For a group with an alarming tendency to kill people by accident, the IRA had an elaborate internal mechanism for determining whether to kill people on purpose.
Say Nothing (2018) is a deeply-reported, arresting book about some of the people the IRA killed ‘on purpose’. It’s also about much more than that. Several of those disappeared by the IRA were found after an oral history of The Troubles compiled by Boston College in Massachusetts came to light. Former partisans who’d given interviews for the project had understood that the descriptions they gave of their grisly careers would remain sealed until death. They didn’t.
The author, as his name suggests, belongs to the Irish-American community and that may explain why, as an outsider, he was able to surmount the access problem of reporting in Northern Ireland. That said, Radden Keefe says he never identified particularly strongly with his Irish heritage nor was even that interested in the conflict until he read an obituary of Dolours Price, whose face graces the book’s cover, in 2013. His account is admirably even-handed.
Dolours Price was one of several terrorists arrested in the immediate aftermath of the 1973 London bombings, which targeted the Old Bailey and other locations. Her sister Marian was also involved and, unlike Dolours, remained committed to violence into old age. In addition to audacious attacks on the British mainland, through the 1970s the sisters belonged to a secretive internal IRA unit that identified and eliminated informers. Among their duties were driving suspected informers across the border to meet their executioners.
One revelation in the book concerns the role of Marian, who is still alive, in the murder of one suspected informer who almost certainly was misidentified as such, mother-of-10 Jean McConville. Dolours had admitted her role as an accessory but always refused to reveal the killer. Gerry Adams is also fingered in the Boston College tapes by Brendan Hughes, a former close associate, as ordering the killing. As a peace figure years later, as the issue of the disappearances became salient, Adams irked former colleagues by publicly sympathising with the family.
To Brendan Hughes, it was appalling that Adams would go to Jean McConville’s children and pledge to get to the bottom of what had happened to their mother, as though it were some great mystery to him. “He went to this family’s house and promised an investigation into the woman’s disappearance,” Hughes [said in the tape]. “The man that gave the fucking order for that woman to be executed!”
Above all, the strength of Say Nothing lies in it doing far more than investigating murder mysteries. It is a sensitive re-examination of the period told with an insider’s knowledge and an outsider’s dispassionate perspective. It shows just how committed both sides were to their version of the province’s future. The British state operated an immense counter-intelligence operation that would be impressive were it not directed at its own citizens. They kept a close tab on Loyalist as well as Republican paramilitaries, in part to stop the Loyalists killing valuable Republican informers. Above all the people of Northern Ireland, Protestant and Catholic, endured crippling hardship and were forced to become partisans against one another. It’s for their sake that the ‘peace process’ continues, even at the expense of the worst crimes of The Troubles going unpunished.