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5.0 out of 5 stars Dead Men Do Tell Tales, 23 Jun 2011
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This review is from: Voices from the Grave: Two Men's War in Ireland (Paperback)
Irish journalist Ed Moloney has provided a fascinating account of the troubles seen from the perspective of two of the leading paramilitary participants, Brendan Hughes and David Irvine, from the Republican and Loyalist sides, respectively. Hughes was a leading military operative in the IRA throughout the 1970s but became a marginal figure from the 1980s onwards, while Irvine transcended his paramilitary UVF origins and metamorphosised to become a leading political figure in the peace process in the 1990s.

Two-thirds of the book tells the story from Hughes' point-of-view, the remainder from Irvine's. Both men are now dead, so their stories can be told.

Hughes is much more candid about his paramilitary past, hence his story is longer. He made no secret of his desire to shoot British soldiers as soon as possible, and this during the brief honeymoon between nationalists and the British army in 1969/70, when it was safe for British soldiers to drink in nationalist bars. Hughes himself drank with the very soldiers whom he was itching to shoot. But Hughes is less than candid regarding his role in the death of Jean McConville, the mother-of-ten, `disappeared' and executed by the IRA in 1972, reportedly for being a British informer. Hughes upholds the official Republican version and claimed a transmitter was found in her house but his evidence is hearsay and it was not clear if he was present at her arrest and interrogation or not. (p129) Perhaps Maloney missed an opportunity here to clarify this. Hughes has taken this secret to the grave.

Hughes considered himself a soldier, not a politician, contrasting himself with Gerry Adams, with whom he once had a close relationship. Hughes portrays Adams as a ruthless, calculating political operator who has denied his paramilitary past to further his political advantage. Given that Adams's intimate involvement in the IRA's military hierarchy is one of Adams's worst-kept secrets, one can readily appreciate Hughes' gall. But Hughes it was clear had no vision. Hughes represents the peace posture of Adams and McGuinness is presented simply as a ploy to substitute the vicissitudes of the struggle for ease and comfort. But what would Hughes have proposed by way of an alternative - another 25 years of `armed struggle'? The fact was that the armed struggle had failed and a political solution was the only viable way forward.

Irvine is less candid about his paramilitary past so his story is shorter. The UVF was known for spectacular car bomb outrages, most notoriously the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in 1974. Irvine knew a lot about explosives and car bombs especially - so much so that a British bomb disposal officer forced Irvine to defuse a car bomb at gun point. To what extent was he involved and how much did he know? But Irvine is reticent on these points. Unless his former cohorts speak up, it is unlikely we will ever know. The older, thoughtful Irvine yields some insights into the Loyalist mind set and the manipulations of it by the likes of Paisley. His satisfaction with the peace process stems from the basic assurance that Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom is secure. The Unionists as the majority community will never vote for the dissolution of this tie and for Irvine that is democracy. But what if the demographic advantage slips away? Would he allow for a Catholic majority to revoke it on the same majoritarian principle? He doesn't say.

It was clear that the root cause of the conflict was a historical injustice in the denial of formal political and civic equality to the province's Catholic population. This was the kindle which presented the IRA with an opportunity and produced the likes of Hughes. British troops were initially welcomed by nationalist communities but this goodwill was soon squandered, as the Unionist demanded that the British treat the political problem as a criminal one. Did the Unionist tail wag the British dog? But the Republicans likewise failed to appraise their Unionist enemy, who were not vestigial stooges of British imperialism but movers of their own cause.

This is a fascinating, compelling book of oral history, which tells the story from the perspective of those who participated in it. By definition this cannot be exhaustive and impartial, for the participants will seek to exonerate themselves and the causes for which they fought. But that does not invalidate this book as a serious work of history, for the perspectives of the participants, which fuelled the conflict, need to be understood. This book helped me to do just that.
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