Afterlife of the Troubles

We’re on winter break until January 6. In the meantime, please enjoy our contributor’s take on one of 2019’s most acclaimed books. This article was originally published on April 3, 2019.
In December 1972, 38-year-old Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10, was abducted by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), never to be seen alive by her children again. Her remains weren’t ...

In December 1972, 38-year-old Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10, was abducted by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), never to be seen alive by her children again. Her remains weren’t recovered until 2003, when, along Shelling Hill Beach in County Louth, a man and his two children stumbled across her bones. This was just four years after the IRA officially acknowledged that she was one of more than a dozen people “disappeared” by the organization between 1972 and 1985, casualties of the decades-long war in Northern Ireland.

Although the 1998 Good Friday Agreement brought political stability to the 30-year conflict, the subsequent recovery of disappeared bodies like McConville’s—as movingly told in Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing—demonstrated the deep fault lines and unhealed wounds that remained in postpeace Northern Ireland. The title of Say Nothing is derived from an old Irish saying and the subject of a Seamus Heaney poem alluding to a culture of silence: “And whatever you say, say nothing.” As a work of investigative journalism, Say Nothing is an admirable corrective to this dictum. The book examines the traumas, betrayals, and failures of these violent decades—and of the participants—and asks: “Who should be held accountable for a shared history of violence?”

What came to be called the Irish “Troubles” began roughly in 1968, part of the general fervor of civil rights movements around the world. That year, in Northern Ireland, nationalist demonstrators staged a march to protest systemic discrimination in areas like housing and employment by the city of Derry’s mostly Protestant Unionist authorities (that is, those allied with the cause of Great Britain, rather than Irish independence). The march was violently broken up by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police force of Northern Ireland at the time, sparking collective outrage. The following year the IRA spawned the Provisional IRA, a more militant wing of the movement whose violent tactics—such as “disappearing” traitors and informants—aimed for nothing short of a united and independent Ireland.

The Troubles were formally ended with the Good Friday Agreement, but not everyone was ready to celebrate. How then could republican militarists like Dolours Price, the daughter of a staunch republican family and cause célèbre of the movement during the 1970s, and onetime Belfast IRA commander Brendan Hughes reconcile the acts of violence they committed—to others and to their own bodies as hunger strikers—with a political compromise from which they felt excluded? The story of militants disaffected by the peace—like Dolours Price and her sister Marian—ends up being terribly significant to McConville’s abduction, and to Keefe’s story.

Keefe not only investigates who perpetrated the murder and disappearance of McConville but also examines the extant guilt of IRA members disappointed by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Along the way, he sketches an invaluable history beginning with the radicalization of a cadre of republican youth in the late 1960s, which led to a war that left some 3,500 people dead.

“Say Nothing” examines the traumas, betrayals, and failures of these violent decades and asks: “Who should be held accountable for a shared history of violence?”

Say Nothing, the third book by Keefe, a staff writer at The New Yorker, ambitiously attempts to reconstruct the McConville case and examine its connection to the paramilitary exploits and political activism of key republican figures. As a work of investigative journalism—and on the basis of its conclusions against the alleged perpetrators in the McConville case—the book is a success, a taut yet historically expansive account that distills the political tensions at the heart of the strife and the tactics used by republican insurgents.

The book opens with McConville’s kidnapping at Divis Flats, the now mostly demolished apartment complex in West Belfast that was a significant locale in Troubles-era Belfast. “It was in Divis Flats,” explains Keefe, “that the first child to die in the Troubles lost his life.” Not unlike that first innocent casualty, McConville’s disappearance, which left her family in a state of limbo, was seemingly a case of incommensurate violence, a familiar feature of Belfast during the Troubles, where a segregated cityscape served as the locus for a war whose zero-sum politics could have fatal consequences for civilians.

Born into a Protestant family, McConville had married the Catholic son of a woman for whom she had worked as a servant. In 1970, Arthur and Jean McConville, along with their 10 children, moved into a four-bedroom maisonnette in the recently constructed flats. On one end of the Divis complex was a 20-story building—then the tallest nonecclesiastic building in Belfast—of which the “British Army took over the top two [stories] for use as an observation post.” After the death of her husband, McConville, depressed and lonely, caused a minor scandal in the neighborhood by aiding a wounded British soldier who had been shot in the street. This was a serious transgression in Catholic West Belfast, especially for McConville, an outsider who’d been forced out of their previous Protestant neighborhood for having married a Catholic and converted.

One evening in early December 1972, just after she had gotten out of the bath, eight or so masked figures stormed into the home and took McConville in front of her children. The IRA later alleged that she had been working as an informant for the British; in 2006, the police ombudsman for Northern Ireland released a report stating that it found no records confirming McConville had passed information to the British.

Whether or not McConville worked as an informer—a point on which Say Nothing remains mostly agnostic—Keefe emphatically makes clear the tragedy of her case. In January 1973, a BBC television crew arrived at the Divis Flats apartment to find all 10 children still living unsupervised and running out of food. In youth and adulthood, several of them struggled through social services, drug addiction, and serial unemployment—to say nothing of the trauma they endured.

McConville, as Keefe points out, was something of a perfect victim: widowed mother, accepted by neither Catholics nor Protestants, situated perilously amid the bifurcated politics of Northern Ireland.

Expanded from a New Yorker article published in 2015, Say Nothing is finely detailed, quickly plotted, and vast in scope. In excavating what historian Richard English has called the “hidden horrors” in IRA history, Keefe offers a valuable attempt to account for this “shared history of violence.” At times, Keefe’s adamant commitment to the constraints of a certain genre of human interest journalism seems compromised by occasional inconsistencies: for example, taking seriously the misgivings of disaffected republicans like Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price while keeping politics at arm’s length. The limitations of Say Nothing—partly a product of the culture of silence its title alludes to—demonstrate the difficulty in addressing this history, indicating the obligation of collective responsibility when confronting collective violence.

For Say Nothing, the McConville case is a stepping-stone to consider the violent realities of paramilitary life in Belfast over the course of the Troubles. Prominently featured are Dolours and Marian Price, hardline republican sisters who achieved a kind of celebrity status and were among the crew behind the 1973 Old Bailey Bombing in London, which left one dead and around 200 injured. One of the most riveting sections in the book describes in detail the orchestration of this car bombing. The night before the attack, the Prices and their companions saw Brian Friel’s The Freedom of the City—a play about three civilians killed by security forces in Derry in 1970—in London, starring Stephen Rea, Dolours’s future husband. From 1973 to 1974, the Price sisters went on hunger strike in prison and were force-fed. Two weeks before Bobby Sands died from a 66-day hunger strike in protest of conditions at the now demolished Her Majesty’s Prison Maze, Margaret Thatcher had Dolours Price released from prison on “medical grounds.”

One of their compatriots was Brendan Hughes, also known as “Darkie,” Commanding Officer of the Belfast Brigade, a legendary soldier and leader of the 1980 hunger strike. Longtime socialist and friend to Gerry Adams, with whom he spent time in jail in 1971, Hughes became highly critical of Sinn Féin, then understood to be the political wing of the IRA, and felt exploited by the republican leadership—in particular his former friend Adams.

While Say Nothing correctly alludes to some of the contradictions of Sinn Féin—especially the way that republicanism skewed heavily toward nationalism and further away from some of the movement’s founding principles of socialism and democracy—it saves its most moralistic judgments for Gerry Adams, who stepped down as president in 2017. Keefe sketches an unflattering, occasionally damning portrait of Adams, who, he writes, “may have possessed a sociopathic instinct for self-preservation.”

For “Say Nothing,” the McConville case is a stepping-stone to consider the violent realities of paramilitary life in Belfast over the course of the Troubles.

Say Nothing provides valuable insight into the way Adams’s electoralism—that is, Sinn Féin’s drift under his leadership toward mainstream electoral politics and the eventual Good Friday Agreement—alienated Hughes and other adherents of Irish republicanism. Keefe is highly attuned to and critical of Adams’s political calculus and perhaps even over-reliant on his sources in this aspect, at least compared with Say Nothing’s general agnosticism about the 1998 agreement. Before his death in 2008, Hughes spoke on the record about his life and times in the IRA as part of the Boston College Belfast Project, a program begun in 2001 to document the oral histories of the Troubles.

The Belfast Project, led by Irish journalist Ed Moloney—whom Keefe frequently consulted in researching Say Nothing—comprises a trove of interviews conducted with loyalist and republican paramilitary figures. The interviews were meant to provide a nonsanitized account of the Troubles, but were to be made available only after the deaths of the individual interviewees. After word got out about their existence, Boston College received a subpoena in 2011 from the US Department of Justice (acting in assistance with Britain) to hand over the interviews of Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price. In 2014, Gerry Adams was arrested in connection with the inquiry into the McConville case. Hughes had claimed that Adams ordered the disappearance and murder of McConville. (Adams was subsequently released after questioning.)

In a note on his sources, Keefe writes, “But in the spirit of the book’s title, there were so many people who refused to speak with me, or who started to and then had a change of heart”—including Adams and Marian Price. Still, the diverging trajectories of the Price sisters, Hughes, and Adams through the vagaries of the Troubles and the consequential institutionalization of republican politics under the Stormont government underscore central questions about political transformation, praxis, the efficacy of violence, and electoralism at the heart of the republican struggle and the political compromises of the 1998 agreement.

Keefe, who was inspired to first research the subject after reading Dolours Price’s obituary in 2013, accomplishes the formidable task of re-creating the political complexities of the Troubles through close narratives of figures like Hughes, the Price sisters, and Adams. The third and final section of the book details the lengthy entanglement of the controversial Belfast Project, providing an intimate look at the difficulties of adjudicating memory in the aftermath of violence.


Ireland’s Uneasy Monuments

By Mo Moulton

Keefe takes seriously that question of adjudication, and in the book’s final pages he makes the allegation that Marian Price, the surviving sister, was the third member of the three-person squad that shot and killed Jean McConville, a development reported on by the Irish Times last November. Keefe’s accusation was based on limited access to the Belfast Project interviews, and on a source who had said that Dolours Price (who previously only admitted to driving McConville) had revealed that she and her sister had committed the murder together, along with Pat McClure, who died in the United States in the 1980s.

Despite the legal proceedings surrounding the Belfast Project tapes, some bodies of the disappeared have never been found, including the remains of Joe Lynskey, a former monk and IRA member punished for having attempted to kill the husband of the woman he was having an affair with. In spring 2018, the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains (ICVLR) spent several weeks digging for Lynskey’s remains in Oristown, County Meath, but was ultimately unsuccessful.

Will the remaining bodies ever be recovered? When will the full account provided by the Belfast Tapes be made known? Such questions inevitably persist, though by the book’s end, the inculpatory evidence presented in its final pages offers only a modest redress to what Seamus Heaney termed that “famous Northern reticence,” a testament at once to Say Nothing’s investigative accomplishments and its historical limitations. icon

Featured image: The Troubles, Belfast, Northern Ireland (1970). Photograph by Kaspar C / Flickr