Stephen Sackur (SS) visits Dublin and speaks to Kieran Conway (KC), the former Director of Intelligence for the IRA, about his time in the organisation and how he justifies his involvement. (begins time stamp ~ 1:37)
SS: Kieran Conway, welcome to HARDtalk. We’re going to be talking a lot about your past and as you sit here in Dublin today I just wonder whether you feel very connected to your past or whether it feels like another land which you have left entirely?
KC: Yeah. No, it’s another country – it really is. The war is over. I seldom think about it. I don’t have nightmares or any sort of guilt difficulties over the various activities I was involved in so no, it’s a different country and now I’m a defence lawyer in Dublin and my life is a million miles removed from what it was in the ’70’s and ’80’s.
SS: And was that break really quite instant because you quit the IRA…
KC: …Yeah, the break was instant. It occurred on the night of the Downing Street Declaration – that was an assembly of the British Prime Minister and the Irish Prime Minister, called the Taoiseach and …
SS: …Which, in essence, was the signal that the leadership of the IRA had decided to go down the path of compromise insofar as they were saying that there would never be a united Ireland without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. It put off any prospect of a united Ireland.
KC: It did, yeah. No, there will never be a united Ireland, certainly not in my lifetime, as a result of what the Provisionals did and accepted in late ’93, I guess it was.
SS: So did you leave in the IRA with fury in your heart?
KC: Not with fury but with, I don’t know – a sense of inevitability. I felt myself it was time for the war to stop. We were clearly being beaten by the British. We were heavily infiltrated and Volunteers being killed…
SS: …It was a sense of defeat, really.
KC: Oh, yes, but you weren’t allowed to say that – if you talked in any sort of defeatist manner you would have been in serious trouble.
SS: Let’s rewind a long way now and go back to the young Kieran Conway. You were raised in a middle-class home here in….
KC: …I was…
SS: …suburban Dublin. A nice life, went to university – you know, seemed set for a comfortable, conventional Irish life. And yet you took an extraordinary decision. You were determined to join the IRA.
KC: Well I went to university in 1968, the autumn of ’68, against the backdrop of student revolts all over the world, particularly Germany, France and to a lesser extent, the UK also the US, the Vietnam War, South Africa and so on. And although I didn’t join anything in the first year I took part in the many protests that took place. And then in 1969 The North blew up. The Catholic areas were attacked by a combination of RUC men, that’s the police force in The North, and Loyalists and many, many houses were burnt down. People were killed. People were injured. The IRA at the time was not in a good shape but they did defend some areas as best they could with very small numbers. That event led directly to the birth of the Provisionals who were people who were dissatisfied with the stance that the then-leadership of the IRA was taking. They broke away, formed the Provisionals, recruited and I eventually joined them.
SS: I can see how, in that period of ’68-’69 of revolutionary fervour on campuses across the world frankly – I can see how you’d get swept up in that and I think you saw yourself as a very radical socialist.
KC: Oh, yeah, yeah.
SS: I get all of that. But what I don’t get is your determination which you pushed all the way to going to Belfast but then even going to England to actually join an underground secret military organisation where you knew, and actually you sought out, the opportunity to use guns, to consider planting bombs, to commit acts of violence. That is one heck of a step!
KC: Well it was clear that a revolutionary situation had developed in Ireland and many people, everybody I knew, was either communist or anarchist, syndicalist in those days but…
SS: …Weren’t all of them just talk? And you acted.
KC: Yeah, I know that, yeah and I did act, yes. I’ve always been…
SS: …I mean you must have been prepared, even as a young man of twenty, to consider killing people.
KC: Oh, yeah, absolutely accepted that as part of the price, if you like, of joining the IRA – clearly people were going to be killed.
SS: And you were going to do it.
KC: Yes, I was quite prepared to do it, yeah.
SS: You were sworn-in in England.
KC: I was, yeah. I went to England the very next day and within a week I was an IRA member.
SS: But I guess what I’m seeking to understand is how you reacted to your first operations because I know that in England you were asked, and indeed you were enthusiastically a part of armed robberies to raise funds for the IRA.
KC: Yeah well, my first IRA operations were all armed robberies and yeah, I was enthusiastic and though we were told we would be not claimed by the IRA in the event of our arrest…
SS: You found it easy to march into banks, wave a gun around, tell people to get on the ground and take the money?
KC: Yeah, I had no difficulty with it. I was put after – after the first couple of raids I was actually put in charge of the Active Service Unit over there so I gained promotion pretty rapidly…
SS: …You were good at this. And what about bomb making?
KC: No, we didn’t do any bombing in England in those days. The bombing came later.
SS: But you learned, whether it was in Northern Ireland or where ever, you learned the skills?
KC: Oh yeah, no, no – I was trained both in a Midlands city and back in Ireland – I attended two training camps. And then my unit were caught after a particular armed robbery. They were all arrested. I knew Scotland Yard were after me. I was coincidentally back in Ireland at the time and it meant that the leadership then were kind of stuck with me. They stuck me in a house for a couple of weeks – nearly drove me mad – and then came along and gave me full time work with the IRA.
SS: You have written extensively about your experiences in the IRA. You’ve never, it seems to me, been entirely straightforward about the violence you were involved in. Did you kill people?
KC: Put it this way, I mean this is the truth: The only people I that ever fired on were British soldiers. British soldiers did die when I was present but I can’t be sure…
SS: …And firing at them?
KC: …and firing at them but I can’t be sure that it was my bullet that caused the damage.
SS: But the likelihood is you killed British soldiers.
KC: The possibility is there, yeah.
SS: And bombs you planted?
KC: And I planted bombs, yes.
SS: And they exploded?
KC: And they exploded.
SS: How many did they kill?
KC: No, no casualties ever. I only participated in commercial bombings – not very many, maybe a half dozen maximum. But I did a lot more shooting, an awful lot more, maybe about hundred times and British soldiers were killed on a number of occasions – not very many, maybe five or six.
SS: You were imprisoned, eventually, for I think illegal possession of weapons and one of the notorious prisons that was full of IRA prisoners, Long Kesh – that’s where you ended up.
KC: That’s right, yeah.
SS: And at one time, and of course the IRA later became very famous for this, you were part of an IRA hunger strike.
KC: I was, yeah.
SS: At any point during this and when you are not taking on food and when you are getting weak and when you are reflecting on whether your life and death are worth it for this cause – did you ever have any doubts?
KC: Not the slightest, no. I was utterly, totally committed in the way that only a twenty-one year old can be.
SS: How close to death did you come?
KC: Oh, no, I was a long way away from it although it was the first hunger strike in recent times and we didn’t know how our bodies would fare. Billy McKee, who was the OC in the Belfast prison at the time, put five, including himself, on hunger strike the first week and then another five the second week. I was in the third cohort so we did only twenty-three days. I lost a couple of stone but otherwise no damage.
SS: Because it was a very disciplined organisation or certainly it tried to be and I guess you met the very top brass – the Chief of Staff…
KC: …Yeah well, McKee would have been my sponsor, if you like. He thought highly of me and he persuaded the leadership outside that they should take a similar view of me so when I got out of jail you know within a month I’d been given a very senior job.
SS: Yeah, you became Director of intelligence.
SS: What was your responsibility?
KC: My responsibility was – there was no intelligence department at the time – there hadn’t been, it hadn’t functioned since before the split so I had to build an intelligence department from scratch.
SS: But you, from the get-go, were fighting an enemy that was much better resourced than you were.
KC: Of course. Yeah.
SS: And we now know the British authorities, the various different intelligence services and police units tasked with fighting the IRA, they penetrated holes in your organisation like a sieve.
KC: They did. But in the mid-’70, I got out of jail in ’74 – became Director of Intelligence shortly afterwards and left the IRA for a number of years in late ’75. But during the year that I was in charge of intelligence there was far less infiltration than was subsequently…
SS: …You think.
KC: No, no. We’re pretty sure. There was infiltration and there were informers but not anything like the level that they penetrated the IRA in the ’80’s and ’90’s.
SS: Well I’ll talk about that a bit later but let’s stick with ’74 because it’s a crucial year and it raises questions to this day…
KC: …It does….
SS: …about you and your ethics and your role. Because in essence we’re talking about one major attack the IRA launched in Birmingham in 1974: Bombs placed in two pubs at a time when they were packed with people drinking, having a good time – ordinary folk – not soldiers, not military personnel – just ordinary people in Birmingham. A lot of people were killed – innocent civilians. You were Director of Intelligence. Did you know what was going on?
KC: No. I didn’t know anything about it until afterwards. When I heard of the bombs I was appalled, horrified.
SS: Shouldn’t have the Director of Intelligence been involved?
KC: No, not really, That’s not the way the IRA operate and the leadership hear of things post hoc, generally. So, no.
SS: So what? You’re telling me it was an operation conducted out of control?
KC: Absolutely it was outside the parameters of what was permitted. I don’t know why the people in charge weren’t court-martialled. I have absolutely no idea why not.
SS: In your view they should have been?
KC: Oh, they should have been for conducting an attack on two targets that were not, you know, within the parameters of what was allowed.
SS: Well if you feel that then why have you not fully cooperated, in all the years since, including this year, when again you’ve been before the police to talk about what happened and what you knew and how it unfolded. You’ve never been fully cooperative. Why?
KC: No. There’s only one bit of information I’ve withheld…
SS: I know…
KC: …the names of the bombers are well-known…
SS: …Well, so you say…
KC: …Oh, no. They are.
SS: I’m not sure you’ve ever – I know that other people have – but you’ve never named them.
KC: No. And I won’t. They’ve been…
KC: They’ve been published by Chris Mullin – I’d only be repeating what he said. And I mean, I will never finger an IRA man.
SS: You’ll never finger and IRA man even though you regard this as the most terrible, callous immoral act.
KC: Well amongst them. It was amongst the half-dozen worst acts that the IRA…
SS: …I don’t want to put words in your mouth. Do you regard it as callous and immoral?
KC: I do, well yeah, but I blame the local leadership in Birmingham for it. I think the Volunteers that went out acted bona fide – they were just doing what they were told to do. There was supposed to be a warning. In that sense the operation might have fallen on the side of legitimacy if the warning had gone through.
SS: Really? Well there’s a real contraction there because you’ve said in the past that there’s no way that a pub that was not actually known to be a haunt of military personnel should be a target…
KC: …No, no. That’s correct…
SS: …these pubs were not full of military personnel…
KC: …No, no. I agree…
SS: …so how can you tell me it could have been a legitimate target?
KC: No, the people that did it could have argued: Well look, a warning was intended. The warning didn’t go through because of a broken phone box…
SS: …but it still wasn’t full of military personnel – it was still full of civilians…
KC: …No, I agree, I agree. No, It should not have happened. It should not have happened.
SS: Well in that case, why – and you’ve said it in this interview – you are still withholding one piece of information.
KC: Yeah, but the only piece of information that I’m withholding is the name of the second man that conducted the debrief of the …
SS: …That’s right. Why? Why? The police want to question him.
KC: …because he’s living and I won’t name him. Simple as that.
SS: What right do you have given that not only are you living but the victims’ families are still living and they cannot rest until they feel that justice has been done.
KC: Well this man will not talk to the police. All he was involved in was the debrief so there’s nothing…
SS: Well he won’t talk to the police if the police don’t even know his name. I mean isn’t it at least your moral duty to lay out everything you know…
SS: …particularly given what you say you feel about this whole thing?
KC: No. I don’t accept any moral duty in relation to naming that man and won’t do so.
SS: You’ll take it to your grave?
KC: No, if he dies – if he dies before I die at that stage I certainly am prepared to reveal his name.
SS: Do you think your entire trajectory and your attitudes and what you did for the IRA would have been different had you had kids? I’m just mindful – going back to Julie one more time.
KC: Yeah, no no….
SS: …she said: He doesn’t consider the bombers murderers but I wonder what he would say if one of his own kids was killed in this way – all of their skin stripped off their bodies, when he sees them with no legs, no arms – when they’ve been bombed so badly you can’t see their faces because of the injuries – that’s the feeling of a woman who has lost a sister in a bomb…
KC: …No, I, I….
SS: …and you didn’t even have children. Wouldn’t you think of being more humane if you had…
KC: …Well I’m not sure that I wasn’t humane. As I said if we bombed civilian targets we at least gave warnings unlike the British so no, I wouldn’t accept that we weren’t humane or that we didn’t try to be humane although there are at least a half dozen cases occasions in which I think individual IRA men and their commanders can be prosecuted for war crimes even now.
SS: Have you told what you know to the police on that basis?
KC: No, I have not. No. No.
SS: Hang on. Let me get my head around this. Now we’re not taking about Birmingham necessarily but you believe you know things which could be part of a prosecution for war crimes…
SS: …of individuals that were in the IRA and you will not disclose that information.
KC: No, that’s correct. I will never name a living IRA man under any circumstances.
SS: Under any circumstances? However egregious in your view?
KC: …No, I mean if I end up before the High Court in some sort of proceedings and cited for contempt I will go to prison rather than name any living IRA man.
SS: Try to explain to me the morality of that because I don’t get it. If you believe they’re war crimes…
KC: …well the morality of that – it’s very straightforward as far as…
SS: …It sounds tribal. It sounds…
KC: …As far as I’m – No, it’s not tribal at all. As far as I’m concerned I was engaged in a just war. I stand over everything I did. I was fortunate in that the things I did clearly legitimate – firing at British soldiers and the handful of commercial bombings that I engaged in.
SS: Let’s talk about what you now feel about some of those men that you knew quite well – I mean Martin McGuinness you knew very well – of course now he’s one of the key politicians playing a role in the devolved government in Northern Ireland representing Sinn Féin. Gerry Adams – I imagine you knew him pretty well.
KC: No, I knew McGuinness a lot better than I would know Adams. I would have considered him a personal friend particularly during the early days when I was in Doire and again in the mid-’70’s.
SS: And yet, even at the beginning of this interview you pointed out that you felt the process that McGuinness and Adams and the rest of them at the top of the IRA engaged in in the early ’90’s which led ultimately to the Good Friday Agreement and to what we now see as power-sharing and everything else – you feel it was a betrayal.
KC: It was a betrayal – there’s no doubt about that. What they did was they accepted the British position which was the position that the IRA fought against for twenty-five years and then it turns around and accepts it. So what could that be but a betrayal? Or you could also view it as a recognition of reality and I mean I call Gerry Adams – in my book I refer to him as a mendacious lying bastard – but at the same time it is a fact, and he deserves credit for it, that he single-handedly, admittedly he had collaborators – he managed to get McGuinness to agree with him, which surprised me – but you know, in broad terms he brought, single-handedly, brought peace to Ireland and that was some achievement.
SS: A peace that you recognise and acknowledge to be the best thing for the island of Ireland?
KC: No, I acknowledge it’s there. No, I still believe that – I still believe in Irish unity. I think Ireland would be better off…
SS: …Do you still believe in revolution?
KC: Ach, look – revolution has kind of had it’s time until the younger generation not interested and until…
SS: …Well yeah, sorry to interrupt, that’s not entirely true because there are still remnants, splinter groups, of the old Provisional IRA. They call themselves everything from the Real IRA, the Continuity IRA, the New IRA and you, as a criminal lawyer in Dublin, sometimes represent these people or least represent men who are alleged to be members of these groups with arms and explosives and everything else that goes with it.
KC: No, I’ve represented clients from all three IRAs. I’m very, very grateful for the work. It’s very interesting work…
SS: …And you don’t ever – despite everything we’ve discussed and the past and the way you feel about the past – you don’t ever say to yourself: I want anything more to do with these people.
KC: No, I don’t, no. I mean as a good criminal defence lawyer I’ll act on behalf of anybody. I’m not judgmental. I may have my own private view but the most important thing for a defence lawyer is not to discriminate between clients and be prepared to take on anybody no matter how horrendous the act that they’ve been accused of.
SS: Some people in the intelligence and policing community say that: Yeah, they have an ideological position on continuing the fight for a united Ireland but actually they’re just criminals and thugs – they’re defending turf, they’re involved drugs, they’re involved in protection rackets and some would say that actually that’s what the Provisional IRA became, too.
KC: No. The Provisonal IRA were never criminals although in the border areas they engaged in smuggling which is obviously criminal offence…
SS: …well smuggling and you’re a self-acknowledged bank robber.
KC: …yeah and so is armed robbery so I have no difficulty with that but they were certainly never involved in drugs and criminality of that sort. And I’m quite certain of that.
SS: Are you?
SS: You know what happened to all the money that you robbed from banks do you?
KC: No, I don’t. I was never involved in the finance department (crosstalk)…
SS: …On what basis could you possibly be confident that some of that money wasn’t going into people’s back pockets?
KC: Well I can’t. I do remember that when I was at the Donegal border in 1971 we shot a Volunteer in the legs for stealing a tenner after an armed robbery so that was something that was completely unacceptable – any sort of personal gain and it is shocking – it shocks me – that a lot of people in Belfast in particular seem to have benefited materially and have become very, very rich on the back of the struggle however they did it and I think that’s an absolute disgrace.
SS: It is interesting, we’ve got to end very soon, but it’s just interesting to come back – you make that point: You know you look from The South, you look from Dublin and what’s happened in Belfast and obviously in many ways you feel that what you see represents defeat and a corrosive sort of failure of the Republican militant movement. Do you ever wish: My God! I wish I’d never gotten involved with that whole mess!
KC: Not really and that’s simply on the philosophical basis. I’m an existentialist – you accept responsibility for your decisions and you know and on one reading yeah, I wasted twenty-five years of my life but…
SS: …Well, you wasted twenty-five years of your life. You were involved in a struggle which killed an awful lot of people – some of whom who wore a military uniform – but many of whom didn’t and were, quote/unquote ‘innocent civilians’ and you’ve acknowledged that. And in the end, as you talk about defeat for your movement, you talk about surrender, you talk about failure – what on earth was the point?
KC: Well, it didn’t – you now when we started off it didn’t look like that was going to be the outcome that it just historically is.
SS: But judged on outcomes – you should never have gone there. Never have engaged.
KC: No. If I thought that that might be the outcome no, I wouldn’t have gone there. No, of course not.
SS: And a final thought about the place you live in, Ireland, which of course for so long has been, in a sense, shaped by conflict between the Irish and the British, do you think, even in your lifetime or beyond your lifetime, it is conceivable that Ireland will be a united Ireland?
KC: No, I don’t. As long as the Unionists are unwilling to have a united Ireland, and they will always be unwilling to have a united Ireland – that’s their basic position, there is no prospect for Irish unity.
SS: Does it matter anymore? You know, we talk about the European Union, obviously there’s a lot of discussion about what Brexit means both for Britain and for Northern Ireland in particular and how it will relate to the border between The North and South of Ireland. Does any of this matter?
KC: Probably not. I mean Nationalism is a nineteenth century construct and it’s fading, visibly fading everywhere except, curiously, in Britain itself which has voted to leave the EU.
SS: But when it comes to where you are, as a person, with your history, you sleep easy at night?
KC: I’ve never have any trouble sleeping. No guilt. No nightmares.
SS: Kieran Conway – we have to end there but thank you for being on HARDtalk.
KC: Okay. (ends time stamp ~ 23:08)