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Northern Ireland’s Ghosts, Living in Plain Sight


Helen McKendry with a family photograph showing her mother, Jean McConville, and some of Jean’s children. In 1972, the 38-year-old Belfast woman, a mother of 10, was kidnapped in front of her children and murdered by the IRA. She had been accused of passing information to the British forces. Her body was not found until 2003. Helen, McConville’s daughter, is shown second from the right in the photograph on her lap. PETER MUHLY/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

When driving through the tight, winding rural roads of Northern Ireland (or is it the north of Ireland?), you pass through quaint, sleepy little towns. Most barely have a High Street. But if you didn’t know any better, you’d think there was an important sporting event most days. It isn’t unusual to see a town draped in flags; light blue and red or orange and maroon, intermixed with a few Union Jacks. Look closer and you might see a red hand or a red fist. In other towns, the tricolor of the Republic of Ireland flies.

These flags are representations of community. They are expressions of identities forged through almost 30 years of violence, a period that came to be known as “the Troubles.” From 1969 to 1998, organized elements from the Catholic community of Northern Ireland, with the primary group known as the Provisional Irish Republican Army (nicknamed “Provos,” or the Provisional IRA), mounted an armed resistance against British rule and the Protestant community of Northern Ireland that governed the region.

Complicating matters, the Protestant community organized its own paramilitaries to resist the Catholic movement.

Northern Ireland was beset by brutal violence that ripped apart families and communities over three decades. While the conflict must have felt much more intense for a divided Belfast than in other parts of the region, even in cities like Londonderry (or is it Derry?), where bombings were less frequent, regular outbursts of bloodshed contributed to a palpable tension in these culturally divided cities.

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The Troubles can be considered a “low-boil” conflict with consistent but relatively low numbers of fatalities compared to other conflicts — 3,289 in total between 1969 and 1998. However, the early years of the hostilities were distinctly more intense and lethal. Approximately 15 percent of the deaths directly related to the conflict occurred in 1972, with 60 percent of all fatalities falling in the first decade of the conflict. In June of that year, the most violent of the conflict, the British Army officially stationed over 30,000 troops in Northern Ireland — a staggering number. By comparison, the United Nations has placed 17,000 troops in South Sudan in response to a civil war that has claimed nearly 400,000 lives.

The Troubles officially ended with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Despite parties signing on the dotted line, demobilization did not happen overnight, and hardened attitudes were difficult to displace. Violence declined but persisted, albeit at much lower rates, with 66 reported deaths between 1999 and 2003. Several groups unhappy with the agreement decided to develop splinter groups like the Real IRA, a 21st-century iteration of the Provos. Reports show that demobilization of armed groups like the Provos was largely effective. But as Gerry Adams, former Provos leader turned Republican politician, said with a wink in 1995, “they haven’t gone away, you know.”

Violence is one of human society’s most memorialized activities. “Lest we forget,” the graves of unknown soldiers, Memorial Days, commemorations of tragedies (manmade and natural), war memorials and other remembrances extend through and beyond the generations, beyond those who could have any direct personal connection to the dead. Why do we remember? What do we remember? How do we remember?

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At first glance, Patrick Radden Keefe’s new book, “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland,” seems like an interesting history of critical members of the Provos in Northern Ireland. If you do not get to the end of the book, you might think Keefe’s crowning achievement is in simply providing a more gripping retelling of a story that has been told many times before. The first 200 pages offer engaging portrayals of Provos characters like Dolours Price, Marian Price and Brendan Hughes, which leave you sympathizing with their cause while despising their actions. The twist, and ultimately the power of the book, is that it isn’t just a history, it is a recollection.

Memory and recollection can distort the contours of reality. Over time, perspectives dim, opinions harden and nostalgia creeps in. Current-day emotions influence how our memories form as well as our remembrances of the past. “Say Nothing” makes no apologies for this approach to history as it acknowledges the gaps within the puzzles of the past. Keefe tells the stories of those who disappeared during the conflict (abducted, murdered), focusing in particular on the case of a young mother of 10 named Jean McConville. His work is a striking example of how memory, politics and personality not only obscure and challenge the writing of history, but also have a direct impact on how those who are most affected by history can come to cope with and even reconcile with the past.

The author’s methodology in selecting his cast of characters is revealed later in the book. Each person not only had a direct involvement in the Troubles, they also granted interviews to the Belfast Project, an oral history undertaking hosted at Boston College. The project collected interviews with more than 100 individuals from both the Republican and the Loyalist sides of the conflict. Participants confidentially shared their memories, opinions and feelings with interviewers who, it turned out, had themselves all been important participants in the conflict.

As Keefe explains, the Belfast Project’s difficulty revolved around the timing of the release of the “private” interviews. Would a participant’s recollections be available once he or she died, or would the project wait until the passing of all participants before releasing any of the interviews? As it happened, it didn’t matter what interviewees had been promised. Once individual participants began to die, Ed Moloney, the Belfast Project’s founder, used excerpts from the tapes for his 2010 book, “Voices From the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland,” resulting in legal and social difficulties for those who had opened up about their activities during the Troubles — and who were still amongst the living.

The tapes are a treasure trove of individual recollections of the most confidential and impactful discussions and private thoughts during the Troubles. The recordings provide insights into major events and their planning, such as the car bombing of the Old Bailey courthouse in central London in 1973.

They also raise new questions. Did the Thatcher government negotiate with the 1981 Irish hunger strikers? Who is actually responsible for the death of Bobby Sands, the member of the Provos turned parliamentarian who died during the hunger strike? Who ordered the disappearance and killing of Jean McConville, abducted from her West Belfast home? Like Pandora’s box, the tapes reveal new information, open up new avenues of inquiry, recast interpretations and, of course, throw up fresh questions.


Us vs. them narratives are effective forms of propaganda. The realities of the Troubles, however, present complicated relationships between a multitude of armed groups, sides and alliances. In a number of conversations that I’ve had with people directly involved in the Troubles, it’s clear that while the conflict can be easily portrayed as Republicans versus the British, such a straightforward dichotomy obscures how the British military played both sides of the sectarian divide. A former colleague who was part of a Loyalist paramilitary group recounted how the Brits provided information to both sides, often planting information with the Provos to set up no-longer useful Loyalists or to feign impartiality.

Hearing from the Loyalist side is critical to a full understanding of the Troubles. Not only do Loyalists have their own memories, recollections and feelings about the conflict, their politics played a central role in the emergence of the Provos in the first place.

If there’s an area in which “Say Nothing” falls short, it is here. Like many explorations of the Troubles, the book focuses predominantly on the Catholics of Northern Ireland (on the Provos, specifically) and their rebellion against the British. Keefe should be praised for his fascinating depictions of British military tit-for-tat intelligence gathering as well as for his explorations of early developments in modern counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies. But the approach is wanting for its omission of how the Loyalists fit into the story.

And what about all the blue, maroon and orange flags waving throughout Northern Ireland? The flags represent Loyalist paramilitary and political organizations. If you ever take one of the famous Black Cab tours of West Belfast, you will undoubtedly see the mural of Bobby Sands. But you will also see the memorial of Stephen “Top Gun” McKeag, a volunteer for Loyalist paramilitary force called the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), who got his nickname for committing the most murders in a year — and earned that distinction for multiple years. Notably, McKeag was born a year after the Troubles began. Another Loyalist named Jackie Coulter also features prominently in the Lower Shankill district of Belfast.

If you come at the right time, the Black Cab tour will take you past one of the preparations for the annual Eleventh Night bonfires and street parades held in honor of the victory of the Protestant William of Orange over the Catholic King James II in 1690. It isn’t unusual to see the bonfires burning Irish tricolors and likenesses of the pope. The Black Cab tour down memory lane isn’t trafficking in bloody history merely for the benefit of the tourist.

This tragic history lives on in the present day, reified by the conclusion of a 2015 report by the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, which opens: “All the main paramilitary groups operating during the period of the Troubles remain in existence: this includes the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), Red Hand Commando (RHC), Ulster Defence Association (UDA), Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA).” All sides remain organized.

And yes, our memory of yesterday impacts our actions of today. The collective-repressed demons of Northern Ireland have been stirred with the issue of Brexit and its implications for the territory’s border with the Republic of Ireland. A recent census shows the number of Protestants declining as a percentage of the Northern Ireland population, yet the community is politically engaged and outspoken.

Perhaps there is something we can take away from Keefe’s timely publication of a book about the memory of conflict and its impact on individuals and the collective psyche.

Political scientists following Northern Ireland like Roger MacGinty have recently commented on the failure of politicians on both sides to support reconciliation. Education statistics show that schools are more religiously segregated than they were 15 years ago. In January 2019, a car bomb detonated in downtown Londonderry. Three months later in the same city, a 29-year-old journalist named Lyra McKee was killed by a bullet intended for the police during a riot sparked by a search by law enforcement for guns and explosives. McKee was reporting on the situation.

A respected journalist despite her youth, McKee had once written a deeply personal narrative about youth, sexuality and trauma in which she said: “The Ceasefire Babies was what they called us. Those too young to remember the worst of the terror. . . . We were the Good Friday Agreement generation, destined to never witness the horrors of war but to reap the spoils of peace. The spoils just never seemed to reach us.”

In the same article, McKee notes how the suicide rate in Northern Ireland has almost doubled since the end of the Troubles. Such a statistic might have been expected for those who lived through the Troubles, but the proliferation of suicides in McKee’s generation is shocking.

Recent studies have shown that trauma is passed down from generation to generation. Trauma can be transmitted not only through the construction of identity via memorials, murals, flags and stories, but can be imparted, we are learning, biologically through the alteration of DNA sequences called epigenetic changes. And so, a geopolitical event like Brexit has the effect of igniting the emotions, memories, and traumas of past generations. This can happen because, while the fighting has ended, real reconciliation has not occurred. In Northern Ireland, at least, trauma hasn’t gone away, memories linger and not everyone has felt the benefits of peace. As Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

They haven’t gone away, you know.

[This review was first published by the Carnegie Corporation of New York at and in the Summer 2019 issue of the Carnegie Reporter.]

“Say Nothing,” by Patrick Radden Keefe; 9780385521314


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Aaron Stanley is a program analyst with the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s International Peace & Security program, where he focuses on peacebuilding in Africa, Asian security, Track II negotiations and bridging the gap between the United States’ academic and policy communities.

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