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The Northern Irish Troubles, relative to their scale, are the most studied conflict in modern history. They took place in a province the size of Connecticut with a population of around 1.6 million people, and they claimed fewer than 4,000 dead over the course of 25 years of continuous low-intensity warfare. The satirist P. J. O’Rourke called Northern Ireland “heck’s half-acre.” Early in the conflagration, the British government’s cynical policy was to maintain “an acceptable level of violence,” at least until one minister was indiscreet enough to admit it.
Yet the Troubles have enthralled generations of writers and scholars. And no wonder: preceded by centuries of injustices against the Irish perpetrated or supported by the British, a quarter century of simmering conflict and ritual murder engendered intense resentment and distrust between the mainly Protestant unionist majority in Northern Ireland, which wants the province to remain part of the United Kingdom, and the primarily Catholic nationalist minority, which believes it should unite with the Republic of Ireland. Although the 1998 Good Friday Agreement ended the fighting, the question of Northern Ireland’s sovereignty still hovers forebodingly over the island.
The situation remains combustible, all the more so thanks to Brexit, which 56 percent of Northern Irish voters opposed. The United Kingdom’s departure from the EU promises to hurt the Northern Irish economy by restricting trade with the rest of Europe and ending the European Union’s subsidies to Northern Ireland. It might also force the British and Irish governments to reimpose a militarized border with the republic, which could antagonize nationalists and reopen old wounds that the EU’s leavening of sovereign boundaries had helped to heal.
If Northern Ireland’s unresolved sovereignty and the aggravation of Brexit aren’t enough to explain writers’ perpetual fascination with the Troubles, add to those reasons the conflict’s location in a developed and Anglophone great power, the military success of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (the organization reigned supreme among militant groups in Europe, easily outkilling Spain’s Basque militants, Italy’s Red Brigades, and West Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Gang), the Troubles’ status as the United Kingdom’s last and most recalcitrant colonial problem, and the romantic urgency that talented and fervent writers and scholars of Irish lineage—inside and outside Ireland—have conferred on it.
The title of Patrick Radden Keefe’s new book, Say Nothing, draws from the work of perhaps Northern Ireland’s most famous writer, Seamus Heaney, whose poem “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing” the IRA adopted as a slogan. Say Nothing illuminates the uneasy proximity of barbarity, self-worth, and a kind of comfort in violently divided societies. Like Jez Butterworth’s brilliant recent play, The Ferryman, the book concerns the IRA practice known as “disappearing,” whereby the group would execute those deemed inimical to the cause of a united Ireland without acknowledging or attributing the murder, leaving the family to wonder about the victim’s fate. Keefe focuses on one famously cruel disappearance perpetrated by the IRA. The victim was Jean McConville, a 38-year-old mother of ten, widowed for less than a year and deeply depressed. Her primal offense was apparently to console a British soldier who had been shot, presumably by the IRA, and was crying for help on the road outside the McConvilles’ apartment block in West Belfast.
In December 1972, the worst year of the Troubles, 12 IRA volunteers abducted McConville from her home as her terrified children looked on. A week later, a man came by the flat and handed McConville’s 11-year-old son, Michael, her purse and the three rings she’d been wearing. Later, Michael understood that despite years of wishful denial, that was the moment he knew, in his heart, that she was dead. Although the IRA disappeared people only sparingly, the practice acquired a high profile when family members of the disappeared began to push for public accountability in the early 1990s, even as the IRA declared a cease-fire ahead of a historic peace initiative. The IRA admitted to McConville’s murder in 1999, and her remains finally washed up on a beach in the Irish Republic in 2003, when her family was able to give her a proper burial.
The true significance of McConville's death lies in what it reveals: that political violence disfigures society as a whole, even decades after the fighting has stopped.
Wisely, Keefe does not tax readers with a set-piece history of the Troubles. But to give McConville’s story its full nuance, he does extend his journalistic tendrils well into the conflict. For instance, he offers a captivating account of the IRA Belfast Brigade’s counterintelligence operation, which was responsible for identifying informants. Brendan Hughes, commander of D Company, who would become an IRA legend for his exploits in prison and on the street, turned two IRA men who were double agents for the British Army into triple agents for the IRA, enabling his unit to target and kill a covert British operative as well as clean house within the organization. The IRA demonstrated its ruthless ethos—the punishment for all informants, known as “touts” or “grasses,” was death—in the McConville case.
McConville died very early in the Troubles. The weight of the evidence that Keefe has collected and sorted indicates that Gerry Adams, as commander of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade, probably authorized her execution. But Keefe sees that the resonance and irony of her death, and the messiness of the terrorism and counterterrorism business more broadly, are best understood in the light of the conflict’s subsequent history.
In 1976, republican inmates in the Northern Irish prison known as the Maze started what would become a long series of protests when they insisted on being categorized as political prisoners, refusing to wear uniforms that would have marked them as common criminals and donning blankets instead. Two years later, they escalated their campaign with the “dirty protest,” refraining from washing or emptying their chamber pots and smearing their own excrement on their cell walls. In 1980, seven prisoners engaged in a 53-day hunger strike. A more effective one was mounted in March 1981, ending seven months later after ten of the strikers had died and Bobby Sands, the first one to perish, had been elected a member of the British Parliament. The 1981 hunger strike affirmed and consolidated Irish republicans’ defiant prison culture. And what was more important, it rejuvenated the IRA’s declining morale and recruitment and inaugurated the “Armalite and ballot box” strategy of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political alter ego, whereby the republican movement would advance a nonviolent political campaign to unite Ireland in coordination with the armed struggle.
As Sinn Fein leader, almost ten years after McConville’s death, Adams thus adopted a “long war” approach, which assumed that it would take years, perhaps decades, to drive the British out and that the nationalists needed to enlist broad swaths of the Catholic population in the fight. At the same time, he intensified his denials that he was ever a member of the IRA or participated in paramilitary operations, a position he has maintained. Although nobody with even a minimal knowledge of the Troubles believes Adams, many republicans accept his dissembling as a politically expedient ruse, designed in part to give the British, the unionists, and other interested parties political cover for dealing with Sinn Fein. Absent Adams’ denials, it’s not clear that U.S. President Bill Clinton would have given Adams a visa to drum up U.S. support for the peace process, that British officials would have countenanced him as an interlocutor during the run-up to the crucial 1994 IRA cease-fire, or that unionists would later have sat across the table from him in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement. It’s likely that a mole run by British Army intelligence served for years as the IRA’s internal security chief, a fact that casts doubt on the accuracy of the IRA’s determinations that anyone, McConville included, was an informant for the British. In this light, none of the major players had a strong incentive to seek the truth about McConville’s vanishing. And the British and Northern Irish security forces’ collusion with loyalist paramilitaries and the various cover-ups they engaged in afforded the former little credibility in any case.
More particularly relevant to McConville’s story than this wider history is the saga of the Price sisters, Dolours and Marian—legacy republicans and true believers hardened by Bloody Sunday, in 1972, when British paratroopers opened fire on a republican march protesting the internment of IRA suspects, killing 14 unarmed Catholic protesters. Keefe tells the story of the Price sisters well, recounting how their unwavering defiance as hunger strikers while imprisoned for their part in the IRA’s 1973 bombing of the Old Bailey embodied both the fierceness of “physical force” republicanism and the pervasiveness of the revolutionary spirit in the Catholic community.
This is well-trod ground, but the passage of time allows Keefe to reexamine it with calibrated hindsight. In particular, he conveys the conspiratorial flavor of the time and the way in which the republican community habitually diverted blame away from the IRA for killings that seemed especially atrocious:
Almost as soon as Jean McConville had disappeared, rumors began to circulate that she had not been kidnapped at all—that, on the contrary, she had absconded of her own free will, abandoning her children to shack up with a British soldier. The children, who were already seized with worry, became aware of these stories. They would hear people whispering, feel the hot glare of judgment when they saw their neighbors in the shop or on the street. . . . Archie McConville would later conclude that all that whispering amounted to more than just salt in the wound. It was a kind of poison, he decided, “an attempt to wreck our minds.”
In its last hundred pages, the book shifts from topical history to investigative journalism, as Keefe attempts to reconstruct the last days of McConville’s life. He found a trove of relevant material through the Belfast Project, a privately funded initiative at Boston College that collected testimony from paramilitaries involved in the Troubles. The idea behind the project was to ensure an accurate historical record and, less centrally, to allow for the accountability and closure that the Good Friday Agreement had understandably elided in the name of more immediate peace. The two main researchers on the project were Anthony McIntyre, known as Mackers, a former IRA volunteer and a prisoner with a doctorate in Irish history, and Ed Moloney, the author of a revisionist history of the IRA. Both men believed that Sinn Fein had sold out the IRA rank and file by settling for less than a united Ireland in the Good Friday Agreement.
Brendan Hughes, who died in 2008, shared that belief. In a taped interview, he told McIntyre that the IRA had determined that McConville was an informer, having twice discovered a British Army–supplied transmitter in her house. He said that Adams had ordered her disappeared. In a newspaper interview, Dolours Price, who died in 2013, confirmed Adams’ supervisory involvement, adding that she had driven McConville over the border to the Irish Republic for her execution, in line with IRA practice. In a Belfast Project interview with Moloney, Price also indicated that an unnamed source had seen McConville outside a British Army barracks, that she had confessed to informing on the IRA, and that Price had been one of three IRA volunteers present when McConville was shot dead over a pre-dug grave. Although British authorities obtained the Belfast Project tapes in 2014 with the help of a U.S. Department of Justice subpoena, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland detained and questioned Adams about McConville’s murder, the police released him without charges. Only former IRA Chief of Staff Ivor Bell, then 77, was indicted for the crime.
Keefe wonders whether McConville ever even had a transmitter, which would have entailed a heavy investment for the British and a substantial risk for McConville, who would have had precious little high-value intelligence to offer. He also questions Price’s account of McConville’s confession. Some of its details don’t square with known circumstances, and guilt might have impelled Price to rationalize the killing. But by way of a protracted and sometimes breathless subnarrative, Keefe does reach one hard factual conclusion, on the basis of fairly strong circumstantial evidence: Marian Price fired the fatal bullet. (She denies it.)
The revelation may slake readers’ presumed thirst for melodrama. But whether or not McConville really was a grass, who ordered her killed and who actually did the deed are ultimately of little consequence today. As Keefe’s assiduous journalism ultimately makes clear, the true significance of her death lies in what it reveals: that political violence disfigures society as a whole, whether with guilt or with grief, even decades after the fighting has stopped. Near the end of the book, Keefe writes:
“The body is a fantastic machine,” Hughes told Mackers in one of his Boston College interviews, recounting the grueling sequence of a hunger strike. “It’ll eat off all the fat tissue first, then it starts eating away at the muscle, to keep the brain alive.” Long after Hughes and Price called an end to their strikes and attempted to reintegrate into society, they nursed old grudges and endlessly replayed their worst wartime abominations. In a sense, they never stopped devouring themselves. The official pronouncement in the coroner’s report for Dolours Price was “death by misadventure.”
Although Northern Ireland is technically at peace, traumatic memories, individual and collective, have fueled competitive, ancestral outrage—“whataboutery,” as the Northern Irish call it—keeping society divided, cross-community rhetoric vitriolic and sectarian, and a dormant conflict at risk of reigniting. However small the Troubles may have been, Northern Ireland remains a laboratory of protracted communal violence, relevant to conflicts on any scale. If 3,600 killings have so poisoned society there, consider the impact of body counts orders of magnitude larger elsewhere and the work required to ameliorate the damage. Keefe’s fine, searching book shows that a political agreement formally resolving a conflict marks only the beginning of a long, agonizing, and fitful process of reconciliation.