Danny Morrison talks to Tina Neylon
Probably best-known for coining the phrase "an Armalite in one hand and a ballot box in the other" during a crucial debate at the 1981 Sinn Fein Ard Fheis, Danny Morrison gave up political activism in the mid-nineties to devote himself to writing.
Already the author of three novels, West Belfast (1989), On the Back of the Swallow (1994) and The Wrong Man (1997), which he has recently rewritten for the stage, and the autobiographical Then the Walls Came Down (1999), his latest is a collection of pieces on literature and politics entitled All the Dead Voices. In it he writes of family and friends, and of how he discovered his vocation as a writer. What will no doubt attract particular attention is that in it for the first time he admits being involved in the IRA.
"I felt it was important to be as honest as I can afford to be," he tells me. "I would not go down the road of writing about specific actions, I feel that would mean exploitation plus bringing back memories for some people. I’m fairly critical of Eamon Collins for instance, who wrote in Killing Rage about how he did awful things and regretted what he did, yet he seemed to derive pleasure from describing them in detail."
We’ve been good friends for the last five years, it was writing which brought us together as I commissioned him to review books for The Irish Examiner. Danny is a great host and excellent cook, and he and his delightful Canadian-born wife Leslie have welcomed me many times into their home. Though he is often called upon by the media to comment on political developments in the North or to speak at Republican commemorations, Danny is no longer as involved as he once was.
"When I decided to join the IRA it was like a conversion. I suddenly became confident and capable of arguing assertively the Republican case. Being involved gave me kudos, I was arguing from conviction and from a position of being involved, from inside the movement. Of course, throwing your lot in with this group meant risking being demonised, alienated, jailed or even killed, and you had to be ready for all that."
He was right to be prepared, as he was interned in 1972, and in 1978 charged with IRA membership and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, when he defended himself and the charges were dropped.
Danny first came to international attention as spokesperson for Bobby Sands during the 1981 hunger strikes and was national director of publicity for Sinn Fein from 1979 until 1990, when he was arrested in connection with the abduction of an IRA informer and sentenced to eight years in prison. He was released in 1995 during the IRA ceasefire.
"I feel I have established an independence from Sinn Fein now, and I will say things that they won’t or are reluctant to say, like that I believe that the armed struggle is over. A lot of people read my stuff and will say that ‘I like that’ or ‘I disagree with that.’ I’m a republican supporter who is not in Sinn Fein or the IRA." He canvasses for Sinn Fein during elections and this week is travelling to Colombia as a witness for the three defendants.
Despite what many believe, not everyone in his community supported the IRA when the Troubles began. "I remember priests getting up and condemning IRA activity, and there was an on-going struggle within the nationalist community as Republicanism didn’t have as big a face as organisations including the SDLP and the Catholic Church. It suffered, in the North particularly, from the fact that it didn’t have a public face. It’s reversed now, but then it lacked leadership, People’s Democracy, and figures like Bernadette McAliskey and Eamon McCann looked like the leadership, but Republicans weren’t putting anyone forward. What was needed was someone who was confident and articulate."
For Danny, that happened when Gerry Adams was released from gaol in 1977. "He was fairly impressive in terms of what needed to be done. At that time I had been editing Republican News for two years and had asked him to write for it."
They were to become close friends. Gerry Adams sent a letter from New York congratulating him on the new book, having read it on the plane, and Danny tells me of the good wishes he received from fellow writers Shane Connaughton, Dermot Healy and Tim O’Grady in the same breath – showing they mean just as much.
As he relates in All the Dead Voices, becoming a writer seemed ‘too daunting’ to believe it could happen. "It was such a fantastic thing to imagine, and then The Troubles came along and I was emotionally pulled into them. Later as publicity director for Sinn Fein I was using the talent I had for writing and speaking and devoting it to republicanism."
It was Danny’s editor at Mercier Press who gave him the idea for the new work. "I wanted to be writing a book," he recalls. "Last year when I was working on the play of The Wrong Man, Jo O’Donoghue suggested that I put together a collection of my non-fiction pieces. I used articles I had written for the Andersonstown News, The Irish Examiner and The Observer as a springboard. As I went through them I realised that at least half of them were about death or mortality, I also found that a high proportion of quotations I collected from poets, writers and philosophers were on the same subjects. Then my sister died and a few weeks later my father died suddenly, and it just seemed right."
All the Dead Voices is dedicated to his late sister Susan. "My elder sister Geraldine was a bit amazed at things that were going on, like guns hidden under the bed, and would prefer not to have known, but says it brought back a lot of memories and that she found it very sad but uplifting."
Sad, but uplifting, that also sums up my response to Danny’s new book.
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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison