On August 5, 2021, I sat down, via Zoom, with Ed Moloney, an award-winning Irish journalist best known for his coverage of that perplexing and dark time known as ‘The Troubles’ in the north of Ireland. Moloney was a reporter covering ‘The Troubles’ on the ground for such periodicals as Hibernia, Magill, the Irish Times and the Sunday Tribune. He has written three books: Paisley: from Demagogue to Democrat? A Secret History of the IRA, and Voices from the Grave. His last book was later turned into an award-winning documentary with the same title. These days, besides doing interviews with folks like me, Mr. Moloney posts his newer articles on his website TheBrokenElbow.com.
When it comes to the dogged path of journalism, Mr. Moloney has earned his stripes as a veteran sleuth for the truth. He has risked his life and reputation over his career to provide reliable information during The Troubles when so much was and remains cloaked in uneasy mystery.
I imagine that most people on this email list know something about The Troubles. That time from 1966 to 1998 when an unbalanced civil society in the north of Ireland broke down and war broke out between various factions of the Irish Republican Army, the British Army, and the Loyalist (to the British) community in the north. Moloney writes in his book A Secret History of the IRA that The Troubles were so intensely traumatic, that if something equivalent to it were to happen in America, the death toll would be over 600,000 people. In Britain the number of dead would be over 150,000 people. That’s how intensely frightening The Troubles quickly became.
I have found with so much of The Troubles and Irish history in general, one needs to constantly unpack and contextualize present circumstances through the long view of history. In this interview, we discussed the historical context of The Troubles, tracing its roots back to the British imperialist invasions of Ireland and their creation of the plantation system starting in the 16th century. (Some would argue that the roots lie in the original Norman British invasion in the 12th century.) Moloney concentrated on The Tudor Invasion as the one that set the geographic and institutional framework still in existence today in Ireland’s northern six counties.
Next, we talked about Moloney’s book, A Secret History of the IRA, and he told me why he chose to open the chronological telling of The Troubles with an episode of international gunrunning from 1987. What happened was that Libya’s leader, Muammar Qaddafi, had been supporting the IRA’s armed military campaign for Irish unity by giving them lots of money and lots of weapons. The story of the Eksund is a fitting epitome of the whole Troubles.
In 1985, the IRA’s Army Council conceived of a massive military mission they called the Tet Offensive, an homage to Tet Offensive the North Vietnamese pulled off on the South Vietnamese and the American forces during the Vietnam War. Just as the Tet Offensive of the North Vietnamese turned the tides of the war in their favor, the Provisional IRA were planning the same.
Libya played a huge role in their vision. Muammar Qaddafi gave the IRA over 150 tons of weapons and over 5 tons of Semtex, the deadly plastic explosive, for them to use in their war against the British. The IRA then set up four separate missions over the next two years to smuggle such huge amounts of weaponry into the small island country of Ireland. Next, the IRA sent selected IRA volunteers to Libya to receive training in high-powered Russian machine guns and SAM-7’s (surface-to-air-missile launchers) that Qaddafi had gifted them. Meanwhile back in Ireland, sophisticated underground firing ranges, some lined with concrete and sound proofed were built all over the country for local units to train.
The IRA Tet Offensive would not happen until the final shipment of weapons, carried on the Eksund, had arrived. Their plan once the weapons did arrive was to launch an all-out assault on the British army units stationed in the north of Ireland. The Offensive would begin with IRA units taking specific spots of the border from British troops. Next the SAM-7’s would take down British army helicopters from the skies. With British air support shut down, they would be forced, so went the logic, to engage with the IRA on the ground. The IRA planned to use the heavy-duty Russian machine guns and rocket launchers to attack armored British vehicles. Happening concurrently would be the “spectaculars” that would destroy British naval support. The IRA were going to blow up a ship in Belfast harbor, blocking access to the city from the sea, while IRA motorboats, equipped with the huge Russian machine guns, attacked attack British naval boats that tried to enter Belfast.
The Provisional IRA’s intention for their Tet Offensive was to be as earth shattering as possible. They wanted people to turn on the radio one morning and think the world was going to end. This, of course, never happened. And Moloney told me in our interview why he thinks it did not happen.
In our interview Moloney told me that he was the first journalist to report that there had been an informer positioned at the IRA’s highest levels who sabotaged that mission. Before Moloney wrote about it, no one had ever heard that before. Moloney believes that the bust of the Eksund set the trajectory of the rest of the Troubles, and the IRA’s eventual decision to put down the gun and dive into politics to achieve Irish unity.
Moloney explains in the interview, that it is inevitable to have a volunteer clandestine organization like the IRA that had been at war with the British for over two decades to have become riddled with spies and informers. To combat such tactics the IRA created a new, smaller more secretive cell structure and they created a special unit that would sniff out the informers. The problem was that the head of the informer investigation unit of the IRA was himself a British spy!
There is little doubt that still much of the Troubles is hardly known. Many people, from British intelligence to high-ranking members of the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein both appear to resist the whole truth of the Troubles to emerge.
The interview ends with a simple affirmation of how important it is for people to study history. There is much to be learned from studying Irish History, in general, and The Troubles, more specially. There are few voices as through and dedicated as Ed Moloney’s
I hope you all enjoy the interview