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Ramsay's riveting read shows he has found true Calling

By Eamonn McCann

Published 11/11/2015

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams

The novelist is better placed than the journalist to describe the peace process which passeth all understanding. Acceptance of the official narrative of events which led to this week's DUP-Sinn Fein deal requires the willing suspension of disbelief which, Samuel Coleridge observed, is key to conferring credibility on characters who are but shadows of the imagination.

Gerry Adams' membership of the army council of the IRA is a fact. But it's only by pretending that it's not a fact that the approved story process can be sustained.

In contrast, the IRA boss in Robert Ramsay's Calling The Shots is not only real, but quite recognisable: "...the anxious, slightly toothy movement of his mouth when he stumbled through the obligatory opening passages in Irish whenever making set-piece speeches. Nowadays, he sported a full beard and designer glasses, which certainly improved his original image (of) a callow youth with heavy black, horn-rimmed glasses and a wispy, hormone-deficient facial growth".

Mischievous more than malicious and as accurate a depiction of reality as anything you'll read in commentary on an episode of Stormont political play-acting. Calling The Shots is worth reading as a ripping yarn based on real events - or for insights into real events, which it might be difficult, or even dangerous, to publish in non-fictional form.

Here it all is, the blackmail and double bluff, personal betrayals, political treachery, killing the innocent to protect the guilty, grand visions withered to grubby ambition, the people in whose name pain has been inflicted and endured casually discarded from consideration, marginalised, mere spectators at what purports to be their liberation. Just the way that it was, and is.

Ramsay marks and measures the tensions between the different elements of the security forces, as well as between pragmatic Belfast and more principled (or doctrinaire) republicans in east Tyrone and south Armagh.

Each side is a mess of contradiction and rivalry, no golden vision of what's ahead to backlight the dour struggle, only tangled ambitions and rumbling resentment.

Hardly anybody emerges well. Towards the end, Jeremy Granville, director of Security Services, tells 'Bunny' and his army council sidekick 'Butch' that "HMG will not accuse you of bad faith, or of breaching the agreement" if they delay decommissioning.

"The longer you can string it along, the more you will weaken the Official Unionists, surpass the SDLP as the real show in town, as all the media attention will be on you. And, at the same time, that will build up Paisley ... The only agreement worth having here is between you and him."

This was the generally unspoken British perspective, particularly under New Labour. It was the view of the most senior member of MI6 involved in negotiations with the IRA.

Ramsay depicts 'Bunny' at a meeting in Clonard Monastery presenting Granville with a blackthorn shillelagh engraved "Oglaigh na Eireann". That's not far off the mark, either (although the real-life 'Bunny', for all his awkwardness with Irish, would surely have spelt the name correctly - "Oglaigh na hEireann" - being, after all, a member).

Anyone who has read Ramsay's previous book, Ringside Seats, by far the sharpest, most unexpected and (which isn't difficult) most entertaining published memoir of life as an Establishment unionist insider, will know that he has a singularly acerbic attitude towards British direct rulers and the harrumphing military brass they bring with them. The fictionalised GOC here cuts no more heroic a figure than the equivalent officer in Ringside Seats.

There's the same wicked way with words, too. A new piece of surveillance equipment is "the best thing since the sliced panacea". A loyalist boss displays "bulging biceps and enough tattoos to arouse the envy of a Maori princess".

The presiding priest at Clonard Monastery, Canon Murray, laments that the younger clergy have lost all love for the Latin Mass: "Most of them wouldn't know the Agnus Dei from Mrs Agnes Daly... She runs a sweet shop on the Springfield Road."

Granville doesn't send an underling to leak information to a journalist, but to "season your tale with measured indiscretion".

There are also mysterious formulations: "Life's too short to iron the gusset of your boxer shorts". We'll have to take his word for that.

Ramsay was Brian Faulkner's principal private secretary in the early days of the Troubles, rose in the following years to be deputy secretary of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, before decamping to Brussels and a second career as a top-of-the-range Eurocrat. An unusual preparation for writing a thriller.

And that's his main accomplishment, that he has produced a book which will be fine tooth-combed here for its allusions to events around us, but which will be taken elsewhere as a thriller which rattles along for 300 pages to arrive at, in its own terms, a satisfying conclusion, in which - and this can be true, too - love, not hate, conquers all.

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