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John McDonagh (JM) and Martin Galvin (MG) speak to former IRA Director of Intelligence Kieran Conway (KC) via telephone from Dublin about his memoir and his recent interviews with the BBC. (begins time stamp ~ 39:30)
MG: With us on the line we have Kieran Conway. Kieran, welcome back to Radio Free Éireann. Now Kieran, your book…
JM: … Who is Kieran Conway?
MG: Kieran Conway is the author of a book, Southside Provisional, and what it does – it details very well – is he’s a young man who grew up in south Dublin who is well educated, who had the middle class suburbs of south Dublin and saw what was happening. Lived through the fiftieth anniversary of 1916. Saw what was happening in The North of Ireland, civil rights movement being attacked, Nationalists’ homes being attacked, riots – and decided to join and become a soldier with the Irish Republican Movement. And the reason why we’ve invited Kieran back – John, you’ve talked about The Stephen Nolan Show and some of the other shows – recently they invited Kieran to be interviewed and asked questions like: ‘Are you a psychopath?’ and ‘Are you a sensitive bomber?’ – things of that nature. So he survived those questions and we thought we’d bring him back to Radio Free Éireann to answer a different type of question. Kieran, are you with us?
KC: I am, yeah. Glad to be here.
MG: And where can we get Southside Provisional ? Where can people get that book that details so much – what happened, what led to the struggle – it wasn’t something that people thought they had an idea of joining – that it was something that seemed to be forced on them as a way in which to end British rule, to end the injustices, to end the brutal way in which civil rights – the injustice with which the British treated the civil rights movement. Where can we get that book?
KC: I’m not sure if hard copies are available in book shops in The States, I suspect not. It’s available on amazon both in hard copy and in the Kindle version and it’s also available on iBooks.
MG: Well I’ve got it in paperback so it’s available someplace in paperback but check amazon.com. Okay. Kieran, just briefly, you said during those interviews with Stephen Nolan, you were called back, that you decided, you made a decision to join the Irish Republican Army in response to what was happening in the late ’60’s – early ’70’s, that you still regard yourself as a soldier who was a combatant in what was at the time when it started – I’m not talking about post-1998 – we don’t want anybody to call you and try to prosecute you – but you joined what you believed at the time was a legitimate war to end British rule, to bring freedom to The North of Ireland. What are some of the things that led you to that decision?
KC: Well absolutely I believed it was a just war and I have never deviated from that. I’m quite certain of it. I suffer no guilt and no – well, a general remorse given that the struggle turned out to be for nothing but yeah, if I had my time again I would do it all over again. I joined – I went to the university first in 1968 against the backdrop of revolts throughout Europe and in the US as well and also, to a lesser extent, in the UK. I became, as was common at the time, I became a communist and so firstly as a socialist and then in 1969 The North blew up. Catholic areas were attacked by the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) and Loyalists. People were killed, hundreds of houses were burned out. The was a refugee problem – the biggest in Europe since the Second World War and I joined the Republican Club when I went back to college. Within a few months I became Secretary of the club and shortly afterwards, around Christmastime, I decided that I should follow the logic of my convictions and join the IRA.
MG: Alright. And you rose through the ranks. You became an intelligence officer.
KC: Yeah well, at first it was very difficult to join the IRA. Given my background there were no Provisionals in UCD, University College Dublin, where I was studying law. I was a member of the Official Republican Movement. I tried to join their army – they told me not to be so childish, that they had plenty of working class lads to fight and they wanted me to get my degree and they would assist me into a job in trade unionism or the media where I would be of more value to their revolution. I wasn’t happy with that. I started to look at the Provisionals, I liked what I saw and it still took me nine months to join and I had to go to England to do so.
MG: Okay. One of the things that you’re questioned about – and I know, John and I have friends, The Butlers – Kathy and Helen Butler and Will Butler – who are related to Eddie Butler, but one of the things they say: How did you leave, how did the IRA leave people in jail unjustly who they knew were innocent in Birmingham, in Guildford, etc?
KC: Well it’s not true that they did. Eddie Butler, for instance, is one of those who loudly proclaimed that it was them that did the bombings that the Guildford people had been convicted of. The British knew perfectly well in that case and in the case of the Birmingham Six that the people they’d slammed up were innocent. They didn’t care. They wanted scapegoats. The people they convicted fitted the bill. It was a disgraceful episode in the British judicial history – one they should be thoroughly ashamed of – but anyway it all came right in the end in that the people were vindicated and released. And the IRA from Day One in relation to both Birmingham and Guildford and various other matters like Judith Ward said that the people who had been arrested were not members of the IRA, had not participated in those operations and that they were IRA operations. There’s misconceptions about that, for instance, various journalists have said that I’m the first to admit that the IRA had bombed Birmingham – that is simply not true. It was admitted from Day One.
JM: Kieran, John McDonagh here. Here’s one of the problems now: Sinn Féin negotiated the Good Friday Agreement and this was supposed to put an end to everything and as we’ve had Brendan Hughes on saying it wasn’t worth the struggle – or as he said ‘getting out of bed’ – you stated this was a waste of time and lives, what went on because of the end result with now Sinn Féin, who will be taking their seats in Westminster. But what’s going on now is even with these historical committees they’ve set up in The North they’re looking to even extradite you because they claim that you have some knowledge about what happened in Birmingham. Now, whatever you want to say about the partition of Ireland, 1921, the government that was set up in Dublin would not have been extraditing anyone that would have been accused of anything, a bombing campaign say earlier in the struggle in England or being involved with the struggle – they were honoured – those men and women were honoured. Unlike in The North – they’re not honoured. They cannot get funding for statues up there or for plaques or anything like that, that what’s going on now shows that Sinn Féin lost, that the British government still wants to extradite people all these years later – they won’t prosecute their own soldiers – but there’s talk about trying to have you extradited over to England and to face charges for the Birmingham bombings.
KC: Ah, well, there’s no possible charge they could bring against me in relation to Birmingham except withholding information. The names of the bombers are well-known. I’m not going to repeat them. I’d never finger an IRA man. But the names of the bombers have been, do you know what I mean, they’ve been mentioned on British TV, they’re in various publications, books, loads of journalists have named them, they’re in Wikipedia as to they are, short of them taking a trip to England and making confessions there’s no evidence to convict them because all the forensics is gone and cannot now be examined. So there’s not a shred of evidence against them the men except their potential own confessions which ain’t gonna happen. The only information that I’m withholding is the name of the second man who conducted the debrief of the English Commander back in Dublin in the immediately aftermath of the bombs. And I won’t name him. He’s still alive. And as I say I would never name a living IRA man.
JM: Now would you ever travel outside of now the Twenty-Six Counties?
KC: I travel regularly. I go to Spain. I go to various other countries. I avoid the UK for obvious reasons; I think I’d be arrested. I avoid The North also although I have been back – you know what I mean, quietly, furtively but yeah, that’s it – I travel widely otherwise. Although unfortunately I was very much hoping Hillary Clinton would win – that may or may not be popular with your listeners simply because I would have written a personal letter to her and asked her would she allow me to visit The States which I’d very much like to do before I die.
MG: Kieran, you’re not the only one who had ideas of letters – we’ve talked about some of the ex-prisoners here who are in similar situations. Kieran, I do want to ask you, in you book – and again, this is a great book – it details first-hand knowledge of people like Billy McKee, people like Martin McGuinness, others – serving with them or your interaction with them through the early years of the struggle. But in the book…
KC: …Well McKee – just before you go on – I’d just like to pay tribute to McKee. He’s now in his nineties and he is the IRA man that I most admire and heard most from. I really have huge, huge regard for him.
MG: As would I. He is somebody who still stands up, makes speeches – well he will give statements occasionally just about what he thinks is wrong. But what I want to ask you about is: In your book, well I’m not sure if it was in the book or on this radio show, you had detailed leaving the Republican Movement on the day of the Downing Street Declaration and how you thought that this meant there would never be a united Ireland, that everything that you had fought for, that everything so many Irish men and women had fought for was never going to happen in your lifetime. Could you explain that?
KC: I could. What happened was that I went into the Sinn Féin offices that day and I went down to the An Phoblacht offices close by to watch the much-anticipated Downing Street Declaration. We expected something to be said to indicate that the British had no interest in remaining in Ireland. In fact what was said was simply a re-statement of then British policy about upholding the Unionist veto and so on and so forth. The mood in the room amongst the people who were watching the television was one of was deep despondency and the next thing, anyway, there was a call from Belfast. Gerry Adams was the caller. He spoke to a senior member of Sinn Féin and that Sinn Féin member then turned to the rest in the room and said: Listen. Gerry says everybody should settle down. That there’s more to this than meets the eye and we can live with it.
I knew that that was not true. I knew that the British re-statement of policy was exactly that. And I knew that the struggle was over for me and I just left. I mean, as far as that’s concerned the people in the room were fools and idiots if they believed what was being said to them.
MG: Well Kieran, you look at what’s happened since then, through the Stormont Agreement…
KC: …Well what happened is exactly what I thought would happen.
MG: Okay so why do people – there are still people who think that within any amount of time there’ll be a border poll, there’ll be a majority for a united Ireland, that by shaking hands with the royal family and standing along side Arlene Foster no matter what she does or says and making way for Orange marches down Ardoyne, that segments of Unionist or Loyalist opinion are going to convert – they’re going to suddenly vote for a united Ireland. What are your feelings about that?
KC: The Loyalists will never change. Why should they? The entire basis of Loyalism is to maintain the link with Britain. They won’t change and there will be no change in their position and there will never be a united Ireland, certainly not in my lifetime.
MG: Okay. Well what about all this that Sinn Féin says we won all these seats in Leinster House and this is going to make moves or it’s how it’s advancing a united Ireland. Do you see any advances coming from that – towards a united Ireland?
KC: No, no. No, I don’t and furthermore the presence of Sinn Féin in the various parliaments, and it looks like Westminster will be next, has made absolutely no difference to the living conditions of the people who will vote for them. You know, all that’s happened is that there are Sinn Féin arses sitting in government in The North rather than SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) arses but that makes no difference.
MG: Alright. We want to thank you. We’re out of time. We could go a lot longer. Kieran, I want to thank you and just if you want to see what it was like – why somebody from Dublin – why people would join and believe that there was a legitimate struggle against British rule, enlist in the IRA, some of the leading figures in that struggle, especially in the early ’70’s and why they would be disillusioned, leave and feel that that struggle had just given up and was never going to achieve what it set out or been started to achieve and what would have justified it. I recommend Southside Provisional. I recommend Kieran Conway’s book – somebody who speaks with knowledge. Kieran, I want to thank you for being with us and also for surviving and standing up to Stephen Nolan in some of those interviews on the BBC.
KC: (laughs) It was easy. I mean it’s the first time that I’ve been accused of being a psychopath and had no trouble dealing with the rest of it. It’s simply common abuse. It wasn’t a question. It was idiotic abuse.
MG: Kieran, it seems to me – and I’m about the same age as you – I think we met in Parnell Square – but I believed the same thing – that that struggle was legitimate – I believed for a long period of time it was going to end British rule in Ireland and that would make it legitimate and again, we’re now at the same point where it seems like we’re starting all over and unless something changes very dramatically we’re never going to get to it.
KC: No. It ended in total defeat of the Republican Movement which came to accept the British position on Irish unity that it will never occur without the consent of the Unionists which is never going to be forthcoming and that was complete reversal of everything they had fought against for twenty-five years – so total defeat.
MG: Alright. Kieran, we want to thank you for being with us and we’re looking forward to having you again in future and again, the book is Southside Provisonal From Freedom Fighter to the Four Courts – all those lawyers are always very eloquent, that’s…
KC: Thanks very much for having me on.
JM: If you want to hear the interview again go to wbai.org to the archives. If you want to read the transcript of that interview you go to rfe123.org or dot com is it?
MG: It’s dot org. And we actually have the Stephen Nolan interview transcribed. So Kieran, if you want to re-live all those rude questions you can see it there and we’ll have your interview today up on our website very soon and it’ll be around, I know The Pensive Quill and some of the other sites as well. (ends time stamp ~ 55:35)