Ronan Bennett

Ronan Bennett is the author of The Catastrophist and co-author of Stolen Years, Paul Hill’s account of his trial and imprisonment after the Guildford and Woolwich bombings.

The monolith’s full name was the Ulster Unionist Party, but its position as the dominant voice of Northern Irish loyalism was such that, for most of its history, those running in its interest needed only to declare themselves ‘the Unionist candidate’. The Party’s roots were in an all-Ireland Unionist coalition which came into being in the mid-1880s in response to the rise of Parnell’s Home Rule Party. Its early allies at Westminster were the Conservative Party and Liberal opponents of Gladstone; its allies at home were the sectarian Orange Order, and the Protestant landowning, professional and business fraternities. In the years before the outbreak of the First World War, the volatile and charismatic Edward Carson, a Dublin-born lawyer and the Unionist MP for Trinity College Dublin, who made his name in the courts and the Commons as an eloquent defender of the interests of Irish landlords, joined with the energetic Ulster Unionist James Craig to mobilise Northern Protestants of all classes. Carson, who had served as solicitor-general in Lord Salisbury’s administration, colluded in the illegal shipment of 25,000 rifles and three million rounds of ammunition from Germany in April 1914, the better to resist Home Rule by arming the newly created Ulster Volunteer Force. The Larne gun-running incident, as it became known, demonstrated that Unionist leaders were no different from their Nationalist counterparts: both were ready to use constitutional means so long as they worked, and force if they did not.‘

Shortly after the 1994 IRA ceasefire, the New Statesman ran a cartoon depicting Gerry Adams as a reptilian protohuman emerging from a primordial sea to take his first trepid step on the long evolutionary walk from terrorist godfather to constitutional politician. To judge from this biography, the Sinn Féin leader still has some way to go. According to David Sharrock and Mark Devenport, Adams is a ruthless, scheming hypocrite who talks peace in front of the cameras, but in private continues to plot death and misery. He speaks of ‘inclusion’ and publicly condemns sectarianism, but has boasted that he would ‘wade up to my knees in Protestant blood’ to achieve a united Ireland. He is a physical and moral coward, ‘aloof’, a poseur, who for all his ‘studied image as a man of letters and an intellectual’, has a second-rate brain. He is treacherous – the authors hint that he even set a rival up for assassination. Sources quoted in Man of War, Man of Peace? describe Adams as ‘akin to a Nazi’, a racketeering criminal thug’, ‘a fundamentalist’. No misdemeanour is overlooked: he was an indifferent student, enjoys the occasional lie-in with his wife and may have dyed his beard.’‘

During Her Majesty’s Pleasure

Ronan Bennett, 20 February 1997

In Well Street, Hackney, shortly before midnight on 11 February 1982, Terry McCluskie and his friend Raymond Reynolds picked a fight with a total stranger, Robert Ford, and stabbed him to death. Ford was 15 years old and had just taken his girl-friend home after spending an evening at a local Citizens’ Band radio club. McCluskie, also 15, and Reynolds, 14, had spent the evening drinking and were on their way to a chip shop when they ran into their victim. It is barely worth speaking of anything as tangible as motive in Robert Ford’s murder. Robbery may have been involved, though McCluskie has always denied that it was. Any part it did play was tangential. ‘We had a go at him to get some money,’ Reynolds told the police, ‘he gave me Iop and when I asked for more he said he didn’t have any and that’s when we started to stab him.’ There was also some mention of ‘dirty looks’, and these, real or imagined, probably did more to provoke the attackers. To describe the assault as ‘mindless’ might not be so wide of the mark: it was vicious and random – typical, some would say, of an entire spectrum of violence intrinsic to modern Britain.’

The Party and the Army

Ronan Bennett, 21 March 1996

Shortly after the Canary Wharf bomb, John Major, speaking in the House of Commons, said: ‘As for the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA, I think that they are both members one of another.’ Sinn Fein, he continued, would now have to decide whether it wanted to be a constitutional party or continue as a front for the IRA. Ignoring renewed protestations from Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness that Sinn Fein is separate from the IRA, that it is a political party with a democratic mandate from its voters, most politicians and observers have, like Major himself, accepted almost without question the Unionist formulation: Sinn Fein/IRA. They do so in spite of the fact that few details of the relationship are known and many of the ‘insights’ plain wrong. The Sunday Times, for example, was demonstrably mistaken when it announced that Gerry Kelly, one of Sinn Fein’s chief negotiators at Stormont, is a highly placed IRA man who is not even a member of the Party. Kelly, who was sentenced to life imprisonment after the 1973 Old Bailey bombing, may or may not be a member of the IRA army council, but he is certainly a member of Sinn Fein: he stood unsuccessfully at last year’s Árd Fheis, or party conference, for election to the Árd Chomhairle – the Party’s national executive.’

Diary: Being Irish in New York

Ronan Bennett, 6 April 1995

Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx, they assured us, would be ‘like Galway on a Saturday night’. I assumed this meant the place would be teeming with Irish people, hearty and green, enjoying a good night out. A vision leapt unbidden to mind, embarrassing in its insistence and sentimentality, of a prelapsarian Ireland, the Ireland of The Quiet Man, of fresh-faced cailins and freckle-faced lads, soft brogues, mischievous matchmakers, innocent fun, uileann pipes, sea-wind in the hair. Even if you swap John Ford’s Ireland for something more urban and contemporary, say that of Roddy Doyle, in which a good night out is more likely to involve soul music and a ‘ride’, it is still possible to find yourself idealising: Ford and Doyle (pre-Paddy Clarke and Family, at least) offer essentially the same vision, promise the same reward – the uplifting sensation that comes from watching easy-going people, a little rough around the edges but with hearts as big as their sometimes foul mouths, struggle against adversity without ever losing the twinkle in their eye, the smile on their lips or the song in their heart. This portrait of my country and its people is fanciful and romantic, but in my weaker, more atavistic moments, I am, like many Irish people, and perhaps thirty to forty million Americans (estimates vary), susceptible to its emotional undertow.’

Diary: The IRA Ceasefire

Ronan Bennett, 22 September 1994

I am listening to the radio, only half awake. Some hammy old actor is camping it up in one of those overblown plays about the ‘Troubles’. In tones of high theatricality he sets the sinister scene: the Falls Road, Belfast, just after midnight; one of the most dangerous corners in Europe if you happen to be unaccompanied and of the wrong religion. I assume it’s an adaptation of some Gerald Seymour novel and reach over to turn the radio off. Then I recognise the voice – it’s John Humphrys on Today. I concentrate. On the Falls, apparently, men with hard, cold eyes used to stare sullenly from behind the iron railings that surround the pubs and clubs, planning their next operation.’


Ronan Bennett, 16 December 1993

We know all about Republican violence, about its worst excesses; in Britain, some people, maybe even most, know what the initials IRA stand for. I wonder how many could name the principal Loyalist organisations, still less distinguish between them. You could say that there has been little reason for the average Londoner to get acquainted with the world of Loyalist terror: the UFF do not bomb the City, the UVF don’t shoot policemen. Loyalist paramilitaries now claim more victims than the IRA, but they confine their murdering to Catholics – in Northern Ireland. So while we rightly remember the two boys murdered at Warrington, we conveniently forget the five Catholic workmen killed in County Derry after the two boys died.’

Not Telling

Ronan Bennett, 23 September 1993

Love story and murder mystery, The Blue Afternoon is full of puzzles. First: why ‘blue’ afternoon? It’s not just the afternoon, there are so many spots of blue throughout the novel it becomes a cyan wash. In the first few pages we are told that the sign outside the house designed by K.L. Fisher, architect, is small and blue; in her room there is a ‘blue and yellow Gertrud Arndt rug’; she gets a powerful urge to swim in the ‘overchlorinated blue’ of her building’s pool, where a woman sunbathes ‘in a cobalt two-piece’; and, at the end of the book, we learn that Fischer ‘loved too, once; my blue baby, Coleman’. Blue is there in all its hues: sky blue, baby blue, washed-out blue, cobalt, violet … we can hardly doubt that something meaningful is intended. But what?…

Criminal Justice

Ronan Bennett, 24 June 1993

In October 1989 I was in Cuenca in southern Ecuador. Cuenca is a sleepy town, Ecuador – for reasons partly to do with climate and partly with the military’s intermittent but pointed interventions in political and economic life – a sleepy country. Once, during a presidential election, the country briefly came out of its quiescence when one of the candidates exhibited worrying signs of sun-stroke. In a television interview he began to boast about his many personal achievements; by the time he got properly into his stride he was insisting he had a better degree than his opponent, a bigger house, a more beautiful wife, taller children and – definitive proof of his fitness to govern – thicker semen. This was too much, even for Ecuadorians long used to the macho exaggerations of the Latin American stump. The electorate woke up, laughed themselves silly for a week and voted in the candidate of the inferior semen. But this was a rare high point: as a rule, it is a quiet country, a fact reflected in the headline of a newspaper I picked up in Cuenca. For reasons best known to himself, the editor had decided to splash with a story headlined, ‘Nothing Unusual Happened Today’. I remember enjoying the story, though I cannot now recall any of the detail. However, another item caught my attention and has stayed with me since: an agency story datelined Londres to the effect that the Court of Appeal had suddenly and unexpectedly freed the three men and one woman known in Britain as the Guildford Four.’


Ronan Bennett, 11 February 1993

Set in Beirut in the early Eighties, Oriana Fallaci’s novel opens at the moment when, on the morning of 23 October 1983, an Islamic Jihad militant drove a truck laden with explosives into the headquarters of the US contingent of the Multinational Force (MNF). A second suicide bomber attacked the French military base at the same time. Altogether more man three hundred servicemen were killed.

What happened at Ayacucho

Ronan Bennett, 10 September 1992

Travelling in the Andean highlands of Peru some thirty years ago, Peter Matthiessen observed a group of drunken Quechua Indians. ‘In this state the Quechua looks more slack-jawed and brutish than the most primitive man imaginable.’ The Indians were ‘rife with hatreds and resentments … But they are so subdued by their own poverty, and by their failure to realise how very numerous they are, that a Quechua revolution, while one day inevitable, remains remote.’

Diary: My Father

Ronan Bennett, 9 July 1992

In Queen’s University, Belfast, in the Department of English, there is a plaque to a student who graduated in 1954. He was an outstanding student – brilliant, in the opinion of some of his tutors, and he had a great career ahead of him. On graduation he won a scholarship to Oxford to begin his doctoral research on the Metaphysical poets. He was my father.’


Whose justice?

24 June 1993

In the week that David Cooper died, after a long, painful and unsuccessful struggle to clear his name, I read Stephen Sedley’s comments on the Court of Appeal with bewilderment and frustration (LRB, 23 September). While Sedley rightly criticises aspects of the seriously deficient Runciman Report on criminal justice, he suggests that the Court of Appeal retains some credibility: ‘It is worth...

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