Voices from the Grave

A recent Community Relations Council Report had two surprising revelations. Firstly, one of the less anticipated results of the peace process is the emergence of places like Derry city and Belfast as centres of urbanisation, witnessing the birth of a ‘cappuccino culture’ with rich people enjoying consumerism more than the tribalism the province is famed for. Indeed, Belfast hosted the last MTV awards, and Derry was awarded the City of Culture contract. Think back fifteen or twenty years. Northern Ireland would be the last place anyone would think to hold such events.

The second revelation is far darker, hearkening back to the days before the peace process that brought about the end of the war between the Provos and Loyalist paramilitaries. Between 2005 and 2009, Derry city saw 452 sectarian attacks. Violence on the part of anti-peace  Republican offshoots, such as the Real IRA, is ongoing. Para-militarism has by no means been dealt with satisfactorily and the various issues that divided each side of the conflict are still bubbling beneath the surface. Dr Paul Nolan poses a very interesting question –“Which is it to be? Are we leaving the Troubles behind, or does the continuation of sectarian division mean that at some point in the future the underlying tensions could see a violent eruption?”

The book on which the 2010 RTE documentary Voices from the Grave was based draws heavily from the interviews of two major players from either side – former senior IRA member Brendan Hughes and David Ervine, who had been in the UVF. Both were interviewed at length by Boston College, which traces the movements of the conflict from the two perspectives, offering a hugely intimate and insightful view into the politics and plans of the Republican and Loyalist movements. Hughes was involved with the IRA from the beginning of the conflict, commanding IRA units in Belfast, operating right under the noses of the RUC and the British army. He boasted an impressive Republican pedigree, one which protected him from discreditation by Sinn Féin in his later years spent criticising the movement, and included a daring escape from Long Kesh prison. Of particular interest is Hughes’ (now deceased) revelations about Gerry Adams, who continually denies any involvement in the IRA and the resentment of old Republicans at his actions.

“If Gerry had told me [in the Seventies] that tomorrow was Sunday when I knew it was Monday, I would have thought twice, that maybe it was Sunday, because he said it,” Hughes said. “Now, if he told me that today was Friday, even though it was Friday, I’d call him a f—— liar.”

Hughes maintains the order for the murder of Jean McConville, a suspected British informer, came directly from Adams who later claimed he was still in prison at the time of her death. So too, Hughes claims, did the order for the killing of another suspected informer – IRA man Paddy Joe Crawford – come from Adams. Crawford was hung in Long Kesh, and reported as a suicide.

Unfortunately the memoirs of David Ervine are almost overshadowed by the frank and often startling revelations by Hughes which is a pity, as Ervine too was a senior man in his own organisation. Still he reveals interesting if less monumental facts; the links between Republican and Unionist paramilitary prisoners who aided one side in the feud between the UDA and the UVF, and the less than respectful view many Loyalists had of Ian Paisley, the firebrand preacher who was seen to say one thing then eventually do another.

Despite their blunt admissions about their involvement in para-militarism and the violence that came with it, the two are almost excused as the result of outside and ancient forces. Hughes came from a long line of Republicans; his father spent time in prison for his actions, and grew up around the presence of former IRA heroes and the need to protect the Catholic community, while David Ervine’s participation is seen as the inevitable outcome of the attacks on his own community. One thing is certain and clear – the effect of the conflict on the moral compasses of both sides. Both are presented as normal human beings, with friends and family, who are forced by the conflict to do terrible things, with some regret. Hughes showed some remorse over the killings of innocent bystanders though none over the deaths of soldiers or Loyalists, legitimate targets in his eyes. Ervine makes some attempt on his part to criticise the actions of the Shankhill butchers, but stresses his opposition was on a personal level, hinting that murders effectively did their job – terrorising the Catholic population.

The two lived out starkly separate and differing lives as the conflict moved to its close. Hughes left the IRA a disillusioned man, never happy with the peace process and those who brought it about and died in 2008, sad and bitter in a Belfast flat. At his funeral, Gerry Adams was prevented from giving the oration for his former colleague, an indication that the rift between the two and what they stood for had never healed. On the other hand, Ervine, who died a year earlier in 2007, moved towards the respectable side of political Unionism, joining the Ulster Unionist group in Stormont.

Essentially, Voices from the Grave charts the worst moments of the conflict that marred Northern Ireland for several decades, and gives its reader a stern warning and caution for the future, should those dark days ever seem likely to return.

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