The monstrosity of it all. The brutality, the pointlessness, and the ghosts – Tom Kelly

Lost IRA film The Secret Army brings back the horror of the murderous early 1970s

Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly is an Irish News columnist with a background in politics and public relations. He is also a former member of the Policing Board.

An image from the film The Secret Army which shows Martin McGuinness (left) helping load a bomb into the boot of a car in 1972

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”, wrote the author L P Hartley.

Those words came to mind whilst watching the BBC documentary about the lost IRA film, ‘The Secret Army’. The year was 1972. It was a horrifyingly brutal and murderous period.

As a young child I lived through it. So the documentary held no surprises – especially as parts of the content were aired several years ago. What seemed remarkable was the apparent foolishness, naïveté, riskiness or plain stupidity of the IRA leadership in cooperating with an American filmmaker.

Perhaps they believed the IRA campaign was on the cusp of a military breakthrough. It wasn’t.

In reality, paramilitaries, rogue RUC officers and the British Army were about to tip the north into a 25-year-long black abyss of murder and mayhem, reprisals and recriminations. The wanton disregard for innocent lives by paramilitaries and securocrats was, and is, stomach churning.

Title of programme The Secret Army
The BBC programme The Secret Army tells the story of a lost documentary that "unmasked the IRA, before vanishing for decades"

Thankfully, for every individual involved in paramilitarism there were many thousands more espousing peace.

The latter-day legions of sneaking regarders for the perpetrators of the so-called conflict, who seem to seep from the woodwork like termites, lack the candour to face up the atrocities carried out in the name of the Irish people.

Those who got involved with paramilitaries did so by choice, sometimes by circumstance but never at the call of their fellow citizens. Thankfully the voice of John Hume carried over the din of bombs and explosions intent on destroying his beloved city.

Clearly military intelligence in the USA and UK were fully aware of all those who had starring roles in the film.

After all, the UK Government was holding direct talks with the then IRA leadership about ceasefires. Tea and cakes at Cheyne Walk is almost as good as dining at the Dorchester.

With the clear images in the film, any of the protagonists could have been lifted and incarcerated for a very long time. Indeed some were – albeit for different terrorist offences.

Kenova package
West Belfast man Freddie Scappaticci was named as a British army agent within the IRA

As previously reported, the British security services were running informers and agents within the very heart of the IRA from its formation.

That the same security agencies were working hand in glove with loyalist paramilitary thugs was never in doubt.

If Stakeknife was the golden egg of the British Intelligence services, there was also a golden goose within the upper echelons of the IRA.

A still from the BBC programme The Secret Army showing a man with a gun pointing from a window
A still from the BBC programme The Secret Army

Speculation has been rife about his/her existence. Some former senior militant republicans, who have written their own narratives, have little doubt who it was. Others in the cohortes praetoriae are dismissive of the accusations as black propaganda. Who really knows?

And yet, there must be some former combatants, who wasted years in prison and were estranged from their families, now contemplating the unthinkable: what if they were led a merry dance to the gates of Stormont by a paid pied piper at the top the republican movement? They would be entitled to be angry because, if true, not only were they misled but used.

If Stakeknife was the golden egg of the British Intelligence services, there was also a golden goose within the upper echelons of the IRA

In the disturbingly brilliant and dark comedic, post-conflict play by Jimmy McAleavey, aptly named ‘Monsters, Dinosaurs, Ghosts’, two former IRA volunteers talk about their sense of despair at the political outcome after the devastating cost to their own lives and mental health.

“Wee Joe to Nig: ‘Describe your feelings, give them a score between 1 and 10′. Nig replies: ‘Anger 10. Despair 10. Terror 10.’

“Wee Joe asks: ‘What’s your core negative belief?’ Nig says: ‘That I was a soldier for 25 years, in jail for eight of them... sacrificed my own life so some wee w*** could open a branch of the NY Stock Exchange in Belfast! With a police escort!’”

A snap shot of archived film footage brings back all too much of that which we thought was buried deep in the recesses of memory. The monstrosity of it all. The pointlessness and the ghosts.