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

March 12, 2019


This is an exceptional story about a topic I had little knowledge of previously. “The Troubles” is the euphemistic name for the conflict over Northern Ireland that started in the late 1960’s. For thirty years, Loyalists who wanted Northern Ireland to remain within the UK clashed with Irish nationalists, who wanted to break away and form a united Ireland. The mostly Protestant loyalists had the backing of the British, while the predominantly Catholic nationalists created paramilitary groups like the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA).

The conflict resulted in a relatively low death toll—3,500 people were killed in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and mainland Europe—but was terrifying in its brutality and randomness. Over half of those killed were civilians, and many of the tactics—particularly of the IRA—were taken from the pages of other revolutionary groups, terrorist organizations and organized crime.

At the center of this book is the “disappearing” (another euphemism—it seems The Troubles were ripe with them) of Jean McConville, a single mother of ten. In the middle of the night in 1972, a group of people showed up at her Belfast home and, in front of her children, escorted her to a waiting car. She was never heard from again.

Also at the center of this book is a project sponsored by Boston College. Starting in 2001, a series of interviews with former IRA members were recorded, with the agreement that they would not be released until after the participants’ death. That agreement proved untrue, as the US Justice Department, in cooperation with the police of Northern Ireland, in 2011 pressured Boston College to turn over the tapes. What began as an academic project has turned into a protracted legal battle. The interview tapes are currently locked away in Belfast, with various parts and versions of transcripts floating around. The fallout: a slew of accusations, multiple lawsuits, several arrests and this book.

If all that sounds like in-the-weeds legal tedium, it doesn’t read like it. The Belfast Project, as the interviews were collectively named, is just the underpinning of the book. Keefe weaves a compelling story of the people involved, the historic significance of The Troubles and the human cost of the conflict. “I saw an opportunity to tell a story about how people become radicalized in their uncompromising devotion to a cause, and about how individuals and a whole society make sense of political violence once they have passed through the crucible and finally have time to reflect.”

It’s the reflection here that is the most poignant. Some of the perpetrators of the violence are deeply remorseful of what they did, while others—most notably Gerry Adams, Irish politician and by many accounts leadership of the IRA since the ‘70s—claim innocence (Adams audaciously denies any involvement with the group). And still many others, including Jean McConville’s children, remember The Troubles with overwhelming sadness.

Even with no vested interest in the stories, I found them fascinating and moving. Keefe’s work as an investigator propels this story forward like the best true crime (it calls to mind Michelle McNamara’s excellent I’ll Be Gone in the Dark), and he puts forth compelling evidence for one of the central mysteries of McConville’s disappearance. How and if this book impacts the case going forward is yet to be seen. I would, however, make a bet that this book ends of up on some “Best of 2019” lists. As it straddles the boundaries of revolutionary politics, military tactics, organized crime and unsolved mystery, there are many entry points. When I heard Keefe interviewed on the Slate Political Gabfest, the story sounded fascinating. The book lives up to it.



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