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Hard Look at the Hard Men: Northern journalist Ed Maloney’s long-awaited book

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

“That’s it,” said Ed Moloney, firmly and unambiguously. He was referring to the completion of his massive history of the IRA — which he calls its “secret history” — as marking the end of his coverage of the Northern Ireland conflict. It was, he told me, a defining moment. This is the story he has been wanting to tell, and now that he has told it, Northern Ireland holds no further interest for him.

“I don’t want to be writing about Celtic-Rangers politics,” he commented dryly.

The book, entitled “The IRA — A Secret History,” is not due out until next October, but already it has begun to stir things up. There are rumors that detractors are already being lined up by certain political elements to pan it. However, the book-chain Eason’s has reportedly ordered some 20,000 copies. The Book of the Month Club plans to feature it, as does the History Book Club. Moloney intends his tome to be the definitive history of the Provisional IRA. He says that it is some 220,000 words long, and has 19 chapters, charting the rise of the Provisionals from 1969 to their entry into the Northern Ireland government 30 years later. It has a huge index and chronology.

“I mean it to be a reference book for a long time to come,” Moloney said over lunch in Manhattan last week. “I wrote it with a view that it should have a long shelf life.” He said that while it covers the same or similar ground to previous histories, it has “a lot of new stories.” When asked what they were, he smiled.

“I’m not allowed to say,” he replied.

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Moloney, born in 1948, is of one of a handful of journalists who have been covering the Troubles for more than a quarter of a century. After teaching in Libya until 1974, where he says he got to know the Provisionals’ representative there, he began his career as a reporter writing for the Dublin monthly Magill. In 1979, he started working for Hibernia. A year later, he joined the Irish Times as its security correspondent. He went to Belfast during the hunger strikes and became Northern editor. He joined The Sunday Tribune in 1985. His has written only one other book — “Paisley,” with Andy Pollack, which came out in 1986.

Moloney said he got the idea of writing the history in 1997, at about the time of the Provisionals’ renewal of the cease-fire they had ended in February 1996.

Though there have been numerous books about the conflict (one could easily fill a library with them), there have actually been relatively few devoted to the IRA and only one dealing with the Provisionals. Bowyer Bell’s “The Secret Army,” first published in 1970, and Tim Pat Coogan’s “The IRA,” published the same year, both begin with the origins of militant republicanism in the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Coogan has merely stuck on extra chapters to update the original book as it has been reissued through the years. The only book to deal specifically with the Provisionals is “The Provisional IRA,” written by Eamonn Mallie and Patrick Bishop. It appeared in 1987, published by Heinemann in London. It never found a publisher in the United States. Mainstream U.S. publishers have tended to shy away from books about the Troubles, as experience has shown that there is a small market for them, notwithstanding the millions of Irish Americans in the country.

The first part of Moloney’s book deals with the foundation of the Provisionals in December 1969 to the point when he says that Gerry Adams takes over, in 1977. The bulk of the rest of the history is concerned with how the Provisionals changed tactics and became involved in the peace process.

“The Provos are different from any other republican organization,” said Moloney, “including the old IRA. They’re in the Defender tradition — full of people who joined just to defend their own streets, especially in Belfast.” He added emphatically that “if they came from the Wolf Tone tradition, they’d have had problems ditching the ideological high ground. But they didn’t. They got stuck on guns — decommissioning — since guns were their raison d’Otre, as defenders of Catholics.”

Moloney is echoing previous assessments made not only of the Provisionals but of the IRA in Belfast in general, going back to the 1930s. Peadar O’Donnell, a former IRA man who helped form the left-wing Republican Congress, said in 1934: “We haven’t a battalion of IRA men in Belfast; we just have a battalion of armed Catholics.” This view was picked up and repeated by the Goulding wing of the IRA before the split in 1969. Maloney believes that this Defender tradition was at heart apolitical, and allowed the Provisionals to perform ideological somersaults later in its history.

His secret history, however, notes the regional differences within the Provisionals as they were formed.

“Derry was Official IRA for a long time,” he said. “Martin McGuinness was the brigade adjutant of an army that could fit inside a phone box. Tyrone sat on the fence for a long time. Adams himself sat on the fence and didn’t join [the Provisionals] until he saw which way things were going in Belfast.” According to Maloney, a lot of the decisions on which wing — Provisional or Official — to join depended as much on family links as on ideological arguments. He points out that old timers such as Joe Cahill were friends with Gerry Adams’s father, who joined the Provisionals; the Adamses were also linked by marriage to the Hannaways, another of the founding families of the Provisionals.

“Adams really had no choice,” concludes Maloney, about his decision to join the Provisionals, “though temperamentally he was always an Official.”

Moloney says that his “Secret History” is “as much about Adams as it is about the IRA.” It retells the story of his rise through the ranks of the organization from the time “he was brought on by Cahill.” He was first a member of “A” company, 2nd battalion, based in Ballymurphy, then a member of the staff of the 2nd battalion. He became O/C of the Belfast Brigade, then head of Northern Command in 1979 and a member of the Provisionals ruling body, the Provisional Army Council.

“It’s very much about the influence of Gerry Adams,” Maloney said. It deals with some “of the issues of his life and career in the IRA that people would like to have resolved.” Did that mean his role in acts of violence? Maloney would not answer directly and declined to go into details. But the indications are that the history will tie Adams to specific events in the 1971-73 period when he played such a leading role in the Belfast Provisionals and the violence was at its height. As Maloney sees him, Adams is “a figure who exceeds his colleagues in the movement in stature, tactical skills and ruthlessness. He overshadows De Valera and Collins.”

Moloney claims in his history that Adams has “untrammeled control over the IRA and Sinn Fein” but that for tactical reasons he “plays on the belief that he has hard men at his back ready to shoot him — that’s nonsense, but he uses it.”

As Moloney sees it, thanks to Adams “a great historic compromise has been reached — greater than partition. They’ve brought an end to the Anglo-Irish conflict.”

Maloney said that the history explains how this remarkable transformation came about — that is, how an organization dedicated to the destruction of Northern Ireland became part of its government.

“I found all explanations of how the peace process came about intellectually unsatisfying.” He said. But he refused to divulge what his explanation is.

“I’m not allowed to talk about it, except to say that it is challenging, interesting and controversial.”

About a month ago, Rita O’Hare, the Sinn Fein spokeswoman in the U.S., said that she didn’t think Maloney would have anything interesting to say because, according to her, no one in the IRA has talked to him in years. When asked to comment, Maloney replied: “People can judge when they read the book.”

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