According to Moloney, the first steps were taken in 1982, when Adams began meeting, secretly, with Fr. Alec Reid, a Redemptorist priest in the Clonard Monastery near the Falls Road. Had the news of the meetings leaked out, writes Moloney, it “would have shocked many republicans. The hunger strike scars were still fresh when Reid approached Adams and the memory of the role played by the church still rankled rank-and-file republicans.”
But it was these contacts that in 1986 or 1987 led to Fr. Reid to act as a go-between for Adams and the British government. Communications took place between the Northern Ireland secretary of state, Tom King, and Adams without the knowledge of the majority of the Provisional IRA’s leadership. The Provisional Army Council, of which Adams was (and is) a member, was not consulted, according to Moloney’s account. King replied to a series of questions sent via Fr. Reid from Adams, using language which would later be employed to send a signal to the IRA that helped start the peace process: “But let me be very clear! In the second half of the 20th century no matter what has been the position in the past the British government has no political, military, strategic, or economic interest in staying in Ireland or the exercise of authority there that could transcend respect for the wishes of the majority in Northern Ireland.”
King also said in his reply that Sinn Fein could have a part in any settlement as long as the IRA called a halt to its campaign. There were other commitments made in the King document (quoted in full in the book) that would later emerge as part of the talks process in the late 1990s.
Only a handful of Adams’s closest confidants — whom Moloney calls his “think tank” — knew of this.
The contacts came about not long before the French coast guard intercepted the Eksund, carrying the last and most massive arms shipment from Libya, disrupting the Provisional IRA’s plans for a massive offensive, However, four shipments, courtesy of Muammar Qaddafi, had already gotten through, allowing the Provisionals to escalate their violence for another seven years. But, according to Moloney, the loss of the fifth shipment was due to a high-ranking informer. “The betrayal of the Eksund condemned the IRA to military stalemate with the British. . . . It was in such an atmosphere that the idea that politics might be an acceptable, even unavoidable, alternative to armed struggle took hold and was nurtured,” writes Moloney. The betrayal of the shipment boosted Adams’s behind-the-scenes efforts to get what would become known as the Irish peace process off the ground.
“The Secret History Of the IRA” gives a detailed account of how that process proceeded. He portrays Adams as a kind of republican Machiavelli, manipulating and outmaneuvering both his comrades in the Provisionals and his enemies until he finally turned the most militant offshoot of Irish republicanism into a organization that is today on the verge of disbanding, while the British are still as firmly entrenched in Northern Ireland as they were in 1972.
Nothing is seen in isolation from or unconnected to this final outcome. All the Provisionals’ setbacks and disasters are viewed in terms of how they did or did not further the burgeoning peace process. The Loughgall incident, for instance, in which eight IRA men lost their lives in an SAS ambush, is seen as having contributed to the hidden peace strategy because among those killed were some of the most militant and uncompromising members of the organization. Indeed, Moloney claims that there had been talk among them of breaking away from the Provisionals and setting up their own organization because they were unhappy with the leadership. Like the intercepted fifth shipment, there is speculation that the eight men were betrayed by an informer who “had to be higher up than Tyrone,” as one source told Moloney.
Though Moloney nowhere comes out and says it, an alert reader might infer that whoever was behind these betrayals was also behind the peace moves. Informers have always bedeviled the IRA, and the Provisionals are no exception. But an informer at this level has not been seen since the days of Stephen Hayes, who was IRA chief of staff when his comrades arrested him for questioning as a suspected tout.
History is as much about understanding the present as it is about interpreting the past. But there is always a danger in seeing the past too much in terms of the present. Moloney’s account makes it seem that the current situation was almost inevitable. His thesis is, in fact, another version of the watchmaker argument for the existence of God. The Universe is as carefully constructed as a watch, so, therefore, like a watch it must have a watchmaker. Moloney applies this logic to the peace process, which he sees as a meticulously constructed plan, which must therefore have a planner.
The more we discovered about the universe, the more we realized that there was much uncertainty in its making, and that it was not at all inevitable. I believe the same is true of the peace process. Rather than a single planner, it seems to me that it was the product of a whole series of unforeseen events. The most important among them was the fact that the Provisional IRA was defeated, thanks to the covert operational capacity of the British security forces whose successes forced the Provisionals to take the political road. Adams no doubt played a vital role in realizing how things were unfolding. But he was not alone in that. The decision to go down the road of politics was more of a collegiate effort on the part of the IRA leadership than Moloney’s account makes it seem. Adams might well have tested the water earlier than his colleagues, but he could not have jumped in had the failure of the Provisionals’ armed campaign not occurred.
As for informers, they were always a factor. Yes, they played a vital role in ending this IRA campaign, but again, a historian had best be cautious in assuming that there was something inevitable about the outcome. There was not, and no informer, however high up, could have ensured that there was.