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Inglorious martyrs

Rebel Hearts: Journeys Within the IRA'S Soul

Kevin Toolis

Picador £15.99

This book begins and ends with the murder of a High Court Judge in Belfast, and in between it probes the rationale behind such killings - or at least, it provides detailed accounts of the circumstances surrounding a few selected incidents in the IRA's campaign.

Kevin Toolis sets out his credentials for the undertaking: he may have grown up in Edinburgh, but there's an ancestral island in Co. Mayo in his background only one generation away, complete with a monument to a rebel priest, a Father Manus Sweeney who was hanged by the British in 1799. Such legacies are the stuff of romantic nationalism.

Toolis starts by staking his own claim to have a "rebel heart" - and who, indeed, would want to deny possession of such a praiseworthy organ, at least in so far as it stands for spirit and integrity? But by the end of the journey - his own journey - he seems to have come round to the view that it's not an unambiguous attribute: "the justness of the political cause was invalidated by the cruelty of the murders carried out in its name."

Nevertheless, he remains a fellow traveller of Irish republicanism, by inheritance and disposition, as much as by cool-headed conviction. He believes the desired outcome in Ireland will be achieved eventually, that the makeshift independence obtained in I922 will become complete, even if the end isn't yet in sight; and that the Provisional IRA, whether we like it or not, has moved the process on a considerable stage further. It's an optimistic verdict, asserted, you might feel, in the face of a certain weariness of spirit brought on by prolonged exposure - over a ten-year period - to the grief-stricken, the inhumane, the glorification of brutality and the jargon of disaffection. Toolis has immersed himself in the orthodoxies of activists, and Rebel Hearts is the result.

The terms "heart" and "soul" in the title, taken together with the cover photograph of a couple of handsome young women shouldering a coffin, surrounded by what looks like a splurge of gore, produce a pretty lurid impression. However, it's only at odd moments that the author succumbs to over-intensity - when he talks, for example, about "the weight of those journeys within the Republican soul", which seems a rather misty and high-flown way to refer to talks with political killers and the relatives of those killed.

What it all adds up to, in fact, has less to do with ideology than recapitulation. It recounts (among other things) the stories of people unable to experience history as anything other than a means of self-assertion, self-aggrandisement, the whole "us-and-them" syndrome. As one ex-Volunteer admits to Toolis, praising Martin McGuinness's fairly unusual ability to argue his case, a lot of the movement was run on blind faith: "We are right, we might not be able to tell you how we are right, but we are."

It's blind faith, and an otherwise meagre existence, that sends a young volunteer such as Tony Doris of Coalisland, for example, out to murder a member of the Ulster Defense Regiment - and get himself incinerated instead. Why does anyone join the IRA? "He had no choice, when he was on the way to school his bags were searched." On the face of it, this statement by Tony Doris's sister might seem to indicate a disproportionate reaction, but it's meant to be read as a kind of shorthand for the self- perpetuating harassment and defiance prevailing in bleak enclaves all over Northern Ireland. The Provisionals first came out in force as defenders of Catholic communities when defenders were needed - to cut out repetition of incidents such as the burning of Percy Street in Belfast in I969, with subsequent loss of 1,500 Catholic (and 300 Protestant) homes.

The failure of anyone to make an adequate stand at the time caused a spate of bitter grafitti, along the lines of, "IRA - I Ran Away"; and it wasn't long before the challenge was taken up. The demand was for "hard men", "local thugs turned community warriors," as Kevin Toolis puts it. But the republican movement also drew recruits from among the more politically aware. One of Toolis's early chapters concerns the fortunes of a family dispossessed in the Percy Street riots - the Finucanes, whose oldest son, a republican defence lawyer, went on to be murdered by the UFF in I989. It makes dismaying reading.

Somehow, between instances of lunatic bravado (planning to drive into an RUC barracks, "shoot everybody and leave bombs behind") and the rhetoric of the poor mouth ("the oppressed nationalist people"), an efficient and deadly organisation came into being, with the power to disrupt life at all levels, carry out its aim of dispersing instability and command an endlessly renewable supply of volunteers.

Kevin Toolis works hard to avoid the too easy option of automatic condemnation, the tone of voice satirised in Seamus Heaney's poem, "Whatever You Say, Say Nothing" (" `Oh. it's disgraceful, surely, I agree,'/ `Where's it going to end? `It's getting worse'. . ."); but sometimes the discrepancy between the reality of an event, and its later transformation, proves too much for him. "It is hard to think of a less glorious act," he bursts out: someone dying "by the side of a Fermanagh District Council van, after being caught off-guard by a dog warden who was quicker on-the-draw". This is a republican martyr. What else? Possibly the most chilling chapter in the book concerns the penalties inflicted on informers - but the basic point rammed home is that the conflict, in all its aspects, has added immeasurably to the sum of human misery.

It's no wonder that the author ends up dispirited. But though his book doesn't offer too many insights or unexpected illumination, it stands as an honest and thoughtful attempt to get to grips with an intractable topic.