Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland review

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern IrelandSay Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I was raised Catholic, and for an embarrassingly long time I confused “Catholic” and “Christian”. So the idea of conflict between Catholics and Protestants outside of a Tom Lehrer song is very hard for me to relate to, and I remember doing a report in…high school? about the conflict in Northern Ireland and thinking that it seemed totally intractable.

And yet before I even finished high school the Good Friday Agreement was in place and the conflict seemed over. I saw this book recommended several different places, and the sample sat on my phone for a while, but once I got into it (and was also stuck inside because of a winter storm) I really enjoyed it!

The frame that Keefe uses for the book is the disappearance of Jean McConville in 1972, presumably done by the IRA, but it uses this sort of mystery to explore a lot about The Troubles and the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement. Keefe covers a lot of different people, but I didn’t have too much trouble keeping them all straight, although part of that might be because I read it so fast.

It feels weird to be worried about spoilers for a non-fiction book, but it is kind of a mystery, so…spoilers below!

The part about the Belfast Project really struck me. After the Good Friday Agreement membership in the IRA was still basically illegal, so very few people talked about what they had done during the Troubles. (this is unlike the Truth & Reconciliation Commission that South Africa had after apartheid, where people could admit what they had done in exchange for immunity from prosecution) So some people started a secret project where they would interview former IRA members (and people in loyalist paramilitary groups as well) and keep the tapes secret at Boston College while the interviewee was alive. As the penalty for informing on the IRA was generally death, the organizers of the project went to great lengths to convince people they wanted to interview that this was an ironclad promise.

This sounds like a great idea to me, but it was a disaster. Authorities in Northern Ireland learned about the project after a book was published based on one of the interviews after that interviewee passed away. Then they got subpoenas for some of the interviews, and because the project wasn’t officially journalism (and the organizers didn’t actually run things past the legal people at Boston College) the interviews were given up. At least one person was prosecuted based on the interview he had given.

I guess the lesson is that you really need a state-sponsored commission to do things like this.

Other interesting stuff:
– One of the oddities of the situation in Northern Ireland is that both Catholics and Protestants felt like a minority – Catholics were a minority in Northern Ireland itself, but Protestants were a minority on the island because of Ireland’s large Catholic population.
– Animosity between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland goes way back – Keefe talks about a march that happened in Derry every year to commemorate the young Protestants who kept the Catholic forces of King James out way back in 1688! Traditionally the march ended by standing on walls and throwing pennies at a Catholic area of town, which started the Battle of the Bogside in 1969. As an American it’s really hard for me to understand history that goes back well before my country was formed!
– Jean McConville and her family lived in a housing project that was heavily Catholic, and in the early 1970s it sounds like it was basically a warzone – there were frequent gun battles at night where the children would drag their mattresses on the floor and sleep together in the middle of the apartment to stay away from walls, etc.
– Keefe mentions that in the 1950s, when a Catholic kid walked past a certain neighbor’s house, the neighbor would spit and ask if he had blessed himself with the pope’s piss that morning. (???)
– In 1972 the IRA announced a cease-fire, and said anyone who violated it would be shot, which is pretty good unintentional comedy. (incidentally, the cease-fire lasted all of two weeks)
– Keefe talks about an escape attempt from Long Kesh, an internment camp used to hold IRA paramilitaries. At the time only two people had escaped – one by borrowing the black robes of a priest and walking right out the front door with a visiting delegation of priests. And the second, eighteen months later, escaped by doing the exact same thing!
– Hunger strikes were used for a while for IRA prisoners protesting their conditions – they wanted to be treated like prisoners of war instead of “regular” prisoners, and they were willing to starve to death to win public support for their cause. One such hunger striker was Bobby Sands – in the middle of his hunger strike he ran for Parliament and won! But that didn’t change the British government’s position, and a month after his election Sands died in prison.
– In 1984 the IRA detonated a bomb at a hotel where Margaret Thatcher was staying – five people died. (but obviously not Thatcher) The IRA issued a statement saying “Today we were unlucky, but remember, we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.”
– Gerry Adams was in the IRA and then became the leader of Sinn Fein, the political party associated with the IRA that the British government hated. At one point the government banned the IRA and Sinn Fein from the airwaves. What that meant in practice is that when Adams was on TV, British broadcasters could not transmit the sound of his voice. But they could show him on TV, and the words he was saying were OK to use, so they simply had an actor dub his voice!
– There’s a story about Trevor Campbell, who was a police officer who handled informants inside the IRA. Once he was interviewing an IRA member who had been arrested multiple times, and by law Campbell was allowed to hold him for three days (without charging him), so he spent the time talking to him trying to convince him to flip. They ended up just talking for three days, neither person giving any real information about himself. Well, after three days, Campbell let him go, and went out to dinner with his wife, and Campbell saw the man he had been questioning at the bar! Campbell went up to talk to him to ask if there would be any trouble, and the man said to enjoy his meal and then get out of there.
– There’s some amazing testimony that a British intelligence officer gave that one in four IRA members were actually informants! It’s unclear if this is true or if this was just meant to sow suspicion in the IRA, but it does seem pretty clear that the one of the people involved in the IRA’s internal security unit (responsible for killing traitors) was a double agent!



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