The enemy within
The former IRA man Danny Morrison has written a challenging and darkly comic play about informers. So, why will no one in Ireland stage it?
There is a great line in John Berger's novel, Once In Europa, where a character expresses metaphorically the devastation a close-knit community experiences when it has been betrayed from within. "Do you know what the trees say when the axe comes into the forest? Look! The handle is one of us!"
From time immemorial informers have been reviled, not least in Ireland, where their actions have subverted attempted national uprisings and revivals. James Carey was an informer in the 1880s who was tracked down and assassinated by Irish republicans in South Africa. My Uncle Harry, an IRA leader in the 1940s, was in hiding but was betrayed by an informer. He escaped but his comrade was arrested and executed by firing squad in Dublin. Harry was betrayed a second time, and sentenced to death, but had his sentence commuted. Most recently, when Tony Blair said that he believed that the IRA carried out the huge heist on Belfast's Northern Bank before Christmas, he based his belief on a dossier substantially compiled from the statements of informers.
I have also been jailed, accused of IRA involvement, on a number of occasions as a result of the work of informers. The first time was in 1972, when I was interned for 13 months. The last was not long before the ceasefire.
The informer's story is rich with intrigue and antagonism, which is why I have used my experience of informers as the basis for the play, The Wrong Man .
My story concerns a bitterly cold evening in January 1990 when I went to meet an IRA informer who, I had been told, was prepared to go to a press conference and name and expose the Special Branch handlers who had been pressing him to set up two senior republicans for assassination. I was Sinn Fein's director of publicity at the time, and it was a good story. At the time, we were trying to show that the RUC was operating an illegal shoot-to-kill policy.
Two days earlier, the IRA had lured Sandy Lynch to a house in West Belfast, overpowered him and, according to his testimony, threatened to torture and execute him. Lynch confessed to being an informer and then entered into a deal to attend a press conference, at which stage I was called. But I never got to meet Lynch. The house was raided within seconds of my arriving and I was charged with conspiring to kidnap and murder him. From the witness box, Lynch admitted being an informer and that he had even informed on his own brother. He gave no evidence against me, but I was sentenced to eight years. According to a Sunday newspaper, he received £100,000 after I and my co-accused were convicted.
It was in the 1980s that the public and media were, for the first time, really able to scrutinise the reliability of informers who gave evidence against former comrades. Through the extremely controversial "supergrass" system, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) had recruited about 30 informers from the IRA, the republican INLA and the loyalist UVF. The RUC then used their statements as the evidence for charging more than 300 people with terrorist offences. Half the supergrasses later retracted statements, and many of the convicted were cleared on appeal.
One typical supergrass was Raymond Gilmour, from Derry, who was being questioned about a burglary when he was asked by the RUC to join the Irish National Liberation Army. He was 16 at the time. He said that his mother had a history of mental illness, and that his father was a boozer. Two of his brothers, he said, "beat up my sisters and me and tried to make us drink their piss". One also "forced me to keep my school dinner and bring it home after school so he could eat it".
As an informer, he was paid £200 a week, plus bonuses. Gilmore's best friend was the INLA man Colm McNutt. Gilmour tipped off his RUC handler about an INLA robbery during which McNutt was shot dead. He eventually gave evidence against his comrades in open court, but the Lord Chief Justice described him as being "entirely unworthy of belief". He was "a selfish and self-regarding man to whose lips a lie invariably comes more naturally than the truth". Yet the Chief Constable of the RUC swore by Gilmour's credibility, as he swore by the credibility of the 30 others.
Is it any wonder, then, that republican communities in the North reserve their greatest hatred, not for the enemy, but for those of their own? During the conflict, the IRA killed at least 60 people whom it accused of secretly working for the British Army or the RUC, and banished from Ireland up to 100 others.
Of course, one side's informer is another side's hero, allegedly risking his or her life to save other lives, particularly among the police and Army. Despite my experiences, I am fascinated by the concepts of temptation and weakness; acts of minor betrayal, disloyalty, infidelity and hypocrisy are, after all, common in life.
Before I went to jail, I had already written two novels and, in prison, I began writing a third, The Wrong Man, which I have now adapted for the stage. I decided to write an almost sympathetic portrayal of an IRA informer. It was a challenge, given that I was normally recognised for my television and radio apologias on behalf of Sinn Fein and, often, the IRA.
While the play deals with themes of treachery, infidelity, guilt, and the potential that violence has for corrupting the individual, it also has a blackly comic tone. The Wrong Man is not an apology for the IRA or its armed struggle, but is a sympathetic portrayal of human beings, especially the two women characters, who are victims of history and politics and of decisions their menfolk take. I like to think the audience will ponder how they would have reacted under similar circumstances - either barefoot, as in the case of the suspect, or in the shoes of his IRA accusers.
However, no Irish company or theatre has been interested in producing it. It's not the first time I have experienced this type of prejudice. Often my books, including my novels, have been the subject of ad hominem attacks in reviews by people hostile to Irish republicanism. I was about to give up on the play when I was contacted by a London-based actor, Chris Simpson, from West Belfast, who was convinced of its potential. He, Sarah Tipple - a young English director - and several other Irish and English actors formed the New Strung Theatre Company to stage it at the Pleasance Theatre in London.
It is ironic that a play about the IRA, written by a former IRA member who was banned from entering England for 13 years, will have its first home in England and not Ireland. Despite difficulties in the peace process, and renewed disagreements, there is no doubt that an atmosphere now prevails that allows us to examine the past more honestly and dispassionately than before.
'The Wrong Man', The Pleasance Theatre, London N7, 12 March to 3 April (020-7609 1800)
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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison