In the late summer of 1993, I had dinner with Jack Healey, the Executive Director of Amnesty International at the time and a great friend of mine. I told him I wanted to get a reporter inside the IRA — the Irish Republican Army terrorist group that had been violently and often murderously opposing British rule in Northern Ireland for decades. I knew that Jack, who was Irish, wasn’t fond of the British himself, and so I thought he might have connections. He never acknowledged that, but did know people who knew people…
Thus started one of the greatest odysseys in the magazine’s history, ending up with one of our greatest ever stories.
It took a year of covert meetings between me and a very low level member of the organization before the IRA trusted us enough to allow our reporter, the very brilliant and absolutely fearless writer Rory Nugent, to come to Northern Ireland to meet with them, having vetted him thoroughly. After they did meet him, in secret, they told him to go home again and that they would be calling. Some time passed and one day Rory called me to say he’d be going away on vacation, to Ireland, our code for their having called him to say he could come to live with the IRA for several weeks and do his story.
Rory and I had pre-arranged that I would go too, so on a cold, mid-January afternoon, I drove from Dublin to Cookstown, Northern Ireland, not far from Belfast, and there in a nondescript motel room, a mid-level IRA officer laid out the rules and conditions by which they would allow Rory in. Basically it came down to once he was in, he was one of them in the eyes of the British police and military, and had to understand what that meant. It would mean a very serious s—t storm for him if the British picked him up, of course, but an even more serious consequence as far as the IRA were concerned. The man we were meeting with said bluntly: “Mr. Nugent, if you are picked up by the British, you will not make it to the Police station.” In other words they would kill him first, as he would know who they were and could identify them.
I re-iterated that we were not going to publish a piece in support of them, or in any way add to their mythologizing (they were masters at creating a romantic aura around themselves), that we only promised to listen to their side, their grievances, and portray them as real people, whether we agreed with them or not, and I for one, having grown up in England, did not. But no-one had ever been that far inside them before, or with so much access reported from their side of the fence. I guaranteed that we would be honest, and quote them faithfully, and that we brought no other agenda to the piece.
Rory’s article is a brilliant job of reporting on the conflict, the nuances of anger, and the sometimes tortured, sometimes distorted humanity of the people involved. He also correctly foretold the imminent ceasefire, which no one at the time, myself included, believed was possible. Six months later, the IRA ceased hostilities and negotiated an end of the conflict in return for a purely political seat at the table.
After our article came out, there was a heated debate in British Parliament, with the opposition challenging the Prime Minister as to why it was that after tens of years, and tens of billions of pounds spent, the government had failed to penetrate or even find the IRA’s highest ranks, and (in their words) “An American rock magazine has seemed to be able to do so rather easily.”
— Bob Guccione Jr., founder of SPIN, August 21, 2015
[This story was originally published in the August 1994 issue of SPIN. In honor of SPIN’s 30th anniversary, we’ve republished this piece as part of our ongoing “30 Years, 30 Stories” series.]
British army trucks box the compass as troops search a housing project for weapons belonging to the Irish Republican Army. Soldiers sight rifles on anything that moves. Dogs and humans, birds, and chimney smoke are all targeted in West Belfast.
People walking back from early mass spot the commotion in their neighborhood and turn around. They’ve seen it all before, and know the drill. They dread the indignity of each false arrest, broken lock, shattered vase, especially if their address is on the hit list. So they wander off to postpone the pain. I stay and watch. A detail of cops and soldiers watches me. Surveillance equipment aboard three helicopters watches us all and, like a sky god, hears everything.
Four apartments are turned upside down before sniffer dogs get treats and rubdowns for locating an IRA grenade launcher and six rounds under the floorboards. As the troops parade, carrying the confiscated gear for all to see, a cop leans into me and says, “This is a good find and a good day.”
“It’s just another day, asshole, just another day,” a local man on my right snarls. He dips behind a building as a helicopter spurts ahead for a better angle. The skyborne cameras can read the ingredients on a bag of chips almost half a mile away; the microphones can isolate a single voice from thousands cheering a soccer match. No doubt, the man has just merited a few entries in his electronic file. While I never see him again, and sometimes wonder if he’s in jail or simply staying inside, out of the miserable weather, the police most likely know his every routine.
British intelligence agencies, MI5 and MI6, have turned Northern Ireland into a giant data pool they can troll for information. The network operates under various code names, such as Vengeful and Crucible, reconfiguring Orwell’s nightmare into everyday reality. Cameras and listening devices hang off buildings, radio masts, telephone poles, trees, toilet stalls; they hide behind mirrors, ceiling panels, screens, and vents. These electronic eyes and ears are plugged into supercomputers that analyze the minutiae of life to construct models of expected behavior. Any deviation prompts the authorities to decide what, if anything, should be done.
Similarly, the telephone grid is scanned at a rate exceeding one million calls per minute for conversation suspected of being useful to the IRA. The moment a trigger word or phrase is uttered, the line is tapped and a detective put on the case. My Belfast friends keep correcting my perception of this snooping. They assure me it’s no big deal; they’ve learned not only how to adapt, but how to turn the system against itself. One phone call can send hundreds of troops on a wild goose chase, leaving an area unprotected for an IRA attack.
Later in the week, in the neighborhood where the IRA weapons were found, Jimmy invites me to tea. He’s a widower in his 70s, living in the same two-bedroom house where he helped raise eight kids. Above the threadbare sofa, a framed photograph catches my eye and he introduces me to it: “Belfast 1931. Depression days.”
In the foreground, with their backs to the camera, dozens of cops and soldiers aim rifles at a bunch of youths digging up and throwing cobblestones. Off to the sides, in the shadows of dreary factory housing, mothers balance babies in one arm as they extend the other to point accusingly at the uniforms. In the distance, the spires of God and commerce, steeples and smokestacks, pierce a sky blurred by rocks in midflight.
Jimmy nods as I locate the scene: Beechmount Avenue, a tough Catholic neighborhood not far from the recent search. A few days after the shakedown, the IRA rocket-bombed two armored police trucks cruising the district. One bomb was a dud and bounced harmlessly off the door; the other rocket was lethal, exploding inside the cab, slicing off legs and opening the roof like a can of sardines.
Jimmy instructs me to study the photograph. There will be no tea until I can identify what time and war have changed. Not much is different after 60 years, and it takes a while before I note that the smokestacks are gone — they probably tumbled in the 1970s, when the bottom fell out of the local textile industry. And where a bakery once stood, there’s an empty lot heaped with trash.
“Way off, stranger.” Jimmy leads me into the picture. “The boys today wear shoes and long pants. They throw grenades, not stones… And look at the guns, nobody carries Enfields anymore. Both sides use automatics — Armalites, AKs, Uzis…”
He points out a cousin in the photo; Jimmy was a couple of blocks away at the time, also throwing rocks at cops. All his childhood pals enlisted in the IRA, Jimmy says; it was part of growing up in impoverished Beechmount. And tomorrow, if he found Aladdin’s lamp and the genie granted his wish to be young again, he would reenlist. Catholics are still treated like second-class citizens, he says, and are up against the same institutionalized discrimination that confronted them in 1921. “Try to get a job,” he challenges.
There would be slim chance of that happening for any Catholic. Beechmount’s unemployment rate is nearly 70 percent. People live on the dole, making do with an average of $56 a week, not easy in a city where cigarettes cost $4 a pack and food is dearer than in New York or London. A 1993 government survey of the one-and-a-half-million people in Northern Ireland found ten percent of the Protestant workforce idle, while 24 percent of Catholic males were jobless. That differential has remained steady through boom and bust years dating back to another century. Although there’s an emerging Catholic middle class, mostly doctors and lawyers who benefited from the forced desegregation of the university system in the 1960s, a Catholic teenager is still more likely to go to jail than enter college.
Jimmy goes to the kitchen and steeps the tea, unleashing a crisp, welcome aroma. Freshness is rare in Northern Ireland, which incubates staleness and makes grief a cottage industry. It’s as if the past, like explorer Trader Horn once said, has not yet stopped breathing. The Protestant community hasn’t retreated from a siege mentality developed in the 19th century, making them fearful of experimentation and wary of yielding an inch. Among the Catholics, there’s a sense of frustration that comes with unfinished business, a feeling that nothing new can really happen until Ireland is one.
This leaves the culture stalled, with little to celebrate but conflict. Progress has been held hostage by generations of gunmen, some in masks and others in helmets, trapped in a civil war that supposedly ended in 1921. That’s when the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed and divided the island into two parts: a 26-county southern republic, and a northern six-county, 5,459-square-mile outpost of the British Empire. From the look of things today, that document merely turned an inferno into a smoldering fire.
My attention returns to Jimmy as he exits the kitchen, strides by me, opens the door, and shouts “f—k off” at a pimply soldier in full battle dress. “Get out of my yard!”
Through the window, I watch the boy-soldier leap over the knee-high wall enclosing a small patch of weeds and broken glass. “Sorry, sir,” he says in a Liverpool accent. Jimmy swears again and groans at the sight of an army patrol and two cops walking down the street. He closes the door and suddenly wishes for a dog trained to bite Brits. “A Mastiff or Rottweiler would be nice.”
At last, a dinner companion extends an invitation from “someone high up. He wants to meet you… It’s a surprise party, so don’t tell a soul.”
Jimmy stares out the window and runs on about the Crown troops, which have been a presence here for ages. They arrived after the only English-born pope, Adrian IV, issued a papal bull in 1155 decreeing Henry II King of Ireland. At present, there are nearly 20,000 soldiers stationed in the north, and a large number roam Beechmount day and night. Jimmy likens them to ants searching for honey pots filled with IRA weaponry; he reserves scatological analogies for the 8,000-strong Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). Unlike British bobbies, the typical RUC officer is armed to the teeth. Even so, they rarely venture outside their armored cars without a military escort. Being locally recruited, the cops are favorite targets of both the IRA and the loyalist paramilitary groups, most notably the Ulster Defense Association (UDA), The IRA considers them traitors to the land, while the UDA considers them traitors to their Protestant heritage for obstructing loyalist guerrillas.
Jimmy notes my disinterest in his ranting and changes the subject to the Downing Street Declaration, the latest London peace initiative. “I wouldn’t wipe my ass with that piece of paper,” he says. More than 3,100 people have died in the past 25 years of fighting, a nasty era dubbed “The Troubles,” and Jimmy thinks a lot more will die before a workable solution arrives.
Like many hard-core nationalists, he’s comfortable sighting the future through crosshairs, at ease with a credo emphasizing the power of the bullet over that of the ballot. And when he looks backward, he refers to a sanitized history of the struggle, full of grand events and epic campaigns, with no mention of blunders, turncoats, and murderers. However, he is willing to toe the line set by Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA. “The worst thing possible would be a split in the movement,” he says.
Recently, Sinn Fein has been actively promoting a negotiated peace. The party says it’s confused by the wording of the Downing Street Declaration and seeks answers to 20 questions raised by the protean language. London’s reply in mid-May has cleared some of the fog, but specifics and timetables are still lacking. What is certain is Sinn Fein’s commitment to ending violence as the manifestation of politics. Gerry Adams, the party president and allegedly a former IRA volunteer, is confident the IRA will put down its guns once there is a proper setting at the peace table.
I’ve come to Northern Ireland to find out what the IRA has to say for itself, and I’m interested in knowing its take on the future. Can volunteers cope with peace and share the prosaic life most of us know so well that we spend endless hours romancing escape? After all, IRA volunteers not only wrote the book on guerrilla warfare, they have been updating it yearly. They embody the image of a disciplined, sophisticated terrorist force, and for that, they occupy a piece of the collective imagination. But are they strong enough, both as a group and as individuals, to deconstruct their own myth and put behind them something they risked their lives to script, produce, and act out?
Jimmy, I was tipped, might provide me with a ticket to the IRA leadership. One of his younger sons is in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh prison and reputedly, a high ranking member of the IRA, using his father to ferry messages in and out of jail. As we sip tea, I answer Jimmy’s questions about growing up in an Irish American household and visiting relatives who refused to serve marmalade because it was both English and orange. I relate my first memory of math, when grandfather O’Donnell had me on his knee repeating after him, “26 and six equals one Ireland.” The story I’m after, I admit, has only one angle: the view from inside the mask.
“How can I help?” Jimmy eventually offers.
I ask for introductions to friends of his son. He puts down his tea to finger a knife and runs his eyes over me as if sizing up a mutton chop. A moment later, the knife still in hand, he shows me to the door. He has just remembered an appointment he must keep.
Once again, I climb into my rental car and wonder if I’ll ever get close to the IRA. People have been generous with their anecdotes and tea, but not with their contacts. As advertised, the IRA is proving itself an elusive force. It operates mostly at night and always in small groups. In this TV-centric age that offers superstar status to guerrilla leaders, the IRA is a throwback to another time when secrecy was key to success. The IRA doesn’t court journalists, and remarkably doesn’t fear anonymity. Indeed, it encourages metaphors that make it out to be an invisible force, able to strike any place, at anytime. Brief public appearances as a color guard at funerals are enough to reify its presence as a standing army.
Predictably, the IRA is insulated by a code of silence, but it’s impossible to tell whether people are mum out of fidelity, fear, ignorance, or some combination thereof. My afternoon with Jimmy is further proof that I’ve been doing things all wrong. There’s no way to reach the IRA through others.
Establishing contacts, I come to realize, is a slow process an outsider can catalyze at certain stages but never control. Trust is earned and constantly tested. Obstacles are engineered and all progress graded. Friendships that spring up are never allowed to mature, ensuring a monopoly on pain if the outsider is a British agent. The vetting nears an end when, at last, a dinner companion extends an invitation from “someone high up. He wants to meet you… It’s a surprise party, so don’t tell a soul.”
Come morning, the waitress at my hotel brings me a pot of coffee and throws a curve. “A gentleman,” she says, “was here looking for you earlier. He said the party has been changed to ten this morning.”
“What did he look like?”
She can’t remember. He arrived at the same time a foursome was placing breakfast orders. She says, “I thought he was a friend of yours. Isn’t he?”
Belfast was established in the ninth century by Vikings, who came first to plunder and then to trade with the local clan-based society. A settlement sprouted by the mouth of the River Lagan, and over the course of time the forests were cleared and cowpaths were turned into the short, winding streets of a municipality. Only in the 18th century did a city planner arrive with a straightedge. Consequently, modern street maps resemble medieval mazes with illegible directions. Since my arrival five weeks ago, not a day has passed without me getting lost; so I leave the hotel an hour early for the surprise party.
Twenty minutes late, I walk into the coffee shop where we’re supposed to meet. The place is packed. It seems an entire congregation from a nearby church has adjourned here for a post-Eucharist tea. I elbow my way from one end of the eatery to the other without seeing a familiar face and take up a position by the counter. The waiting begins, but not before I pocket my wristwatch, sure that any glimpse at the dial will only heighten the feeling of disappointment creeping through me. Because I’m late. Because I’ve blown the whole damn thing.
A cook serves me a fourth cup of tea, and as I go to pay, a man wearing a rumpled hat taps my shoulder. “Leave the tea,” he says. “Let’s go.” He thrusts three fingers high into the air. Off to my left, a bearded man with the shoulders of a longshoreman nods and drops a coin into the payphone. My guide leads me outside. “Blue car,” he says. A woman is leaning against the hood. She sees us coming, turns up her coat collar, raps once on the metal, and heads away, hunched over, walking toward the eye of a February gale. If Belfast was domed, people constantly say, it would be the best place in the world to live.
“Where are we going?”
The engine starts. “Friend, you will be the last to know.” The car merges into traffic.
After the sixth U-turn, I give up counting how often we loop and backtrack. The driver slows outside a store window and flashes two fingers at the darkened glass. We move on, the driver splitting his attention between the view ahead and the view through the rear mirror. The quick lefts and sudden right-hand turns keep coming.
“It’s the cameras — Big Brother,” the driver says, explaining our zig-zag course and referring to the surveillance system. Lately, the Brits have been concealing cameras in the headlights of cars parked near intersections. They note every license plate and all passengers. That digitized information is then matched against files of suspected IRA members and pre-established profiles about that car’s normal use. Again, I’m told not to be bothered; the IRA has out-tricked the trickster. “These streets are clean,” the driver says. “Besides, they spend a friggin’ fortune on this stuff, so it actually helps us in many ways.”
“Like what?” I ask.
He won’t say and keeps driving until we pull into a housing project designed by a foe of nature. There’s not a tree, nor a single blade of grass around. I’m told to wait in the hall of a squat building. My guide lopes up the stairs and returns with a gizmo that identifies bugs. Declared clean of wires, my arms go up for a body search. Each item in my camera bag is examined, and I’m warned that any tape recorder will be confiscated. Voiceprints are as individual as fingerprints. “I’m sorry about the search,” he says, “but it’s for your safety and ours… I mean, if anyone gets pinched because of this meet, we all go down.”
We walk up to the second floor, where my escort pauses next to a window and holds up his index finger. “Right-o,” he says, leading me inside a one-bedroom flat. “He’ll be here soon. Make yourself comfortable.”
His words induce the opposite effect. The door closes and a bolt slides into place from the other side. I crave a cigarette, but there’s no ashtray insight. The room is neat, freshly vacuumed. An electric heater glows behind a facade simulating a coal fire. A picture of Christ exposing His sacred heart hangs across from one of the Virgin riding a cloud. I move to another chair, beyond saintly gaze. On the mantel are porcelain figurines of waltzers from another era and a brace of springer spaniels with hot-pink tongues. A paper rose and a plastic lily spring out of a candleholder. Refreshingly, the video player blinks “12:00.”
Someone starts up the stairs. Muffled voices soon drift through the door. The unmistakable click of an ammo clip being engaged is followed quick-time by the ca-chunk of a bullet entering the firing chamber. I check for a back way out, but I’m boxed in.
“Good morning,” a man says, breezing into the room. He’s dressed in work shoes, jeans, bulky sweater, and L.A. Kings cap. A gray scarf is draped across his face and tied behind his neck, exposing his eyes, temples, strands of hair, and slices of earlobe. “What can we do for you?”
“Ah, excuse me, but who are you?” I ask.
“Sorry, I thought you knew,” he says, “I’m the O.C.” O.C. means Officer in Command, chief of all military operations. He and six others serve on the IRA Council and direct overall policy. Throughout Ireland, he is known simply as “The Man.”
And so begins our first meeting. Over the next six weeks of the coldest and wettest winter in Northern Ireland’s recent history we stay in contact, our conversations lasting anywhere from a few minutes to four and a half hours. Intermediaries carry messages back and forth; I’m not allowed to make direct contact. “You’d mess up,” the commander predicts. I don’t doubt him.
The same IRA driver hooks up with me every time, but we travel in much less contrived ways to rendezvous with the commander. The razzle-dazzle maneuvering that came with the first encounter is part of a show, I’m told, and there’s just one show per customer. I don’t complain. It’s only after the initial session that the commander relaxes his style, tires of telling me what he thinks every journalist wants to hear, and opens up far beyond the sound bite.
Ground rules are established early on: no tape recorders; no photographs without permission; all names must be changed; locales cannot be pinpointed. Additionally, the commander delegates himself as the sole voice on matters of IRA strategy, policy, and tactics; his words only are to be considered official statements.
Meanwhile, IRA volunteers who had been reluctant to drink a beer in my presence begin to tell stories, and old friends loosen up. Conversations sometimes start over lunch and continue well past midnight.
On two occasions I’m invited to travel with an IRA active-service unit on an operation in public view; otherwise, all interviews, shutter-clicking, and videotaping are private affairs, invited guests only. The commander and I meet in an urban setting. Discussions with volunteers occur throughout the north, in picture-postcard farms or moldy city basements.
Staying out of jail is my responsibility, and the deeper I go inside the IRA, the more problematic that becomes. All IRA jottings are hidden under the shower, and nail polish gives the screws a never-been touched look. Film and video tapes are strapped under the lowermost shelf in the maid’s closet, beyond range of metal detectors. Daily habits give way to the unpredictable. “Routines are killers,” the commander advises. “Schedules make you a sitting duck.”
The IRA has earned its reputation as the world’s most sophisticated guerrilla army. With less than 500 volunteers, it has managed to stalemate a 20,000-person force with access to the best equipment money can buy. There are no outsiders in the IRA, no mercenaries allowed. What, wonder, does the IRA look for in a recruit? And vice-versa. What do recruits expect to gain by joining up?
Everyone agrees the IRA is extremely selective. The organization is ever watchful for snitches, or “touts” as they’re called. In the mid-’70s, the Brits nearly smashed the IRA with the help of informers lured by greed or blackmailed by police. Hundreds of volunteers went to jail, and those still on the outside were forced to reorganize. A cell structure was adopted and the entire recruiting process revamped.
As we talk about enlistment, the commander comes across like an overly enthusiastic football coach. His words flow rapid-fire, and he doesn’t converse as much as recite game plans. The volunteers, by and large, echo his thoughts. They retain an easy manner and often pause, searching for words that they draw from deep inside. While each has a different story about enlisting, they use a common vocabulary. General themes and personal goals are strikingly similar, their reasons for joining nearly identical. I keep hoping to hear an extreme opinion or experience, or at least some type of dissatisfaction, but never do. Yet out of the like-sounding chorus of the 17 that interview, there’s one voice that resonates, and continues to offer up surprises. That voice belongs to Padraig.
“I think it’s easier to get into heaven than the RA,” Padraig says, considering the “I” in IRA to be redundant. We talk as Padraig guides me across a cow pasture toward a wooded spot once used as a sniper’s nest. We’re not far from the border, in farm country that British officers consider too dangerous for ground transports. They rely instead on helicopters to move troops about. Operating somewhere in this district is the IRA’s most notorious gun, a sniper with nine notches on his or her Barret .50 caliber rifle.
“You have to have priorities and the RA is number one… My family and [Gaelic] football, I guess, are tied for second,” Padraig says. I peg his age at 29, and he says I’m close. He first tried to join the IRA when he was 19, and it took more than half a year before he heard anything. “Yeah, a gent in a balaclava asked me a lot of questions and left. Said he would get back to me. Bullshit, that was.”
“Why did you even try joining?” I ask.
“I always wanted to be in. From the time I was a wean to now… I believe in one Ireland, and believe in doing my part.”
“What was the allure to the IRA? Community respect? Guns? Or… “
“F—k allure. You can stop right there because there is nothing alluring about the RA. Jesus, man, you Americans have this Batman and Robin thing about it… The blood is real here. The pain, I tell you, is real. It’s awful bad. So, shove allure. Okay? You think I like looking over my shoulder all the time? F—k no! I joined because of duty, country, stuff like that. Can you understand that?”
Not entirely. Padraig helps me by describing his childhood in a staunch Republican family. Pictures of early IRA heroes — Michael Collins, Patrick Pearse, and James Connolly — dominated the walls. Dinner conversation, he recalls, often centered on nationalist issues. If there was an item in the paper about the IRA or the civil rights movement, everyone was expected to read it and talk about it. “And when Da quizzed us on history and the struggle, we had to have the answer… He had a quick left jab, Da did,” Padraig remembers, scratching an ear his father probably walloped.
Padraig says there was no deciding moment, certainly no epiphany, that made him seek out the IRA. No one in his immediate family is a member. “There are a few cousins by blood, but they’re in jail, and I think the asshole who married my sister is RA.” None of his childhood friends are volunteers. “Just me, and I almost didn’t make it.”
Padraig says he had to keep after the IRA, and months went by before he saw the masked man again. A full year later, he was sent to a training camp somewhere in Donegal. He felt things went well there. He proved a good marksman and learned how to become better. Two days into his training, he could strip and reconfigure an AK-47 blindfolded. He thought he aced anti-interrogation class and returned home happy, sure he would be assigned to an active-service unit in a few days.
Instead, his education was continued. “I was told to read… A gent handed me a list of books — history, philosophy, and stuff like that. I guess I had a lot to learn,” he says. His first lesson was rammed home moments later, when he put the list in his pocket instead of memorizing and then swallowing it. British crime labs need only a bit of paper or ash to match penmanship to writer.” [The agent] stuffed the paper in my mouth and kept saying, ‘Think. You must start thinking. Think.'” A year and a half afterward, Padraig was accepted inside.
We reach the wooded hilltop where the sniper once nested and Padraig uses his arm to indicate rifle pose and bullet trajectory. I can barely see the tree the soldier smacked as the round hit and flung him backward. I guess the distance at half a mile. The sniper unit may have spent days or even weeks researching and preparing the ambush, but the operation itself took less than an hour, Padraig says. “Shoot and scoot, that’s the policy.”
“You Americans have this Batman and Robin thing about it… The blood is real here. The pain, I tell you, is real. It’s awful bad.”
As we head back to the road, Padraig swears he can’t wait for the day he’ll be able to visit the area and simply lie on his back and stare at the clouds. “How nice to daydream rather than scheme… Life is hard enough without all this war bulls—t.”
“If you dropped out of the IRA,” I comment, “you could do that. You could enjoy these things again.”
“You’re wrong there. A helicopter or a drone would spot me and troops would be flown in to question me. They would hassle me. Search me. F—k with my head. They do that to everyone. I want peace.”
Requests to join the IRA have surged this past winter, the commander tells me. He isn’t sure why and doesn’t care to know. “We have always had more applicants than places. We are very, very selective…. We can’t afford one psycho in the organization.” Passage into the IRA is prolonged to shake out “hot heads and thugs,” he says. “We assess everyone for their qualities… like motivation, street smarts, courage, and thinking ability.”
“What would you say to me if I were 22 and wanted to join the IRA?” I ask.
“I’d tell you to f—k off. Why are you approaching me? I don’t know a thing about it… Then I would forget about you, unless, of course, you returned. This time I would act angry. If you really want it, you’ll try again. Now I’ll change my tone… and tell you that joining means three things. I tell you you’re dead. I tell you you’re on the run. I tell you you’re in prison… Then I tell you to think about that for a month.”
All IRA volunteers are expected either to say nothing or deny everything about the organization. A family member may suspect a son or older brother to be on active service, but they will never know for sure, unless he or she is caught in the act and sent to prison. Because of the cell structure, it’s rare for volunteers to know more than ten other members.
“If you can accept the reality of life in the RA,” says the commander, “then things start rolling… Someone is assigned to your case. You see him only in a mask, and he writes up reviews about you and your progress… Later you might be sent to train somewhere and five masked men will then assess you as you learn about anti-interrogation techniques, security, and army structure… Eventually, you are dropped or assigned somewhere… Assignments depend on our needs and your skills. Let’s say you’re a chemist or an engineer. Then we might send you as a sleeper some place in Europe. Two, maybe three years go by before you receive the wake-up call.”
The IRA wasn’t always so picky about its recruits. Almost any nationalist was welcome in the 1950s, a low point in IRA history, but not its nadir. That dubious distinction belongs to the next decade, when an ill-conceived campaign depicted low-level bureaucrats as devils incarnate. Bungled operations and seemingly pointless murders alienated many members and most sympathizers. On February 26, 1962, the IRA issued a statement announcing: “…all arms and other materials have been dumped and all full-time active service volunteers have been withdrawn.”
The army’s obituary was a bit premature; the IRA went dormant but never died. It was revitalized a few years later by younger, college-educated Republicans influenced by communism and civil-rights movements. They deep-sixed old strategies for new ones, endorsing class struggle and nonviolence. Posters of Michael Collins were replaced by those of Martin Luther King, Jr. Suddenly, guns were out, passé, marches and Marx were in. Cathal Goulding, leader of the IRA, nearly demilitarized the organization, and by the late 1960s had called in most remaining IRA weaponry, which was then sold to the Free Wales Army.
“And then the shit went flying,” the commander recalls. “The riots started, and we only had a few guns.” Tim Pat Coogan, author of the standard history of the IRA, suggests six guns were available to the IRA at the time. “Imagine that! Six bloody guns,” the commander exclaims.
1969 is when the Troubles started, sparked by rioting in Derry over the government’s housing program, which denied Catholics a roof. The chaos spread to Belfast, where battle zones developed along sectarian lines, and families living in mixed neighborhoods were forced out. By 1973, more than 60,000 people had been evicted from their homes by torch-waving mobs or government fiat. Many Catholics were soon unable to differentiate a thug from a cop. Curfews were declared, but only Catholics were rounded up. Later, during internment — a perverse law that suspended due process — more than a thousand Catholics were arrested, but not one Protestant was jailed. The authorities shouted for law and order, and the Catholics screamed back: Whose law? Whose order? Where is justice?
“Those were days of turmoil for the IRA,” the commander says in understatement. The IRA, stuck somewhere in a dialectic, could hurl insults and little else at the Brits. Graffiti gave new meaning to the rebel army’s initials, and walls around town screamed it: I RAN AWAY. A militant faction quickly developed within the organization, and by the end of 1969 there were two IRAs: the so-called Official IRA, which maintained a socialist outlook, and the Provisional IRA, or Provos, which advocated an armed struggle without the cant.
“If we alienate or piss off people, they won’t help us. They won’t look up to us. They won’t trust us. And without the community behind us, it’s all over.”
Come 1971, the Officials and Provos were fighting each other more than they were the Brits. The Provos emerged as the dominant faction, resorting to assassinations and knee-cappings to enforce their status and abet their growth. The commander is unapologetic about that period. “There was criminal neglect by the Official leadership back then. They abandoned all war preparations and went against the IRA constitution, its code of conduct, and general army orders… They didn’t equip and train troops, as army orders instruct. And, dammit,” he says, slapping the table, “they’re still around, extorting people and the struggle. We are the IRA, and there should be no doubts about that.”
Talk of the Officials being alive and kicking, albeit with with only one leg, leads me to shady business: how outlaw groups finance themselves. In the past, the IRA has accused the Officials and the Workers’ Party of being the miscreant kings of the underworld, and has vigorously denied involvement in gangsterism, one of the few growth industries in Northern Ireland. The IRA has always promoted itself as the champion of the underclass, a Robin Hood organization. Those assertions are now under attack by journalists fed information by the Belfast anti-racketeering squad, C13. Recent news articles depict the IRA leadership as a cabal of money-hungry crooks merely posing as revolutionaries. They’re said to run the north’s massive extortion business and rake in additional millions from a mafia mix of legal investments and illegal activities.
“Is the IRA weaseling a few pence from every pound sterling in circulation?” I ask the commander. His head jerks back. This is the first time he has been confronted about the bad press, much of which was published in America and England.
He looks at the ceiling, then at his fingernails. His eyes tighten into slits. Slowly, he reaches for the stack of articles I brought and skims a few. I keep reciting accusations as he reads. Finally, he folds the papers, adjusts his scarf, and says, “Son of a bitch, they’re really doing a number on us.”
“Well, what’s the deal?” I ask. “It sounds like you’re war entrepreneurs. Peace would be disastrous for business.”
He rereads a few passages that supposedly quote him. He refolds everything. “This s—t comes in cycles,” he says slowly. “When the Godfather movies came out, the IRA was mafia this, mafia that. The Brits were working the press. The movies faded and so did the charges.”
“Now they’re back,” I say. “This time they’re supported by charts and graphs and even quotes from you.”
“Look, I deny all these allegations. What you’ve told me and what I’ve read so far isn’t about the RA, not the real IRA. I’m not going to speak about any particular charge or writer, but all of this is wrong. Crap. The Workers’ Party, IPLO [Irish People’s Liberation Organization], and the Officials are gangsters, not us. They’re the ones running the rackets… In 1992, after an eight-month investigation, we came down hard on them for f—king with the community. I think we rounded up 30 of them and either shot, exiled, or knee-capped them. In two years, they’ve come back… People are either posing as the RA, or other people are making things up.”
“That doesn’t answer the question,” I note.
“I know. I know. But what can I say? This type of thing has always been a dilemma for us. If we tell you how, then the Brits will close down that or those sources of money… There’s no proof I can give without compromising us. But you’ve walked around enough to know how poor people are here. You can’t rob the cupboard if there’s nothing in the cupboard.”
I agree. Almost all the stores serving Catholic West Belfast are mom-and-pop operations that barely make the rent. But the cash registers jingle in the area bars, social clubs, and betting parlors. I ask about these establishments.
“We don’t hit them up. That’s not our way. If we f—k with the community, we’re lost. If we alienate or piss off people, they won’t help us. They won’t look up to us. They won’t trust us. And without the community behind us, it’s all over. We’re dead… Have I convinced you yet?”
I shake my head, no.
“I guess we will have to weather the storm,” he says. His eyes return to the press clips.
As he reads, I privately rehash my own investigation. My research finds the Workers’ Party and the IPLO as co-monopolists in bank, land, and computer fraud. The Officials, I discover, are less sophisticated and rely on muscle to maintain their grip on the protection and extortion industry. While following up leads, I learn to be suspicious of C13 data. The anti-racketeering squad may think itself a major-league player, but it swings whiffle ball bats and claims home runs out of foul tips. As of March, no IRA member has been convicted of extortion. The slick British publicists that lobby the press are reliable for English spin and little else. I do uncover scams involving the IRA, but my research is incomplete. What I come up with tends to support the commander, and ties the IRA to schemes that needle the wealthy, such as counterfeiting Paris perfumes and hitting up successful businesses for contributions to the prisoners’ relief fund.
“What about foreign donations?” I ask, as the commander raises his eyes.
He refuses to talk about gifts from America — cash, guns, ammunition, and explosives — except to say, “We thank our friends in the States.”
“Do you extend the same gratitude to Libya?” I ask. Ghadafi has supplied guns and money to the IRA; in fact, most of their AK-47s came from Libya. Ghadafi has his own grudge against the Brits, dating back to their efforts to neutralize him when he first took power.
“Since we’re not gangsters, we take money only when it’s offered to us,” the commander says, “If someone gives us money, it doesn’t mean we are tied to them in any way or owe them a damn thing.”
Drugs, an obvious revenue source, are taboo. All armies officially ban dope, but the IRA may be the only one that’s actually drug-free. Volunteers keep reminding me that dealers risk their lives with every bag sold. The recruits are satisfied with booze and nicotine and can’t understand how anyone might think pot less harmful than alcohol.
“Dealers get a warning, sometimes two,” a volunteer tells me, “and if they keep dealing, there is no mercy.” Practice has made Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital the world’s leading institute for reconstructive knee surgery. “Why is the IRA policing potheads and treating them so harshly?” ask the commander.
“We are not harsh, we are ruthless when it comes to that s—t. Drug dealers better watch out or clear out… Within a strict military sense, we, the army, can’t allow anyone to control the supply of something people might need or depend on. We have information that major dealers are operating with impunity. The RUC knows who they are and where they are based They may even be helping these dealers, but we haven’t finished our investigation and can’t say for sure… It is in the interest of the RUC and the [British] army to have drugs inside the community. Get people hooked and hold a sword over them. It leads to touts… Also, drugs have social costs. They subvert the people and subvert the personality of the north.”
His answer rattles me, for it shows the IRA’s willingness to trample civil rights by acting as judge, jury, and executioner. Petty crooks often get the same treatment as drug dealers. “What,” I ask, “gives the IRA the right to impose its military rules and regulations on the general population?”
“This is Belfast, not New York… The police don’t maintain civil order in our neighborhoods. They don’t even get out of their trucks. The community polices itself. It has no choice… And it does a good job. But when something gets out of hand and the community brings it to our attention, then, and only then, do we very reluctantly investigate and act accordingly… It’s a distraction. We certainly don’t want to do it, and if the police were doing their job, we wouldn’t have to deal with druggies and thieves. The RUC are clever. Don’t underestimate them. Chasing petty criminals means we’re not bombing barracks, not setting up ambushes, not concentrating on the war. So, the police encourage the bad elements. They know the nuisance factor will get the population on our case to solve the problem… The RA is the community’s ultimate sanction against those who prey on or persecute that community. We’re the ones with no choice. Thieves have a choice: They can stop ripping off the community. The UDA is into drug dealing big time. So are the Officials. Our investigation will be finished soon.”
(During the weekend beginning April 22, not long after I left, the IRA kneecapped or killed more than 25 suspected drug dealers and informers.)
But in matters of intimidation and community power, there is no rival to the Catholic church. It controls thousands of schools, tens of thousands of acres, and hundreds of millions of dollars. It is undoubtedly the most conservative institution in Ireland, north and south, and has always supported the status quo. According to Father Joseph McVeigh, an activist priest and respected civil-rights leader, the Irish church abhors mixing God with politics. “There are only five of us who consistently speak out against discrimination of any kind,” he says, “and three have been assigned to missionary work overseas… And, yes, my bags are always packed.”
Perhaps the best example of the church’s influence comes out of a story I heard from a bar owner in a Catholic neighborhood. He bought a condom machine for the men’s room that arrived in two boxes, dispenser and product. He installed the rig, but decided to fill it another day because a large party arrived and started ordering drinks. In the morning, the bar owner found the equivalent of $37 in the cash box and couldn’t remember anyone complaining that they hadn’t received their purchase. He promptly shipped back the unopened box of condoms, and in eight months of operating on empty, he still hasn’t heard a gripe. Already, he has financed his trip to a World Cup match; next year he hopes to visit Thailand.
Within the screwy dynamics of Irish Catholic society, women bear the brunt of repression. The church denies them freedom over their bodies and refuses to grant divorces. It is said that only Irishmen with Alzheimer’s hold no grudges. So I’m curious how the IRA counters the deep-seated sexism of most Irish males. I know that the Green Book, the IRA manual, has been rewritten in a nonsexist way: “he” is now “she/he.” During my stay, I meet scores of volunteers, but only two are women. Because of the circumstances, I’m unable to ask questions as we dash across the street for cover. The men regularly assure me the IRA has numerous female members.
“What’s the score? Are women and men equal in the IRA?” I ask the commander.
“I’m glad you asked, but it would be arrogant of me to answer. I mean, only women can speak to that issue… Any male volunteer knows he will be severely disciplined if he’s an idiot and disrespects a female comrade, or for that matter, women in general. Frankly, I think we have to do more, and I fear that some volunteers just don’t get it yet. We have to teach them… We’re trying, but there’s a lot of shit in the way. And that’s not an excuse, just an admission. Today, there are women in all levels of the RA, from the very top to raw recruits.”
Kevin, chief of the South Armagh brigade, describes himself as a stickler for detail. As the local IRA brigade leader, he usually picks targets for military operations and plans the attack. Before he authorizes a mission, he grills the men involved. “Everyone has got to be in sync. They have to know what each other is doing or will do,” he says, “And I want to know contingency plans… If it’s July, I want to hear what the lads plan if there’s a snowstorm.
Anything out of place is reason to scoot. If it’s not in the plans, then it shouldn’t happen… I’m a firm believer in what the gut says. If I get nervous or have one question, I know something’s wrong. It’s the same for everybody. You give the signal and go home.”
“You won’t go if you’re nervous?” I ask.
“Hell, no. That’s why we plan every detail… The jitters cloud judgment. You have to concentrate or you’ll f—k it up: not watch where you’re going and slip and break a branch, something that might give away your position. That, my friend, is the stuff of death. You’ve got to be on top of things every second.”
We talk as he leads an active service unit of seven men on maneuvers near the border. Everyone but me is armed and wearing fatigues and masks. One volunteer carries a grenade launcher and four rounds on his back. The machine gunner shoulders copper ribbons of ammo which reach his ankles. The other men are battle-ready, with extra clips for their AK-47s and Browning automatic pistols.
“Stay with us,” Kevin advises as I change a roll of film.
The volunteers fan out and suddenly bolt for a hedgerow on the other side of a pasture. I follow. It’s easy to identify the smokers in the unit, and I decide to pair up with the noisiest wheezer. “No more talking,” Kevin says. “We’re aiming for the tower now.” In the distance is a British surveillance post, one of many erected on hilltops along the frontier. Kevin uses hand signals to issue orders, and we keep to the long shadows cast by a setting sun. A clod of dirt whacks my shoulder. It’s a message from Kevin to stop the shutter-clicking. The area, I later learn, is monitored by listening devices programmed to detect human, mechanical, and metallic sounds. The man with the grenade launcher takes the point, and we come to a stop as he sights through the scope. He shakes his head and indicates that he wants to get closer. Kevin won’t chance it. There might be cameras or ground sensors ahead; we’re at the end of the turf that had been reconnoitered earlier in the day.
We fall back and Kevin redirects the men to patrol a small border town. People honk their horns as they pass in their cars and gape as they see a bald American among the masked men. Eventually, the roar of approaching helicopters sends Kevin and his men scurrying for their street clothes. The gear is trucked away; the men casually head out, and I’m left to fend for myself. Sharing secrets, Kevin says, also means sharing risk. He wishes me luck as he leaves.
The British army calls its battle with the IRA a “low intensity war.” The Catholic community, on the other hand, know the fight as a high-voltage confrontation. During the 1970s, when many of today’s volunteers were teens or younger, the Brits conducted more than 150,000 house searches. Back then, there was no knock on the door, just troops smashing their way in and forcing residents to the floor at gunpoint. Over the past 25 years, Northern Ireland has gone from having Europe’s lowest rate of convicts per capita to having one of the world’s highest rates. Not once do I meet a Catholic family that has never suffered a late-night house search. Not once do I meet someone who doesn’t have a brother or cousin who has served or is serving time. About a third of the people I meet have a relative who was shot or beaten by the authorities.
In the 1980s, the world press focused attention on an emerging generation nurtured on the Troubles, unable to form a memory of true peace. Those so called “children of hate” have now assumed central roles in the IRA, and there’s another bunch right behind them, coming of age. I can’t imagine they will ever forget what they saw or felt. But do they have the capacity to forgive and get on with life? Their youth was stolen, their freedom denied, and God only knows what happened to their subconscious.
The commander talks at length about his own childhood. It was a rotten time, he says, and his clearest memories involve fear and pain. Sadly, he says, he is still not sure what fun is.
I also explore this territory with more than 20 volunteers. They each have horror stories to tell a few witnessed a father, brother, or uncle being shot; most have been in jail and horribly mistreated; one person was seven when shooting erupted during a street demonstration and he felt something wet and gruesome smack his face. It was the brains of his next-door neighbor. None of them, however, will discuss whether he has killed someone himself.
The volunteers surprise me, each and every one, by enunciating a desire to bury the hatchet and begin smoothing things over with their Protestant neighbors. Brits out and a united Ireland are all the revenge they seek. At first, I don’t believe them, sure they’re feeding me the company line. My attitude shifts during my first night in the company of drunken volunteers. Nearly out of control and certainly uninhibited, they affirm their earlier sober remarks. Yes, they tell me, they want to start a normal life, or at least ensure one for their children. They will do whatever it takes, swallow the pill, no matter how bitter, if it means their kids can grow up in peace.
I spend a lot of time with Charlie, an IRA munitions expert. Though he’s not the brigade leader, people tend to look his way for approval. When I’m in a group of volunteers, he often speaks for everyone. I consider him honest.
One afternoon I visit Charlie as he fiddles with an Armalite rifle stolen from the Brits. It keeps jamming, but he eventually fixes the firing mechanism.
“What was the problem?” I ask.
“Secret,” he says, confiding that it has something to do with the design, information he has no intention of sharing with the manufacturer. My congratulations for the repair job are brushed aside. The real geniuses, he says, are the builders of disposables, weaponry made for under $10 and intended for onetime use. I have videotape showing volunteers building hand grenades and rocket launchers from street trash. From these clever mechanics, I learn new uses for water pipe, angle iron, and old tins, especially sauerkraut cans which make perfect shell casings for rocket bombs.
Charlie picks up the Armalite again, declares it junk, and says it’s sinful that the Brits issue such crap to their grunts. “They’re just kids. Have you ever seen them?”
No one can miss the soldiers, who constantly brush shoulders with pedestrians. When I’m not with the IRA, I often follow troops on patrol, taking notes and photographing them. Like Charlie, I too am struck by how young the majority of them appear to be. Many sport no obvious reason to own a razor. They’re not allowed to talk to journalists, but curiosity is a powerful thing. To a man, they don’t want to be in Northern Ireland and can’t fathom why anyone not risking court-martial would travel here during winter. The Irish should solve their own problems, they say. They were trained for another kind of war: “I don’t get it,” one soldier tells me. “I knew exactly what to do in Desert Storm, but not around here. Most times we’re nannies for the RUC, and that’s f—ked.” In the grim job market of post-Thatcher England, they probably saw the army as a way to a better life. Their tour here surely has them second-guessing that decision.
Charlie says he experiences pity or sympathy for them, he’s not sure which. “They’re unhappy shits in a bad situation, and that makes you feel something for them.”
“Does hate ever enter the picture?” l ask.
“Of course not! What a bean-head question,” he exclaims. “What do you see on an operation as you look into a Brit face?”
“You never see the face,” he says, “Number one, the face is not a target point. Number two, things happen far away. It’s not up-close and personal.”
But it is personal, I contend. Lives are at stake. Calculations are made every step of the way. Besides, no volunteer can depersonalize his role by saying it’s money-driven, because there’s no money to speak of. A volunteer on the dole gets nothing from the IRA; a volunteer on the run can bank on $35 a week, tops.
Charlie fidgets with a shirt button. “I don’t hate the British people,” he explains. “The uniform gets me. None of us ever go on an op[eration] and celebrate later. That would be crazy. Please, understand me. I don’t want to do this s–t… No one gets up in the morning and feels good about anything that happened during the night. It’s not personal, I think, because it’s all about uniforms and the s–t they represent.”
“And what’s that?”I ask.
“Oppression, pure and simple.”
He treats guns as tools, not friends. No sudden power surges through him as he cradles a weapon, nor does he feel comfortable with a loaded rifle. “I pick up an AK,” he says, “and I pick up responsibility. It’s scary when you think about it… You can’t fire if there’s a civilian near. Hey, I have to live with everything I do.”
“Any regrets so far?” I ask.
“None, thank God.”
Because IRA volunteers usually sleep at home and present themselves to both cops and neighbors as average, out-of-work citizens, I’m curious about the point of departure that separates the family man from the mask-wearing terrorist. Every other war zone I’ve visited has had clearly defined camps and soldiers on duty 24-hours a day. What then, I try to imagine, goes through Charlie’s head after he kisses the kids goodnight and before he dons his ski mask?
He says he has never thought about it before. He considers the IRA a full-time job that often has him working triple shifts. If there is a point of departure, he says, it’s the cigarette he always smokes by himself in the kitchen before leaving home. “That’s when I just, you know, sit and think and go over the plan.”
He does nothing to psych himself up and sees no reason to blinker any aspect of his life. “We have meetings when weans are around and that doesn’t bother me or anyone else. The RA is as much a part of my life as my wife and weans.”
I head to the workbench to look around. Careless, I trip on a floorboard and my hand rubs a gun barrel as I steady myself. Charlie leads me to a tub and orders me to wash. Brit scanning devices can identify minute traces of gun oil. “That’s seven years in the H-Blocks. It’s why we wear gloves,” he says, snapping the elastic on the pair he’s wearing.
Charlie puts the towel with the guns. Later, the bundle will be stored beyond range of sniffer dogs and airborne imaging equipment that can locate weapons buried up to seven feet underground.
The squeals of children at play filter into the room, and Charlie stops what he’s doing to listen. Above all else, he says later, he fights so his children won’t have to fight. “Brits treated my Da like shit and they try to do that to me. I’m not going to let them do that to my weans. Jesus Christ, you know, peace can’t come soon enough for them.”
“If word came down from the Council to turn in the gear, would you obey?” I ask.
“Dead-on, happily… all of us would.” There are rogues in every army, I counter. “What will happen if an individual or a faction won’t heed the peace agreement, considering it too soft on the Brits?”
“If the leadership says no more, then no more it is. We will comply and ensure that internally,” Charlie says.
“But what if a friend or someone in your cell keeps fighting?”
“Now he wouldn’t be a friend, would he? And he would be dealt with. We’re in this as one… I’m going to tell you something, but will you write it down?”
“Do you want it off the record?”
“Nah, it’s just weird, maybe… But I look forward to when me and the family can go to a King Willie parade and enjoy ourselves and the music, you know, like we do in Armagh on St Patrick’s Day. Is that crazy?”
I assure him that it’s one of the more reasonable things I’ve heard in months and recall Gerry Adams telling me something similar.
“No kidding?… Gerry’s okay. I hope he can pull off the peace.”
The commander insists each volunteer will follow orders and, in the same breath, promises any stray will be corralled and hobbled, if necessary. “We deliver what we promise.”
“How can you be so certain?”
“We make sure no one joins up out of anger,” he says. “And we keep a watch on people. War is brutal. It brutalizes people, And we have to be sensitive to what that means… If anger develops in someone, out they go. It’s a liability that can’t be tolerated, not in the RA. We see it in the UDA all the time. If you become angry, if you hate, then your actions become predictable. That’s how you lose… Clinical decisions are most important.” The IRA gestalt, he explains, is the main reason why the organization is still thriving when other groups, such as the Red Brigade, are a paragraph of history.
The commander denies street gossip of an IRA schism and says it is the work of a Brit disinformation campaign. I track leads which suggest a few hardcore players are forming a breakaway army. But the trail goes cold in Monaghan, a southern county sharing the border, when a contact skips town. There is nothing left in his house, save a few newspapers and cups of stale coffee on the floor, and with time running short, I am unable to develop a new source.
It’s well-known that both Sinn Fein and the IRA have been airing internal debates about the Downing Street Declaration. Many observers see this as a defining moment, not only showing political maturation and preference for the peace table over the gun barrel, but also a metamorphosis of hawks into doves. I ask the commander his opinion.
“Doves in the IRA? Think about that for a moment… It doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “We’re a military force, a friggin’ army. But we’re also Irish, so we love to gab. Right? We can talk ourselves to death. Now that has a good side, because we listen to everybody. No one in the RA has a position of power. We have positions of responsibility. I can be voted out of my job and would be if I went against the wishes of the army… We encourage debate. But there’s no dissent. Different points of view are worked out until we share a common perspective,” he says, entering a discussion on the shape of things to come.
Most topical perhaps, is the shape of peace. “What will it take,” I ask, “for the IRA to lay down its weapons?”
“Let’s be realistic. It’s just as ridiculous to think that we will lay down weapons in unconditional surrender as it is to think the Brits will leave the north unconditionally. So we have to figure out what that process will be.”
“What single element might jumpstart the process?” I ask.
“An attitude change would help plenty… The Brits should stop talking at us and start talking with us. Get off the high horse and get down to business with Sinn Fein and Dublin. You know, of course, that there were secret talks for months last year. We were very hopeful. There seemed to be movement… When things became public, the Brits stopped the conversation and started talking at us again. It’s time for them and the Prods to come to terms with political realities. Good God, Hong Kong is going back to the Chinese. What’s left? The Falklands and us? Let Ireland be one and let us all be part of Europe.”
“Is there some individual or group holding up the works?”
“Actually, it’s a lack of a certain kind of individual that needs to be addressed. There’s no emerging leader like, say, de Klerk, in the Protestant community. Paisley and Robinson” — Rev. Ian Paisley, head of the Democratic Unionist Party, and his deputy, Peter Robinson — “and other bigots are still around, but I don’t hear anyone over there saying, ‘Right lads, we’ve got to face things and start figuring it all out’… They have no incentive to work things out. They are raised to think that they are better than us. We’re perceived as a threat. We’re the rabble that smells up their trip downtown. They’re good, we’re dirt. It’s a colonial thing and the Brits can change a lot the moment they say they’re going to leave on such and such a date.”
“What kind of time frame are you talking about?” I ask.
“Well, anything beyond ten years is beyond comprehension.” Ten years is twice as much as imagined. The commander won’t be more specific, though he does voice a desire for unification well before the decade is out. He reminds me that national reconciliation will never result from quick fixes. He refers to the past, when the southern republic was formed to allay Protestant wariness. “No shots were fired. No houses taken. The Catholics and the Protestants managed all right when the Brits left They still get along.”
“A few of the loyalist paramilitary groups predict an apocalyptic scene if the Brits leave, and they have more members and more guns that the IRA,” I say, reminding him that a threat of a bloodbath has the international community backing Brit policy.
“The Brits and the RUC will have to do their job. The RUC has been colluding with them for so long that they know a lot more than their arrest record suggests. The paras are useful to the RUC and Brits right now. They do their dirty work. But things change once the peace process starts, and it won’t be in their interest to protect the orange order anymore.”
“You make it sound so easy that I —”
“Whoa! Let me correct you about that it’s not going to be easy. There’s an awful lot to work out… There must be an attractive environment. I think that’s real important. The Brits can help there by pulling the troops out and spending money instead on new industry. Dependence on England is debilitating and a better system will have to replace the old. None of this is easy.”
“Back to the cease-fire,” I suggest. “What will it take to lay down your arms?”
“Okay. It will take an inclusive peace process underpinned by democratic principles, with a given time frame for withdrawal, which will create a dynamic that inevitably leads to a negotiated settlement.”
“Wheesh!” I exclaim, after that dizzying burst.
“I have to be careful,” he says, leveling his gaze. “This is important. And you’re f—ked if you don’t get the quotes right.”
I flip randomly through my notebook and repeat passages, all of which pass muster. “Close enough,” he says. Moving on, I remind him that Dwight Eisenhower was a good general, but a better golfer than politician. He agrees with my suggestion to let Gerry Adams handle diplomacy. Thankfully, he relaxes again.
“All we want to see is a united Ireland free of violence. Things as they stand are built on apartheid lines. They must be reconfigured. Treating Catholics like s—t has got to stop… Bigotry is stupid. Let’s be smart. We’re all Irish here. When a Prod goes to England, they call him a Paddy. Accents, manners, we’re all Paddies. Sectarianism repulses me… Get rid of the Brit soldiers. That will ease us. Send them home. Anywhere. Just have them leave… Figure out unification. Put it on paper, get the process going so that it can’t be sabotaged by anyone. We’ll do our part. That’s a guarantee.”
When notebooks and pens disappear, so do clichés, and the commander drops his guard. His manner softens and a self-deprecating wit emerges. He’s a reluctant general, I come to learn, a man yearning to change the role events thrust on him. We both lean back, curious about each other, and trade stories. Mostly, we talk about journeys, where to go and how best to get there. His mind is set on visiting a united Ireland, but he’s open about which path to follow. At the moment, he’s traveling armed for bear, bushwacking through nasty territory. He’s guided by past experiences, his compass indicating that the Brits listen only to the argument of force, not the force of argument. He says he waits anxiously for new directions. I’m struck by his inclusion of children in almost everything he imagines about journey’s end. His payoff for his years in the IRA will come when kids refer to books to familiarize themselves with the Troubles.
By the time we say goodbye, I’m left believing peace is near. I sense its arrival will be determined by tone, and that’s what the Brit and Protestant communities need to work on, or perhaps workout. An attitude adjustment would benefit everyone. Surely, there are reasonable and courageous voices in the Protestant community that can replace the gospel of hate preached by Ian Paisley. The United States and others can enhance economic attractiveness by extending the same kinds of business incentives Israel enjoys. But it’s the northerners that have the most to do, and it’s their children who pay the price for delay. Some say this war has been going on for 25 years, others claim it has been centuries of hellfire. Peace would render the question moot.