republic but because they wanted the bigot’s boot off their necks and the British Army off their backs. If these grievances could be remedied short of the achievement of the Republic, then there was the basis of a settlement within existing constitutional structures.

Moloney’s central thesis is that Adams and a small group around him were on to this sooner than anybody has previously suggested and have long been working to a nonrepublican agenda. His most controversial claim is that Adams, behind the back of the Army Council and with IRA volunteers kept in the dark, opened lines of communication with the British as early as 1986 with a view to eventual negotiation of an “internal” settlement. What is certainly true is that Adams and his close confidants embarked on a project to hollow out the ideology that the movement they inherited had been built around. It was no longer to be republican at its core in any sense in which Pearse would have understood the word. Instead, it was to become, or to accept that it already was, a militant nationalist mass movement, reflecting not what some may have believed Belfast Catholics ought to think but what they actually, “naturally,” thought. Moloney accurately identifies the difference as that between the United Irishmen of the 1790s, inspired by the American and French revolutions and out to overthrow the existing order, and the Defenders, a peasant militia established to protect Catholic land rights.

Put more positively, it might be said that Adams, contrary to the conventional account of him leading a people half addicted to violence toward peace, has merely contrived a realignment of republican ideology so as to bring it more closely into kilter with the people in whose name it was purporting to act, offering no challenge to their consciousness. The reason the Adams leadership has been able to retain the support of the republican base while ditching core republican ideas is, on this analysis, that the base was never republican in the first place, that they were only fighting for their streets. This is an unwelcome conclusion to those who have held hard to the legacy of Pearse, and who rage against Adams as the latest in a litany of shame stretching back to Michael Collins and partition. But it’s the obvious conclusion to emerge from Moloney’s magisterial work, though he doesn’t himself draw it out as explicitly as this.

The unsentimental pragmatism underlying Adams’s approach is to be seen, too, in the fact that when he veered off the path of armed struggle he veered to the right and not to the left. Having ditched the ideas that underpinned armed struggle, discarding any notion of wanting to turn the world, or even the constitutional status quo, upside down, Adams and the group around him set out to recruit the most powerful allies potentially available–the Catholic hierarchy, the Dublin government, corporate Irish-America, the White House. This has meant resiling from positions that might alienate persuadable interests. Thus, although still generally presenting itself as an anti-imperialist party, Sinn Fein has been careful in recent times not to mobilize against the planned oil war on Iraq. The party’s campaign for the release of three men recently arrested leaving FARC-held territory in Colombia has been built on a soft-liberal basis, concentrating on the unlikelihood of the three receiving a fair trial, eschewing any defense of association with the left-wing guerrilla organization.

Most telling of all, the interparty fractiousness that led to the collapse in early October of the institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement concealed a remarkable convergence around center-right economics. In their time in office, all the executive parties–Sinn Fein, the SDLP, Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists and David Trimble’s Ulster Unionists–committed themselves to maintaining, if not increasing, direct grants to multinationals and to a reduction in corporate and other taxes on business so as to make Northern Ireland more alluring to outside investment. All advocate fiscal rectitude. All have enthusiastically pursued policies of privatization, flogging off public services to fat-cat entrepreneurs. The general aim has been to refashion still-partitioned Northern Ireland as a viable fragment of the global market by insuring that it is competitively attractive in capitalist terms. It hardly justifies 3,500 dead. It’s hardly worth Jean McConville.

Small wonder that Bush’s point man, Richard Haass, has no ideological complaint against Sinn Fein. He just wishes it would move more speedily toward completion of what he calls its “necessary transition.” As a matter of fact, it’s almost there. Ed Moloney’s book is the best and necessary account of the long trek across dangerous terrain that brought Sinn Fein to this point, and of the role of Gerry Adams, the political genius who, with guile and daring, has led the way.