"Masterful and definitive", "authoritative and devastating", "extraordinary", "this dramatic book", "superb ". These descriptions are all taken from the cover of the paperback version of Ed Moloney's No.1 best-seller. Moreover, The Blanket has published a number of largely glowing reviews. Why then did I find the book so disappointing, irritating and ultimately boring?
Much of the book is taken up with the peace process of the 1980s and 1990s and the series of negotiations that took place. Other books have documented these events and this period just as well - Brendan O' Brien, Eamonn Mallie and David McKittrick, Déaglán de Breadún and Peter Taylor. What exactly does Moloney's book add to these earlier accounts apart from the apparent notion that Gerry Adam's ideas about changing Republican strategy dated further back than we were previously led to believe, that Charles Haughey was more involved than previously met the eye, and that the Brits had managed to get touts to senior levels in the Republican movement? None of this seemed to be of earth shattering importance or insight to this reader, and certainly not surprising.
What is new is Moloney's detailed descriptions of the two IRA Conventions in 1996 and 1997. If he is to be believed, and there seems little reason to question the accuracy, Moloney clearly got hold of a very good source, presumably someone opposed to the line that Adams and others were pursuing. Interestingly, these sections of the book have been given little prominence in reviews of the book that I've read.
After trudging my way through over 400 pages, the book suddenly and inexplicably brings the whole story up to the present, or at least 2001, when the IRA made its historic statement about putting weapons "beyond use". Huge chunks of political development are suddenly jumped over. Yet, the late 1990s was a period of immense change, both for the Republican movement and the Irish political situation more generally, a lot of which gets faint if any coverage, and is treated in a highly and strangely truncated manner (do I suspect editorial pressures from the publisher?).
During this more recent period, but also in earlier years, there are some amazing and glaring omissions. The political effects of the Hunger Strikes are not given prominence. No reference is made to the published papers exchanged by Sinn Féin and the SDLP before the Hume-Adams talks - a crucial development from my recollection since it was the first time both parties clearly outlined their positions and differentiated themselves on a number of key constitutional issues. Stunningly, no reference is made to the Brighton bomb! The effect of the Canary Wharf bomb on the negotiating stance of John Major is underplayed - surely a huge success for the IRA in militaristic terms. No reference is made to the formation of the Real IRA and Continuity IRA, and the subsequent Omagh bomb. Finally and inexplicably, given that it amounts to the success of the Adams strategy, there is no discussion of Sinn Féin out-polling the SDLP in the 2001 Westminster elections.
On a stylistic level the book is badly written, lacking fluency and coherence. As I think someone else has said in one of the few criticisms that I have read of the book, its structure is contrived, beginning with the Eskund affair and then returning to it every so often as if to prove something important, when it doesn't. Also, the book jumps suddenly, confusingly and with no obvious reason backwards and forwards in time. Moreover, the author goes off on lengthy tangents to explain, presumably for the popular US and British audience, such issues as the historic background to Irish republicanism, the IRA and the British presence in Ireland more generally, and such things as the specific situation in Derry (it's not at all clear why that's included). For this reader it led to major bouts of skip-reading given their extensive coverage elsewhere and irrelevance to the main subject matter.
Whatever one can say about style and content, the book has one fundamental weakness - the facile interpretation of developments that Moloney puts on the political and strategic changes that Adams took the Republican movement through over the past decade and more. Like so many others, Moloney sees the Good Friday Agreement as the endgame, akin to Fukayama's "End of History"; the idea that somehow because of the acceptance of a transitional way forward and the suspension of armed struggle, it means that political struggle has now finished and that Republicans have given up their long-term aims. He states as early as the preface that "the Troubles have ended" ... "the conclusion of the historic conflict between Ireland and Britain". Really? This is just nonsense. By presenting political developments within Irish Republicanism in this way, never mind broader political developments in Ireland, Moloney shows little understanding of political struggle more generally and how political tactics and means change and develop as circumstances themselves change, both internal and external. Moloney may have years of experience reporting on Ireland, but that doesn't make him an insightful political analyst.
Gerry Adams and his closest allies have clearly had a long-term view on how to proceed the Republican struggle for many years, though probably not as well-defined as Moloney would like us to believe. Given the length of the peace process and the mind-numbing detail in which it has been covered by the media, and followed and pursued by Sinn Féin activists, is what Moloney recounts the least bit surprising, never mind insightful and new? Where have these glowing reviewers been over the last decade and more? Have they really been so blind to strategic changes that have been going on in Republican circles for some time?
What Moloney says is simply not new. The nature of the events he recounts are central and normal to the evolution of any national liberation struggle. Read Nelson Mandela's autobiography where he tells of similar developments, crises, contradictions of strategic means and personal clashes in the ANC's history - for example, the use of armed struggle, speaking to the apartheid government, etc. Similar developments and debates are taking place in the left nationalist movement in the Basque Country, though with arguably less depth and, so far, with less success. Palestine would be another example, with the machinations going on between the range of different political and armed groupings.
If Moloney had produced a straightforward factual account of political and strategic change within the Republican movement, there would be far less of a problem. However, it's his facile account of the strategic meaning of political changes and developments that irritates, together with his journalistic desire to find headlines rather than meaningful and insightful interpretation.
Moloney places himself in a contradictory position. He seems highly cynical of Adams and the Republican movement more generally, yet at the same time applauds Adams for taking the road to 'peace'! For all of Moloney's journalistic experience, such contradictions expose his lack of political understanding, judgement and strategic interpretation of political struggle. This book is deeply flawed and simply not as good as many would have us believe.