Newsreal: Behind the balaclavas

A British reporter takes an inside look at the Irish Republican Army, explaining how and why it wages war and what it will take for the IRA to make peace

Published October 21, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

when British Prime Minister Tony Blair shook hands with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in Northern Ireland last week, he made history. The simple act signified the first official meeting between representatives of the British government and political representatives of the outlawed Irish Republican Army in 76 years.

The meeting was the a milestone in the fragile peace process aimed at bringing an end to "The Troubles" in the torn province. That the process still has many more miles to go was evident from the jostling and shouts of "traitor" that greeted Blair after the handshake. For many Protestants, talking to Sinn Fein is the same as appeasing IRA murderers with blood still on their hands.

Salon spoke with British television reporter Peter Taylor, who has covered the conflict in Northern Ireland for 25 years for the BBC and commercial television. Taylor is the chief reporter of "Behind the Mask," a "Frontline" two-hour special to be broadcast Tuesday on many PBS stations. The author of an upcoming book of the same name, Taylor gained unprecedented access to members of the Republican movement, including former key "Provos" engaged in the struggle, and was able to produce a detailed account of what lay behind the fratricidal "Troubles" of the past 30 years.

The "Frontline" documentary is based on a four-part series that just finished on the BBC in Britain. Given the amount of play you give to actual IRA members, were you howled down like Tony Blair was when he went to Belfast?

We had the predictable criticisms in the beginning about giving terrorists the oxygen of publicity, of being insensitive in our timing, jeopardizing the talks and all that kind of nonsense. But it died away. Most people I think were drawn into the series for what it was -- an attempt to relate the remarkable evolution of the IRA, from nothing in '69 to where they are now today. I was really gratified by the huge number of people who said it had helped them understand what was going on and why.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the documentary is the amount of access you had with the IRA. We're behind IRA guns, at private meetings, witnessing a training session in bomb-building, inside the Maze prison, watching an FBI videotape of a sting involving IRA arms buyers. Have viewers in Britain or the U.S. ever seen this detail before?

No, never. I made a documentary inside the Maze prison in 1990, which was the first time people had seen IRA members talk the way they really did, and without their masks on. Most of the people on "Behind the Mask" had never been interviewed before. The Republican movement was, to say the least, a little nervous they would say something they shouldn't. But in fact what they did was absolutely straight. Which is the great strength of the series.

In what way?

It's not intended to be judgmental. It's judgmental in as much that I do not approve of people planting bombs that blow people to pieces on Bloody Friday (July 21, 1972, when the IRA planted 26 car bombs all over Belfast, killing nine people and injuring 130). But it's not judgmental in the sense of saying that the IRA are a bunch of murdering bastards, they're thugs, they're Mafiosi, they haven't a political idea in their heads, they enjoy killing. That standard British view of the IRA is thrown out of the window in the documentary. I show them as they are. It's an eye-opening and rather disturbing experience for many people.

Many of them seemed quite ordinary.

Well, they are quite ordinary. They kill people. They kill people because they really do believe they are fighting a war. Guys like Tommy McKearney (who would become a senior commander of the IRA) and Richard McAuley (sentenced to 10 years on weapons charges, now Gerry Adams' press secretary) are highly articulate, intelligent, highly motivated individuals who, had they not been brought up in Northern Ireland, might be doctors or dentists or lawyers or journalists or whatever.

Who were quite capable of the most terrible bungling.

Absolutely. Like Enniskillen (Nov. 11, 1987, when 11 people, including children, were killed by an IRA bomb at a Remembrance Day parade), like Bloody Friday, when you have those awful shots of bodies looking like black treacle being shoved into bags. That's the reality of it. They were bungled operations. As I said to Sean MacSteofin (the Provisional IRA's first chief of staff), if you plant bombs you mustn't be surprised if people get killed.

The Republican reaction has been generally favorable to your series, though there was one criticism, in an Irish newspaper, An Phoblacht (Republican News) that you were too English to understand the deliberateness behind the British government actions.

That was Danny Morrison, a very senior Provisional through the '70s and '80s, and whom I've known for years. He sees the whole thing as an intricate, brilliant plot on the part of the British, everything thought out in advance. To him, "Bloody Sunday" (a march in Derry in January 1972 in which British paratroopers killed 13 unarmed Catholics) was not a huge, tragic cock-up but a deliberate attempt to go in and kill people and teach the Catholics a lesson. Frankly, I regard all that as nonsense. He gives the British far more credit than they deserve. Many Republicans can't accept that they are not on the receiving end of some master British intelligence plot.

You state matter-of-factly that both Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, now Sinn Fein MPs, were both in the IRA. Isn't that rather controversial?

Yup. But it doesn't come as any surprise. The surprise would be if they had hadn't been in the IRA.

But they deny it.

McGuinness doesn't really deny it. He was convicted twice in the early '70s of IRA membership.

What about Adams, who has denied it repeatedly?

Adams has never been convicted of membership, though the British brought a case against him which was dropped. Those who are in a position to know, like Sean MacStiofain, chief of the staff at the time of the secret 1972 IRA meeting with then-Northern Ireland Secretary William Whitelaw in London, suggest otherwise. He said that the delegation that met with Whitelaw was an IRA delegation, there were no Sinn Fein people on it. I say, "Martin McGuinness, IRA?" and he says, "Yes, Of course." And I say "Gerry Adams?" And he says, "All IRA." So do you take Gerry Adams' word or do you take the word of the man who was their military commander at the time and who put the delegation together?

Why must he insist he's not and has never been a member then? Why does Sinn Fein deny it's the political wing of the IRA?

What Sinn Fein is trying to do is distance itself from the IRA for political reasons, to get into all-party talks. But it's absolute nonsense because they are different faces of the same organization. The reason that Adams denies it is that if he admitted it, he'd be convicted and the last place that Gerry Adams wants to be at the moment is in jail.

How important has the American role in Northern Ireland been?

Irish Americans have viewed the IRA as the IRA viewed itself. They saw the IRA as being the historical descendant of the IRA that many of the older people, like the George Harrisons (a leading IRA supporter in the U.S. who arranged arms shipments) knew from the '30s. Irish-Americans knew their money was going for guns. That's why they gave them money.

And the Clinton administration?

Absolutely critical in the current peace process. What Clinton did was act as guarantor. He told Adams, through his security advisors, look, you get your men to end their bombing campaign and we will give you -- i.e. Sinn Fein -- moral and political support and make sure the Brits don't screw you. That's why Clinton was so deeply pissed off, to say the least, when the Canary Wharf bomb went off last year and the first cease-fire ended.

When you say "get your men," you mean the IRA, even though the only way Adams could get into the States was as leader of Sinn Fein?

Of course. Washington had no doubt that Adams was IRA because there'd be no point in dealing with him otherwise.

What about the Canary Wharf bombing, which, as you say, "pissed off" Clinton? What did Adams know about it?

Adams and McGuinness must have known that a decision had been made to end the cease-fire. It is inconceivable that they would not have known that the IRA had made a decision to go back to "the war." But they would not have known where the attack would have taken place or when it would have taken place.

Why did they want to go back to war?

I almost believe the reason that Canary Wharf happened was to prevent a split in the IRA.

How so?

All the IRA are hawks. But some are more hawkish than others. After 17 months of a cease-fire, with no progress, with no talks, obstacle after obstacle, as they saw it, being out in their way, the hardest men would say, "The only thing the Brits understand is a bomb." So the Canary Wharf bomb was probably agreed to as a message that they were fed up with being messed about. I suspect that Adams and McGuinness would have been party to that debate.

You conclude the documentary by saying, "The euphoria belongs to the politicians, not the soldiers." Why?

Well, because the soldiers are still waiting on the sidelines. They will only hand over their weapons, or decommission or bury them, when and if there is a settlement. They are an army and they are waiting for their orders from their commanders.

Who are ...?

In the broad military and political sense, Adams and McGuinness.

How do you see the future of the peace process?

Peace has to be out there on the horizon somewhere beckoning, otherwise Adams and McGuinness could never sell it to the IRA. They recognize they're not going to have a united Ireland in the near future, like today or tomorrow or next May. But that doesn't mean that in 10 years' time the situation may not change.

What needs to happen in the next 10 years?

The Unionists have to recognize the necessity for cross-border institutions that actually mean something. The Republican movement has to accept that there will be no united Ireland in the immediate future and compromise by agreeing to a locally devolved government. Basically, it's like the abortive Sunningdale agreement of the 1970s, but with rather more weight to it. It has to offer the Republicans the possibility of evolution towards their goal. It's Michael Collins (the IRA leader who made the Ulster/Eire partition agreement with the British in 1921) all over again. One just hopes that Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuinness don't meet the fate of Mr. Collins. Their great achievement this time is they've brought the movement with them. But they will not try and sell a settlement they know the movement won't buy. That's critical.

By Ros Davidson

Ros Davidson is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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