Danny Morrison, whose third novel The Wrong Man is published this month, is all too aware of how easy it is for people in the Republican heartlands to see writing as a kind of transgression. The huge body of "Troubles fiction" (according to a Republican prisoner who is making a postgraduate study of the subject from his cell, more than 350 titles based on the conflict have appeared since 1969) rarely has much good to say about Republicans or the communities which support them. More familiar are caricatures of psychotic terrorists and their hard-faced, bitter women consumed by an implacable hatred of the foreigner, learnt at the breast and the hearth.
And yet, as Morrison points out, the paradox is that while Republicans and their supporters complain of their misrepresentation in fiction, they can be even more suspicious of "writing from within" - not so much because it threatens to reveal the inner workings of a secret organisation, but because it offers the enemy a glimpse of a secret psychology. "The British have never had any understanding of the Republican reality," Morrison says, "and the feeling is that it is a good thing that they haven't penetrated us. But fiction tells truths, it's confessional by nature, so people can view writing as a disloyal act."
Thus when we meet to discuss The Wrong Man, which is about an IRA active service unit, it is no surprise that Morrison should ask how I think the movement would respond. Not the critics, mind you - the about-to-be-published author's usual concern - but the movement. Morrison is under a kind of pressure few novelists experience; but then few novelists have had his kind of experience. Born in 1953 in Andersonstown, West Belfast, he took an enthusiastic part in what he describes as "low-level Republican activity" from the very outbreak of the Troubles - selling Republican newspapers on the streets and going on marches and demonstrations. That the authorities believed him to be much more than a low-level activist is demonstrated by their repeated determination to take him off the streets. At various times over the past quarter of a century, he has been interned without trial, banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and arrested while trying to enter the US. He has appeared before the courts on a variety of charges, including membership of the IRA (not guilty) and conspiracy to pervert the course of public justice (ditto). At the same time he has been one of the Republican movement's most prominent public faces; he coined the phrase "the armalite and the ballot box", often taken to summarise the Republican movement's strategy. He has been editor of An Phoblacht/ Republican News, the movement's newspaper, and Sinn Fein's director of publicity, as well as an elected politician in the Northern Ireland Assembly between 1982 and 1986; in the 1983 general election he was defeated by a mere 78 votes when he stood for Mid-Ulster.
Morrison would probably still be among the Republican leadership today were it not for his arrest during a bizarre incident in January 1990 after the IRA picked up a police informer named Sandy Lynch. In Morrison's account, the informer had indicated that he was prepared to go public with the allegation that his RUC handlers had put pressure on him to set up two prominent Republicans. Morrison says he went, as Sinn Fein's director of publicity, to talk to Lynch about appearing at a press conference.
He was arrested and subsequently convicted on charges of aiding and abetting Lynch's unlawful imprisonment. Morrison, who never even saw Lynch, was sentenced to eight years.
The arrest came as a relief. "It was like a huge weight had been taken off my shoulders," he says. "For 20 years I had given my entire life, often at the expense of my family, to the movement." On remand in Crumlin Road jail his asthma cleared up, his general health improved, he started taking regular exercise. He also read - "It was the beginning of my literary education." Although it is common to hear of ex-prisoners talking of the range and depth of their reading inside - Mike Tyson for one - it is sometimes hard to avoid a certain degree of scepticism. Morrison shows me seven blue-covered prison notebooks in which he wrote critiques of the books he read - Madame Bovary, Ultramarine, The Last Tycoon, Knulp and many, many more. He also began work on a second novel, On the Back of the Swallow (his first, West Belfast, had been published just before his arrest) about a homosexual relationship, the idea for which came to him when loyalist prisoners beat up an inmate when they discovered he had had a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old boy.
The Wrong Affair, which Morrison started writing as he neared the end of his sentence, is technically and stylistically an advance on his two previous works. Beginning with a disturbing scene in which a suspected informer is interrogated, the novel deals with the involvement of two men, Raymond Massey and Tod Malone, in an IRA active service unit in Belfast and explores the impact of clandestine activity on their relationships with each other and their loved ones. It's a fast-paced, compelling and at times uncomfortable read, and contains a number of convincing set-piece descriptions of IRA operations.
What is different about the novel, however, is its placement of the IRA characters in authentic geographical, emotional and domestic contexts. The author puts Massey and Malone in a community inhabited by characters a long way from the usual stereotypes; they are men and women dealing with ordinary needs and problems - marriage break-ups, the infidelity of a partner, lack of money - who have simultaneously to cope with the extraordinary pressures that come with living under what they see as an army of occupation. But Massey and Malone are also scrutinised under a harsh light; their self-image is repeatedly and unflatteringly thrown back at them, as when Massey makes his first remand appearance after an arrest: "Handcuffed, he raised two clenched fists to show the police his defiance. They smiled, gave him the cynical thumbs up, considered him pathetic."
"Reading the book won't make anyone want to join the IRA - it's misery," Morrison says. His conclusion will undoubtedly find favour in circles where the author, because of his past, has been something of an ogre. Whether it will mean that he too finds favour remains to be seen. One senses a real, urgent need in Morrison, who says he has always wanted to be a writer, for mainstream literary credibility. At the same time, Morrison has not, cannot, repudiate his past or his politics: "Till the day I die," he says, "I will not accept that Britain has a right to be in Ireland." He feels a great deal of guilt about having, for the moment at least, taken time off for himself and his writing, even though the Sinn Fein leaders with whom he discussed his situation were, he says, understanding. He believes that for The Wrong Man "to be a serious work of fiction I had to be completely independent of the movement, impartial", and he summarises his present position by quoting the Chinese writer Zhang Xianliang: "Every thinking person has the choice of three different relations with the politics of their society: to participate, to flee, or to transcend." "I have participated," Morrison says, "I have no intention to flee, just at the moment I'm transcending."
It is hard to read The Wrong Man without feeling that Morrison has had an uneasy time attempting to reconcile the demands of his task as a writer with those of the political believer - the latter demands that any problem be smoothed away, the former that the same problem be exploited. In "transcending", Morrison has opted for war as hell, a laudable if conventional take - neutrality is often boring - which could have undermined the book were it not for its other patent strengths. Chief among these is a palpable sense of the author trying desperately to be honest, with the reader, but above all with himselfn
`The Wrong Man' is published by Mercier Press at pounds 7.99
Ronan Bennett's film `A Further Gesture', starring Stephen Rea as an escaped IRA man, opens the Dublin Film Festival on 4 March