Archive for May, 2010

Ed Moloney
Voices From The Grave
Two Men’s War in Ireland

Faber and Faber
ISBN 978-0-571-25168-1

A lot of courage went into this book so it should be better.
I want to concentrate on the first part, which is unfair to David
Ervine whose interview completes the book, but the story of Brendan
Hughes has been more poltiically relevant.
Brendan Hughes risked his standing within the IRA’s collective memory to give an account of the armed campaign and what he saw as its betrayal by Gerry Adams.
As a committed IRA militant over a period of decades, with uncounted
killings under his belt, he was in a position to tell us much more
than he did.
He will have known that he was likely to be dismissed as a traitor by
some and reviled as a coward by others when the story he told to
Boston College was published.
And that is how it has been.
He has been accused of whinging that big boys made him do bad things, a reading of the book which sees Hughes eschewing his own moral responsibility. By this version, he now regrets having killed people and is unable to face the reality that he didn’t get what he thought he was fighting for.
Actually there is little sense in the book that Hughes regretted
anything that he did, apart from ending the first Hunger Strike to
save lives.
There is also very little indication that he personally did anything bad at all.
He says that he wanted to kill as many soldiers and policemen as
possible and get as many bombs into Belfast as he could. But far from pleading innocence of bad deeds by attributing the blame to others who directed him, he does not actually own up to anything.
And, harsh as it may seem to say this, it is because we never have an account of Hughes actually killing anyone that we can’t judge him from his words.
For example, in the story about the murder of Jean McConville, Hughes attributes the decision to ‘disappear’ her to Gerry Adams. But he says he heard this from Ivor Bell. He never puts himself close enough to the decision to kill her to give that claim authority.
As it stands, it is hearsay.
Now, of course, Brendan Hughes may know more than he is owning up to.
He will have felt a responsibility to defend those close to the
action and he was making some concession to the IRA’s requirement of secrecy.
But it’s still just hearsay.
As one of the key leaders of the IRA in Belfast at the most violent
period of the Troubles he had blood on his hands. But this account
puts him at a distance from the action, and that is ironic given that
his charge against Gerry Adams is that he denies what he did.
The contrast offered between Adams and Hughes is that the one denies his IRA past and the other owns up to his and is proud of it.
But Brendan Hughes does not own up to very much.
And the reader will suspect that that is because he wants to think
well of his IRA career and he wants us to think well of him as a
So we have the old myth that the IRA defended the community, was loved by the community and that Brendan was a hero to his people.
Moloney has responsibilities in this too.
The account of the riots in August 1969, in which Brendan Hughes
decided he needed to arm himself and defend the people is just the old standard republican baloney that the Catholic Falls was attacked by the Loyalists. I thought this was dispensed with years ago.
The fact that the rioting was initiated on the Falls Road in an
organised effort to burn out Hastings Street police station, and that
this attack was kept up for hours before there was any shooting at all by any side, or any intrusion of Loyalists onto the Falls, undermines any claim that those who were there have to being innocents caught unawares.
A lot of men on the Falls that night were up for a rattle and it seems
likely that Brendan was one of them.
And if there are questions about the integrity of Hughes’s incomplete
account and of Moloney’s grasp of the events of that month there is
also a weakness in the main thesis that Hughes develops.
Gerry Adams is a smart man, no doubt and an extremely devious one too, but is it really plausible that he singled handedly dismantled the
IRA? If it is true, then he is a genius, both tactically and
charismatically. Maybe he is. We should be all the more wary of him
But there never was a prospect of Brendan Hughes’ dream being
fulfilled, of the IRA forcing the reunification of Ireland.
How would Brendan have preferred that that reality be incorporated
into the political evolution of the IRA?
There would have been integrity in the IRA saying that the cause was lost and urging others not to pursue further armed struggle to achieve what could not be achieved by those means. That would have been a surrender. It’s what defeated armies usually do.
The Adams way was to dress up the surrender as a victory. That he has got away with that, largely, is appalling, but it’s not hard to see
how many a republican would enjoy the joke.
Yet, for all these criticisms, this is the most important history of
the IRA yet written.
It gives us a flavour of life in the prisons and how IRA OCs at times
abused and brutalised their own men.
It gives us the appalling account of the murder of Paddy Joe Crawford, hanged by men who were effectively made to collude in their own intimidation – for why else was Paddy Joe killed but to warn others not to break under questioning.
But more than anything, this book and the promise of others to follow, as other interviewees die and their accounts are released, puts a bomb under the paramilitary projects to write the history of the Troubles on their own terms.
The simple, widely endorsed account, of how the IRA had to do what it did and made Ireland a better place, has been refuted and will be refuted over and over again down the decades to come.
As will other versions too.
The creation of such an archive by Boston College was an act of
courage and brilliance which leaves no liar safely proofed against
disclosure in the future.


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It’s not hard to imagine the jaws dropping onto desktops when the
letter arrived from Culture Minister Nelson McCausland asking museum
heads to pay a bit more attention to matters of vital concern to him
like the Ulster Scots heritage, the Orange Order and the origin of the
On reflection, museum managers might have considered a range of
options short of telling him to get stuffed.
Mr McCausland’s view is that a museum should reflect the culture and
beliefs of the community it serves. In seeking to refute this, the
museums might seek to actively explain the world to a community with
reference to the gaps in the understanding of even its leading
cultural funders.
In short, if Mr McCausland wants the university to offer discussion of
Intelligent Design theory, let them do it. There are a lot of people
among us who believe that religion can still hold out against
scientific discovery. They would have been on the side of the Pope
against Gallileo and they still think they can refute Darwin. They
want to retain the conviction within scientific institutions like
universities and museums that God created the world in seven days.
Well, let them try.
The first comfort for museum heads is that Intelligent Design theory
is already a concession to science. It is a relaxation of the demand
by religious creationists that the Book of Genesis be taken as a
sufficient account of the emergence of the universe, life and
The court cases in the United States, around the demand for the
teaching of Intelligent Design , were attempts by religious
fundamentalists to argue science with scientists, conceding in effect
that there was no point in trying to impress them with scripture.
Scientists and secularists saw this as a threat. It was in fact, the
movement of religious fundamentalists on to ground on which scientists
can defeat them, if they are confident of the strength of their case.
Why shouldn’t we have an exhibition on Intelligent Design
incorporating a discussion of the arguments around it in the museum?
People like Nelson McCausland might soon discover that there is no
comfort in it for them. If they are hopeful that Intelligent Design
restores the Christian explanation of the Universe to them, then they
may be well served by having the full case and its implications laid
out for them.
The problem for creationists is that their argument, if won, might
only establish that an intelligence initiated the Big Bang.
For all they know, that intelligent being might have been killed in the blast.
He, she or it may reside still in another universe and have lost all
interest in this one. There are no grounds for supposing that that
being knows about us or has any benign intentions towards us. There
are no grounds even for supposing that it is an infinite Deity. There
may be another universe in which children spark off Big Bangs with
their chemistry sets. They may not even know that they are doing it.
They will live in a different time frame so our whole span of
existence in this universe may be just a blink to them.
The problem for Intelligent Design freaks is that they don’t read
enough science fiction.
Rationalists might say this is absurd. But we are already making black
holes under Geneva ourselves with the CERN project, so what is so
implausible about an intelligence more advanced than our own
conducting similar or more radical experiments elsewhere?
What Intelligent Design believers do read – some of them – is the
theories of John Polkinghorne, a scientist and minister of the Church
of England who won the £1m Templeton Prize for research that
reconciles science and religion.
The usual experience of religion in the contest with science is that
literal interpretation of scripture loses every encounter. Then those
who continue to insist that religion retains lost ground begin to
sound more desperate and absurd in the secular world. Scientists feel
little need to go on arguing points that they feel that they have won,
like natural selection. Some scientists like Richard Dawkins continue
to wave the victory in the faces of the religious defeated, but there
is no scientific need for them to do so.
Polkinghorne said that the universe looks like a ‘put up job’. If the
pull of gravity was fractionally greater than it is, the universe
would compact into a hard ball; if less, it would scatter like vapour.
It has to be just right if you are to have solar systems and planets.
Look at the Earth. Without a wobble in its revolutions there would be
no seasons and without seasons no cycle of nature. Without our
unstable crust there would have been no volcanoes and we would be a
ball of ice, but the instability has to be just enough to allow life,
not enough to destroy it.
So, what is the scientific answer to the perfect ‘just-rightness’ of
this universe for life? One answer, seriously put forward, is that
there are millions of failed universes, or universes that turned out
differently, and that this is the one that by chance is just suited to
us. That explains our survival agains the odds.
In other words, the answer is a call to faith in the existence of the
unknowable; the sort of thing that religious people come up with.
The difficulty in this debate is that both the religious and the
scientific contenders have cranks on their side; adamant Christians
who think the Bible tells them everything they need to know and ardent
rationalists who fantasise that the job of explaining the universe is
What about an exhibition at the Ulster Museum that acknowledges the
mystery of our being here as mortal but self conscious beings in an
unlikely universe?
Would Nelson be happy with that?
I suspect he would want to see models of humans hunting dinosaurs, but
it is easy to deny him myths for which there are no evidence.
But just because we have a crank for a culture minister doesn’t mean
that the unexplained universe shouldn’t enthrall us.
And some smarty pants in the museum is bound to agree that a serious
discussion of intelligent design theory would tick the right box to
get Nelson off his back.

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