There must have been a fair measure of creative chemistry between Brian Feeney and Gerry Bradley which propelled this most welcome book onto the shelves. It is easily one one of the most absorbing literary works yet produced on the Provisional IRA, its appeal enhanced by a refreshing lack of drudgery or academic turgidity.
Brian Feeney, an academic and historian, is an experienced writer and analyst. Gerry Bradley has wielded many things in his gloved hands during the decades he spent in the IRA, but a pen seemed not to feature amongst them. As IRA commander of the organisation’s 3rd Belfast Battalion in the early 1970s, his patience was paper thin when it came to paperwork. Yet the fusion between Bradley and Feeney has resulted in a great read – Insider: Gerry Bradley’s Life in the IRA. There is not much from the voluminous output on the IRA that I have not read. This features among the best.
From its opening pages the flowing narrative of Insider has the ring of authenticity to it. Virtually everything Bradley conveyed to Feeney can be independently verified including IRA plots to kill Brian Faulkner. Bradley, like many others relaying their own account, may have shaded some things his own way but not a lot. In Feeney he would have faced a tight filter equipped with a historian’s feel for narratives.
Bradley was a Provisional IRA member from the organisation’s fledgling days when it found itself evolving out of the local defence committees in Belfast. He journeyed with the organisation right through its republican phase but found himself at odds with the Provisional exit from the republican orbit for pastures newer but hardly greener. He was well placed to bring to the light of day some of the IRA’s more shrouded activities.
His scathing criticism of the IRA’s internal security department as pub-anchored torturers is merely putting into the public record what many volunteers have said in private. Equally so his scathing characterisation of some senior IRA figures involved in directing operations as grossly incompetent.
It was awkward reading Bradley’s disdain for Charlie McKiernan. Yes McKiernan, a comrade of Bradley, during the supergrass phenomenon of the 1980s did provide information which led to the book’s co-author spending a period on remand in Crumlin Road Prison. He was so devastated by McKiernan’s ‘treachery’ as he termed it that upon release he took time out from the IRA and went to the US where he ended up getting shot after a pub dispute with somebody the worse for wear. But for the skill of a New York surgeon he would have died.
McKiernan quickly withdrew his offer to testify and Bradley was freed but scarred. He carries the McKiernan let down heavily. Yet those of us who know Charlie McKiernan and spent a long time in prison with him came to see human frailty rather than treachery as the moving spirit behind his decision to cooperate with the RUC. Like so many other IRA volunteers he found the road too rocky to travel.
Contemplating today’s armed republicans Bradley makes a powerful observation. It is a statement that will cause more republicans to reflect than any amount of screaming ‘traitors’ at them:
"The war is over and there is little support for starting it again. Guys who want to start it again – what are they going to do different from what we did and why do they think they’ll do it any better?"
Gerry Bradley came under pressure when this book was released. He was openly accused of being a ‘tout’ for having written it. The allegation was rubbish. The book is in fact a very pro-IRA book written from the perspective of an IRA volunteer. It is critical of neither the IRA campaign nor the volunteers involved. It poses the question of what the campaign was for when so little was achieved at the end of it.
The real reason Insider drew the ire of some former associates down on Bradley’s head was not because he ‘broke the IRA code’ as those who have broke it most are fond of lecturing us. In fact he revealed very little about those he worked with and quite a bit about himself. It is due to Bradley’s ability to discern the massive strategic failure that befell the IRA, something his critics lack, preferring, as they do, to amble alongside the myth that the effort expended produced a result worthy of it. His speaking out forces them to face awkward truths they would prefer stay buried.
As the post war years extend, and with little to show for it in terms of the North becoming less British, the failure of the IRA campaign is likely to become a common sense assumption, prompting more former volunteers to take the path walked by Gerry Bradley and vent lurking misgivings that have never been satisfactorily addressed.
Gerry Bradley & Brian Feeney. Insider: Gerry Bradley’s Life in the IRA. O’Brien: Dublin. ISBN 978-1-84717-075-0
Review first published in Fortnight, under the title Lurking Misgivings July/August 2010