John Gaynard's Reviews > The Ghosts of Belfast

The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville
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's review
Nov 09, 2011

it was amazing
Read in September, 2010

The action takes place in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday agreement. The protagonist, Gerry Fegan, is tortured by many things but three of them stood out for me:

firstly, the fact that Fegan's mother stopped talking to him when she learned he was a killer;
secondly, Fegan's realisation that many of the high level members of the IRA, who got foot soldiers like him to do the killing for them while keeping their own hands "clean", are now part of a holier-than-thou elite in the North, enjoying the trappings of power and, in some cases, dabbling in corruption facilitated by the new order, and;
thirdly, Fegan's discovery that many of the people he had been manipulated into killing, by the politicians who are now sharing power in the North, were, in fact, innocent.

This is the only novel I know, so far, that has examined the tension between the foot soldiers who got nothing, except remorse or bitterness, to show for their engagement and the higher-ups who gave them the orders and who are now, in some cases but not all, living high on the hog.

The low level people, like Gerry Fegan, who naively believed in 'the cause' and who had killed for it, even committing one murder when he was let out of the Maze for three days to attend his mother’s funeral, are now considered an embarrassment by the more sophisticated people who manipulated them.

One of the most poignant moments in the book is when the protagonist opens a cupboard in his deceased mother's home and finds a box containing all the letters he had sent her while he was in prison. Not one of them had been opened. That is one of the decisive moments that decides him to wreak revenge on the politicians who guided him into killing innocent people.

With reference to the question did Fegan consider himself a terrorist or a freedom fighter, I would say that he considered himself a freedom fighter. But the action described in the novel takes place because he discovers he had been nothing more than a terrorist tool in the hands of cynical men. Most of the novel was very believable, except for the end, in which the ‘hero’ sails off into the the setting sun. That was a bit of a disappointment.

This novel brought to mind another one, written by Sorj Chalandon. A French journalist, Chalandon worked in the North for the Libération daily newspaper back in the 1970s and 80s. A couple of years ago, he brought out a novel called ‘Mon Traître – My Traitor’. It describes how a naive and idealistic young French journalist, was manipulated into fingering IRA volunteers by a senior IRA man who, in fact turned out to be a long-time informer in the employment of MI5 and the Special Branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The traitor in Chalandon’s book is based on the character of Denis Donaldson. Before Donaldson was unmasked, in 2005, he had gotten close to some of the highest people in the IRA, like Gerry Adams. Contary to Gerry Fegan, the naive journalist in Chalandon’s book doesn’t set out to exact revenge on the people who used him, but the whole novel is haunted by his realization that a person he considered his friend had been a traitor who had hoodwinked him into sending to their deaths young IRA volunteers who had passed through his apartment in Paris. Donaldson was subsequently killed by a splinter group of the Provisional IRA.

If you wish to have more information about Denis Donaldson, you can find it on the Wikipedia page that has been written about him. Another despicable character of that time, who played a role similar to Donaldson's, was Stakeknife. He too has a wikipedia page.

A book brought out by Martin Dillon in 1999, The Dirty War, details the events that took place in Northern Ireland at the beginning of the 1970s. Dillon’s book doesn’t cover the more recent developments like the discoveries of the traitors Donaldson and Stakeknife and it would be useful to find a book that does address these issues.

A good description of what it was like in 1970s Belfast can also be found in the journalist Kevin Myers' autobiographical work : Watching the Door.

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