The Secret War that Brought the Secret to Peace

George Brock reviews Ed Moloney’s new book Paisley, Steve Bruce’s new book Paisley along with the second edition of Ed Moloney’s Secret History of the IRA while also looking at Kenneth Bloomfield’s A Tragedy of Errors, and concludes the real thanks for peace go to the spooks and spies that made it possible. It’s a fascinating read.

By 1987, when Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were already in secret, deniable communication with London, the securocrats were well enough informed to nudge matters along. Adams’s interest in turning the Provos into a political force was longstanding: he first mentioned it in 1979. But his withdrawal from the pretence that killing could push Britain out of Northern Ireland had to be very gradual. A grim kind of balance between armed force and elections had been achieved with the “ballot box and Armalite” strategy. As Provisional Sinn Féin started to experiment politically in the late 1980s, the IRA also started to rearm. But Adams knew that the Armalite half of the equation was not working: the hit rate might occasionally rise but the failure rate was rising faster. The British knew that Adams knew. For besides Scappaticci, for twenty years they were running one of Adams’s inner circle, Denis Donaldson. Those two were only the stars among a network of spies that must have gone wider.

Adams was meeting internal opposition on both political and paramilitary fronts. One of the most intriguing puzzles to be solved by his biographers is this: when and to what extent was Adams aware that the havoc being wreaked by spies in the IRA was helping his cause? At any rate the British government was in a position to post a devastating warning to his opponents. Nowhere was the opposition inside the IRA likely to be tougher than in Tyrone. In 1987, at Loughgall in East Tyrone, the SAS ambushed and killed an eight-man IRA unit attempting to demolish a police station, killing more “volunteers” in a single incident than at any time since 1921. Up to the year 2000, the IRA in Tyrone had lost fifty-three people; but twenty-eight of those died between 1987 and 1992.

In other words, after Loughgall, they were being killed five times faster. This acceleration could be a coincidence, but that hardly seems possible. Despite appalling headline atrocities, the numbers revealed that the Provisionals were nearly finished everywhere they operated. In the summer of 1988, they killed soldiers at twice their average rate. In 1989, they killed twenty-four; the total halved in each of the next two years.

This sequence of events is important for an understanding of the long last act of the drama. Many accounts of the “peace process” suggest that Adams turned the IRA towards elections; many leave his exact motives for this switch mysterious. Somehow the hard man softened.

Read more: Who really brought peace to Belfast?

Correction, the Paisley book being reviewed is Steve Bruce’s, not Ed Moloney’s – thanks, John (below, #6).