To write old wrongs

REBEL HEARTS. Journeys Within the IRA's Soul by Kevin Toolis, Picador pounds 15.99
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THE 25-year Northern Ireland war had a baffling quality, like a blind-man's buff in which everyone was blindfolded and the buffets were deadly. The lack of mutual comprehension seemed obvious, at least to outsiders. In Britain, the question "what makes the IRA tick?" may not have gone altogether unasked, but was certainly not asked as persistently as it should have been. Even so, it was probably asked more often than the question "what makes the British state tick?" was asked by the IRA. Negotiations, we must now hope, will begin a process of dis- covery, but there is a long way to go.

Kevin Toolis, who has reported the conflict for a variety of British, Irish and American journals since the early 1980s, provides an unusually clear signpost for this journey. Aside from his purplish title (befitting his other job as a screenwriter for Universal Pictures), this is a sombre and honest personal investigation. It is sometimes very personal: witness the uneasy analysis of his motives in dating the sister of an IRA man whose death in an SAS ambush he was investigating. Was she, he wonders, a special sexual prize, as the sister of "an I-R-A M-A-A-N"? His precise rendering of the northern drawl conveys how the dark glamour of the gunman, the mystique of the rebel, simultaneously grips and repels him.

Toolis begins from his family roots: displaced Achill islanders living in Edin-burgh, making an annual return through the gauntlet of armoured patrols and checkpoints to the bare strand at Dookin-ella with its little monument to a priest executed for taking part in the 1798 rebellion. The resilience of Irish republicanism slowly impressed itself on him. As he says, no other western political movement is so tenuously grounded in political reality, so consciously espouses a doctrine of self-sacrifice, promises so much pain and death to its followers and offers so little in return. So why does it go on?

A Unionist will unhesitatingly answer, because Fenians are evil, heartless, homicidal criminals, and will deduce from Toolis's origins that he is one of them. To others it will not seem so simple. He may have a "rebel heart", but his mind and conscience revolt at the grim, pointless roster of "stiffings", individual assassinations, that make up the overwhelming bulk of the "armed struggle". Time and again the suffocating pressure of vendetta overwhelms him, as when he gets to hear the ghastly tape-recording of the final confession of a "tout" - an IRA man who became an informer to protect his wife from police harassment - to the IRA "court" which would shortly blow his head to bits and dump his body in a lovely country lane.

Most of his book is an attempt to grasp, through patient study of individual IRA volunteers and their families, the reasons why such a struggle carried on for so long. In the case of Harlow-born Frankie Ryan, Toolis looks for "a moment of epiphany in Frankie's life that would explain his transformation from an Essex lout into an IRA bomber, but there was no such moment". A rich chapter explores the attitudes of a leading republican family: big brother Pat, the lawyer who defended IRA prisoners, was denounced by Douglas Hogg in the House of Commons and shot dead soon after by loyalists, and the other three IRA men of varying deadliness.

All share one simple conviction - that the armed struggle is war, legitimised by deep historic wrongs. As Ryan's widow put it, "It's a war isn't it? They shouldn't have treated Catholics like second-class citizens." Clearly, the statement "this is war" is not so much military as political - an assertion of unflinching determination never to give in. Yet "war", in Ulster, is a treacherous notion which obscures the hopelessness of killing Protestants as a means of convincing them of the need for Irish unity, by disguising sectarian killings as attacks on British rule.

Toolis worries away at this problem, especially in his vivid analysis of Martin McGuinness and the IRA leadership. Can the IRA make peace? Can an organisation built on refusal to compromise accept less than its ideal? Toolis sees clearly that any settlement will depend on the reputation of McGuinness, who is (so far) absolutely trusted by the IRA rank and file. Yet his sharp portrait of the incorruptible republican, "almost robotically repeating the same narrow verbal formula", lacking any of the "expressive nuances that guide us to the mental state of our fellow humans", leaves plenty of room for doubt. McGuinness owes his ascendency to his capacity to out-argue others, rare in a group whose normal argument is "We know we're right and if you don't lay off we'll shoot ye". But this capacity has yet to be tested on the real enemy. If Toolis is right that this streetfighter turned guerrilla statesman has not moved far from his roots, negotiating with him may be less than rewarding.