When I lived in Belfast in the early 2000s, the city was beginning to recover from the thirty-year period of violence that the Irish somewhat euphemistically refer to as “The Troubles.” There was a shiny new shopping mall on Royal Avenue, tourists were trickling in and sipping pints at classic bars like the Crown and the Duke of York, and a growing international contingent attended Queen’s University. I was part of that international group, as an American earning a master’s degree in Irish Politics. I well knew the ins and outs of the Troubles–that’s why I was there.
The new book Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe covers a lot of familiar territory for scholars of the Troubles, but he presents it in an engaging fashion that reads like a crime novel. As Keefe covers the highlights of the Troubles, he weaves the lives of a few key players into the fabric of the larger history: Dolours and Marian Price, sisters who were major figures in the “armed struggle” of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (known as the Provos, or more simply as the IRA); the story of IRA operative Brendan “The Dark” Hughes; and the tragedy of Jean McConville, a mother of ten children who was disappeared by the IRA in the early 1970s.
Keefe’s engrossing narrative is difficult to put down because the reader wants the answers to the essential pieces of the mystery woven into the book: What happened to Dolours and Marian Price? How and why did Brendan Hughes have a falling out with the IRA? Do we know what became of Jean McConville and her ten children–and, importantly, who killed her? Keefe answers all of these questions, but you have to read to the very end to find out.
For a person with a casual interest in Ireland, this book is well written, informative, and compelling. Keefe explains Bloody Sunday, internment, the hunger strikes, the Good Friday Agreement, and the controversy surrounding the “Belfast Project,” a series of interviews with paramilitary figures that were intended to be kept secret until the deaths of the individuals.
But, for a scholar of Ireland, Keefe’s book has a few problems.
Say Nothing offers a selective narrative in order to tell a neatly packaged story, however, the arc of history in Northern Ireland has been messier than Keefe’s book suggests. The account proceeds cleanly from the birth of the Provos to internment to the hunger strikes to the Good Friday Agreement that ended the violence in 1998. At points, he suggests that Gerry Adams had been planning to take the IRA away from paramilitary activity for decades. Yet, this story leaves out many critical moments that could have ended the violence and suffering a lot earlier, if the leaders of the Provos had not been so committed to the “armed struggle.”
First among these omissions is the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973, which included many of the same features of the Good Friday Agreement twenty-five years later. The accord from Sunningdale included a power-sharing executive, proportional representation at Stormont, and a cross-border Council of Ireland. This agreement was not supported by the Provos, who still believed that violence could force the British out of Ireland; it was also rejected by Loyalists, who staged a general strike that ultimately killed the Agreement. But if the Provos had accepted Sunningdale, thousands of lives may have been saved–including the ten men who died on hunger strike in 1981.
Yet the Provos fought on for another twenty-five years. They continued the armed struggle through the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Downing Street Declaration. Bill Clinton gave Gerry Adams a visa to visit the United States in 1994. There were a few ceasefires, but nothing stuck until 1998.
And Keefe misrepresents the key players in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement. He grossly exaggerates the role played by Sinn Féin in the negotiations. John Hume’s Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) were the most important people responsible for the deal, even though Sinn Féin and the DUP quickly became the most prominent parties in Northern Ireland after the agreement. And that accord still has problems, as Sinn Féin and the DUP have found it difficult to work together since the deaths of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, who, despite years of animosity, exhibited interpersonal chemistry when they finally agreed to work together.
Say Nothing is an elegant story for people who don’t know the finer details, and a captivating narrative even for those who do. Historians of Ireland won’t learn much that is new, especially if they have read the interviews in Voices from the Grave. And, the IRA has a lot of open secrets. Although Keefe has a big reveal at the end with his assertion about the third person involved in the abduction and execution of Jean McConville, I remember thinking, “Wait, I thought everyone already knew that?”
Finally, Keefe suggests at the end of the book that the problem of Brexit might lead to a united Ireland. I think this claim naively underestimates the Unionist/Loyalist fervor to remain part of the United Kingdom. Unionists dislike the devolved assembly and the Good Friday Agreement a lot less than nationalists. The DUP supported Brexit because the party believed that leaving the EU would bring Northern Ireland closer to mainland Britain. Keefe seems to think that the economic benefits of EU membership will sway many Unionists to take up the cause of a 32-county Republic of Ireland. This point of view cannot hold up to scrutiny: Unionists have long been afraid that the British would abandon them to the Irish government. They will fight for their right to remain British.
I don’t think Brexit will lead to a united Ireland, but I do think it has the potential to lead to significant political violence. The DUP is keeping Theresa May’s majority in tact, and she can’t afford to alienate them if she wants to hold on to power. But, as the recent riots in Derry show us, she needs to tread carefully. A return to political violence in Northern Ireland would be tragic indeed.