Ronan Bennett

Ronan Bennett is the author of The Catastrophist and co-author of Stolen Years, Paul Hill’s account of his trial and imprisonment after the Guildford and Woolwich bombings.

The monolith’s full name was the Ulster Unionist Party, but its position as the dominant voice of Northern Irish loyalism was such that, for most of its history, those running in its interest needed only to declare themselves ‘the Unionist candidate’. The Party’s roots were in an all-Ireland Unionist coalition which came into being in the mid-1880s in response to the rise of Parnell’s Home Rule Party. Its early allies at Westminster were the Conservative Party and Liberal opponents of Gladstone; its allies at home were the sectarian Orange Order, and the Protestant landowning, professional and business fraternities. In the years before the outbreak of the First World War, the volatile and charismatic Edward Carson, a Dublin-born lawyer and the Unionist MP for Trinity College Dublin, who made his name in the courts and the Commons as an eloquent defender of the interests of Irish landlords, joined with the energetic Ulster Unionist James Craig to mobilise Northern Protestants of all classes. Carson, who had served as solicitor-general in Lord Salisbury’s administration, colluded in the illegal shipment of 25,000 rifles and three million rounds of ammunition from Germany in April 1914, the better to resist Home Rule by arming the newly created Ulster Volunteer Force. The Larne gun-running incident, as it became known, demonstrated that Unionist leaders were no different from their Nationalist counterparts: both were ready to use constitutional means so long as they worked, and force if they did not.‘

Shortly after the 1994 IRA ceasefire, the New Statesman ran a cartoon depicting Gerry Adams as a reptilian protohuman emerging from a primordial sea to take his first trepid step on the long evolutionary walk from terrorist godfather to constitutional politician. To judge from this biography, the Sinn Féin leader still has some way to go. According to David Sharrock and Mark Devenport, Adams is a ruthless, scheming hypocrite who talks peace in front of the cameras, but in private continues to plot death and misery. He speaks of ‘inclusion’ and publicly condemns sectarianism, but has boasted that he would ‘wade up to my knees in Protestant blood’ to achieve a united Ireland. He is a physical and moral coward, ‘aloof’, a poseur, who for all his ‘studied image as a man of letters and an intellectual’, has a second-rate brain. He is treacherous – the authors hint that he even set a rival up for assassination. Sources quoted in Man of War, Man of Peace? describe Adams as ‘akin to a Nazi’, a racketeering criminal thug’, ‘a fundamentalist’. No misdemeanour is overlooked: he was an indifferent student, enjoys the occasional lie-in with his wife and may have dyed his beard.’‘

During Her Majesty’s Pleasure

Ronan Bennett, 20 February 1997

In Well Street, Hackney, shortly before midnight on 11 February 1982, Terry McCluskie and his friend Raymond Reynolds picked a fight with a total stranger, Robert Ford, and stabbed him to death. Ford was 15 years old and had just taken his girl-friend home after spending an evening at a local Citizens’ Band radio club. McCluskie, also 15, and Reynolds, 14, had spent the evening drinking and were on their way to a chip shop when they ran into their victim. It is barely worth speaking of anything as tangible as motive in Robert Ford’s murder. Robbery may have been involved, though McCluskie has always denied that it was. Any part it did play was tangential. ‘We had a go at him to get some money,’ Reynolds told the police, ‘he gave me Iop and when I asked for more he said he didn’t have any and that’s when we started to stab him.’ There was also some mention of ‘dirty looks’, and these, real or imagined, probably did more to provoke the attackers. To describe the assault as ‘mindless’ might not be so wide of the mark: it was vicious and random – typical, some would say, of an entire spectrum of violence intrinsic to modern Britain.’

The Party and the Army

Ronan Bennett, 21 March 1996

Shortly after the Canary Wharf bomb, John Major, speaking in the House of Commons, said: ‘As for the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA, I think that they are both members one of another.’ Sinn Fein, he continued, would now have to decide whether it wanted to be a constitutional party or continue as a front for the IRA. Ignoring renewed protestations from Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness that Sinn Fein is separate from the IRA, that it is a political party with a democratic mandate from its voters, most politicians and observers have, like Major himself, accepted almost without question the Unionist formulation: Sinn Fein/IRA. They do so in spite of the fact that few details of the relationship are known and many of the ‘insights’ plain wrong. The Sunday Times, for example, was demonstrably mistaken when it announced that Gerry Kelly, one of Sinn Fein’s chief negotiators at Stormont, is a highly placed IRA man who is not even a member of the Party. Kelly, who was sentenced to life imprisonment after the 1973 Old Bailey bombing, may or may not be a member of the IRA army council, but he is certainly a member of Sinn Fein: he stood unsuccessfully at last year’s Árd Fheis, or party conference, for election to the Árd Chomhairle – the Party’s national executive.’

Diary: Being Irish in New York

Ronan Bennett, 6 April 1995

Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx, they assured us, would be ‘like Galway on a Saturday night’. I assumed this meant the place would be teeming with Irish people, hearty and green, enjoying a good night out. A vision leapt unbidden to mind, embarrassing in its insistence and sentimentality, of a prelapsarian Ireland, the Ireland of The Quiet Man, of fresh-faced cailins and freckle-faced lads, soft brogues, mischievous matchmakers, innocent fun, uileann pipes, sea-wind in the hair. Even if you swap John Ford’s Ireland for something more urban and contemporary, say that of Roddy Doyle, in which a good night out is more likely to involve soul music and a ‘ride’, it is still possible to find yourself idealising: Ford and Doyle (pre-Paddy Clarke and Family, at least) offer essentially the same vision, promise the same reward – the uplifting sensation that comes from watching easy-going people, a little rough around the edges but with hearts as big as their sometimes foul mouths, struggle against adversity without ever losing the twinkle in their eye, the smile on their lips or the song in their heart. This portrait of my country and its people is fanciful and romantic, but in my weaker, more atavistic moments, I am, like many Irish people, and perhaps thirty to forty million Americans (estimates vary), susceptible to its emotional undertow.’

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