Aidan McQuade: It's in extraordinary situations that you really find what people are made of

As a Mastermind winner and head of an international human rights organisation, south Armagh man Aidan McQuade has faced some tough challenges. Now he has used his experiences of war zones and the Troubles backdrop of his childhood to write his first novel, writes Noel McAdam

Armagh writer and anti-slavery campaigner Aidan McQuade won Mastermind five years ago
Noel McAdam

SOMETIMES fiction can be stranger than truth – just sometimes. A Northern Ireland native steeped in academia and international consultancy has turned from facing facts to creating fiction with his first novel.

But Aidan McQuade's literary debut is set in the harsh reality of history, some of it his own history. Growing up in south Armagh forms the backdrop and some of the atmosphere within The Undiscovered Country, which is set during the War of Independence in Ireland in 1920.

Two members of the IRA are training as police officers when they discover the body of a young boy, apparently drowned, but then set out to seek some form of justice for a child who they discover has been murdered.

"It's about trying to do the right thing when you really don't have a clue about how to go about that," says McQuade, from New York, where he is working when we chat.

Always a ferocious reader, he also has a keen interest in history. But while still remembered for winning the BBC's Mastermind in 2013 – when his specialist subjects included the crime writer Dennis Lehane – McQuade has carved a considerable reputation for his campaigning as director of the London-based Anti-Slavery International which, founded in 1839, is the worlds' oldest human rights organisation.

As part of his work over more than a decade, he has experience of war in Ethiopia, Angola and Afghanistan.

While many people believe slavery ended with its abolition across much of the world during the 19th century, it is estimated that more than 21 million men, women and children remain in some form of slavery today.

"There are also significant ties with Ireland that are not so well remembered – Daniel O'Connell was a founder member of the organisation and Roger Casement worked for them on forced labour in the Amazon," McQuade says.

After studying civil engineering at Queen's University Belfast and business studies in Strathclyde, Glasgow, McQuade also drew attention for his doctoral thesis which was titled 'Doing the right thing: human agency and ethical choice-making in professional practice'.

The novel itself contains some of the ideas more normally found in a PhD thesis, "the sort of things that are only read by a handful of people," he says.

Now 52, the idea of turning to fiction to disseminate his ideas first came to him three or four years ago.

"But I had no idea about what to write about or when to set it," he recalls. "And then I was reading about the War of Independence and liked the idea of people who have no real training as police doing some investigating."

Like Lehane, McQuade uses the genre of historical crime writing – which includes such illustrious and successful authors as Hilary Mantel and CJ Sansom – to explore complex moral issues.

"And it was a context – which was my own context – after growing up in Ireland, I was able to write about some of the truths that had been troubling me, such as when is the right time to use violence and what are the limitations of war?

"Also the human cost – that declaring war is not like some grand game of chess; there are consequences. And as I learned from my time in Afghanistan, there are compromises that ordinary people have to make when war comes to their doorstep."

Born in Killeavy, McQuade was educated at Abbey Christian Brothers Grammar School in Newry, where other alumni include the late former tanaiste Frank Aiken – an IRA leader during the War of Independence, as it happens – and the north's former deputy first minister Seamus Mallon.

It was Mallon who, much later, told McQuade that his Mastermind victory, where the specialisms also took in Abraham Lincoln and Michael Collins, was the best thing the SDLP deputy leader had seen on television "since Armagh winning the all-Ireland".

Mallon was something of a mentor and McQuade himself became a member of the SDLP, wherein he was at one point regarded as a rising star, during his time at Queen's. He readily admits that "philosophically" his heart remains in the party even now.

"I am a great admirer of Colum Eastwood and Claire Hanna and I still very much identify with the politics of the SDLP, if you put a gun to my head, which (thanks to the work of the SDLP) people no longer have to," he jokes.

Yet McQuade turned his back on politics. Why?

"I'm not sure I have the right temperament for politics. I am not sure I would make a good elected representative," he says. "But I am still involved in policy, if not politics."

Among his achievements is overseeing the expansion of Oxfam's work in Angola in 1999 when it went from working with 50,000 to 350,000 people.

"It didn't solve any of the underlying political problems and war but meant a lot of people survived them so that was something I was very proud of."

Married to Klara, who was born in Prague, McQuade took up running during the time when he was working on his PhD on moral courage.

"I found the pain of physical exercise was considerably less than thinking," he muses.

The book isn't past the publishing stage yet, though it has 95 per cent of the funding it needs though the website and scheme.

"The idea is to get more offbeat books published, which do not necessarily fit the publishers' perception of niche markets and what people are actually interested in reading," McQuade says.

Conflict is clearly something to which he has had cause to give plenty of consideration.

"In spite of all the bloodshed that so disfigures so much of the world still, too many people, particularly political leaders, still seem to have such a glib view of war as to be ready to blunder into it at the earliest convenience," he says.

"Even just two or three months after Brexit, we had [former foreign secretary] Michael Howard talking up the prospect of going to war with Spain [over Gibraltar] and Michael Gove has denigrated the Good Friday Agreement, showing he doesn't particularly value peace. These people have never confronted a real war scenario."

Flitting back effortlessly from the true grit of facts, McQuade says his favourite crime writer is Philip Kerr, creator of the Bernie Gunther detective series, who died last March, at the same age as McQuade.

But he also cites the classic Graham Green novels and, more recently, Robert Harris.

"They use the thriller format to explore much more complex moral issues, which is what I have tried to do also.

"It's in those extraordinary situations that you really find what people are made of. What lines you were prepared to cross."

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