You’ve got a tongue in your head after all

An interview with Danny Morrison, Irish republican and playwright

Danny Morrison joined the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in his teens, and was active during the most intense period of the conflict in Ireland. He was national director of publicity for the IRA’s political wing Sinn Fein throughout the 1980s, a decade which saw such historic landmarks as the hunger strikes and the Brighton Bomb. It was Morrison who coined the movement’s famous slogan, ‘an Armalite in one hand and a ballot box in the other’, and he spent the early 1990s in prison following the famous ‘supergrass’ trials. It is this experience in particular that informs his new play, The Wrong Man, now playing at the Pleasance Theatre in London.

With the ‘peace process’ now more than a decade old and seemingly interminable, the world Morrison depicts seems light years away. The very fact that a prominent Irish republican can have a play on in London without attracting unwelcome controversy indicates that things have changed: it’s less than ten years since the Provisional IRA last detonated a bomb in the city. But undoubtedly the process has affected the way people think about the issue. As Morrison told me from his home in Belfast, ‘This play could only have been written in the circumstances of the peace process, because I think before that a lot of us were locked into our particular corner, and it’s only when you step out of that and look back that you can see the nature of the tragedy.’

The peace process has taken some of the heat out of the conflict, in Britain at least, but the change has not been entirely, or in fact at all, to the benefit of the republican movement. The reunification of Ireland is quite simply off the agenda, and in recent months it has become clear that Sinn Fein’s hard-earned ‘respectability’ is rather less durable than the prestige the organisation once enjoyed.

Speaking of his time as Sinn Fein’s director of publicity, Morrison recalls, ‘When the media came over here, the sexy subject was the IRA, was the republicans. Regardless of how the British media have portrayed it, internationally the nationalists were seen as an oppressed community fighting back.’ The romance of the IRA now seems to be dimming. Certainly, the cause is not helped by such episodes as the recent murder of Robert McCartney, whose sisters are, as I write, in the US meeting the president and trying to dispel the glamour that still surrounds Irish republicanism there. But perhaps more generally, it is the peace process itself that, while increasing Sinn Fein’s respectability for a time, has deprived it of the prestige, or ‘sexiness’, that comes of being seen to fight oppression, as opposed to jostling for political position.

I asked Morrison whether his play could have been set in any other organisation, such as the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), for example. He doesn’t think so. ‘The problem about the UVF is that they were fighting in support of an established authority, whereas the IRA were fighting to overthrow an established and, to them, alien authority.’ For Morrison, then, the anti-imperialism of the republican movement is, or was, more important than the mere fact that the IRA was engaged in an armed struggle, and in common with the UVF, labelled terrorist.

The play is set during the supergrass trials, and focuses on suspicion within an IRA unit that someone is an informer. What interests Morrison is the effect of such suspicion on an organisation held together by political loyalty. ‘It could be paralleled by any liberation struggle, because what it’s about is the intense loyalty that is required to wage struggle: it’s almost a fundamentalist attitude that is demanded of the members of the organisation, who must remain extremely loyal to each other.’ Fundamentalist is an interesting, and very candid, choice of words. It isn’t that Morrison is suggesting a parallel with religious fanaticism; the loyalty he’s describing is very much political. But in the absence of the intense kind of political struggle that the play depicts, it is hard for us to identify with the personal values associated with that. Those values seem irrational and even frightening; fundamentalist.

Morrison explains that in the novel on which his play is based, written while in prison, he made it pretty clear that the suspect was indeed an informer, but the play is much more ambiguous on this point, perhaps reflecting a more general reassessment of the situation. ‘Certainly in the period of the conflict, I would have felt that I had to defend the IRA,’ Morrison concedes. ‘I think that what the peace process has done, and the ceasefire, is allow people to be much more objective. I can see some people [in the republican movement] mightn’t appreciate my objectivity, knitting their brows and saying “What’s Danny at there? Danny should be defending the cause to the end”. But it’s written in such a way that one can even sympathise with the tough decisions that the IRA has to take.’

But Morrison doesn’t see The Wrong Man as a ‘political play’ of any complexion. He is suspicious of the idea that theatre should carry a straightforward message. ‘I’ve seen a lot of agitprop stuff down the years, and it’s actually quite dissonant to the ears and to the eyes. Sometimes it’s a hammer being used to crack a nut, and I think you have to be much more subtle than that. So while I’m dealing with an Irish situation with people living very claustrophobic lives for what they believe to be a noble cause, there are universals. I would like people to view it as human beings: imagine if I was in those circumstances, which side would I be on, and how would I have reacted?’

In this sense, Morrison’s interest is in the psychology of betrayal more generally, as much as the particulars of the conflict in Ireland. ‘When someone seems to have broken ranks, the fury, and the hatred directed against that person is often greater than that directed against the enemy, because one actually has to recognise that the enemy often could be fighting, within its own framework, from a legitimate point of view. But the informer has been on one side and crossed over, and rarely is the motive one of altruism, or a principled reason. It’s usually because they’re blackmailed, or bribery or corruption or cowardice. And usually they’re weak people, with very low self-esteem.’

The Wrong Man invites the audience to consider this psychology, as well as the morality of the situation, and, importantly, how moral perspectives shift with changing realities. Morrison is aware, however, that a play can provoke responses very much at odds with the perspective of the author. For example, ‘I can see people coming out and saying, “Fuck, I liked the two cops! They knew what they were at!“‘

Morrison knows a thing or two about interrogation, having been through Castlereagh interrogation centre about a dozen times in the 1970s and 1980s, for as much as seven days at a time. ‘When I was being interrogated, some of the cops could be very funny,’ he admits. ‘The way they would try and trick you into talking. They’d be sitting doing a crossword, and they’d be guessing with each other what the right answer was, and you’d know what the answer was. And when they couldn’t get it – really there were waiting on you – and I’ve come across guys who turned round and said what the answer was, and the cops said, “Oh, you’ve got a tongue in your head after all!” They’re so smooth and slick in their job as professional interrogators.’

Bitter experience may have informed Morrison’s writing, comedic as well as tragic, but in fact there is a tradition within the Irish republican movement of literary expression, and one which seems bound up with politics. ‘It is a fact that republicans, certainly in prison, made up probably 80% of those who were doing Open University courses, especially in the arts. There was a Northern Ireland Office survey of the books that prisoners had applied for in the prison library, and they discovered that loyalists were getting books out on bodybuilding, and pornography, and the republicans tended to get books out on politics, Marxism and on literature. So there is a stark cultural divide there.’

This divide is not strictly cultural, though. As Morrison argues with regard to his own play, it arises from the very different political outlooks of the two traditions. If the literary ambition and romance of the republican tradition reflected its aspiration to national liberation and its anti-imperialism, the relative cultural poverty of loyalism reflects its stagnancy and increasing alienation from the political process.

Or as Morrison puts it, rather more colourfully, ‘On the republican side you have the IRA – small active service units – taking on the British army, you’ve republicans dying on hunger strike, republicans escaping from jail, even recently you’ve got the IRA being accused of carrying out the biggest bank robbery in British and Irish history (even though they’ve denied it)! On the loyalist side, you’ve got Billy, who sits down on the toilet at half eight in the morning, collects his excrement in a plastic bag and goes up to the top of the street to throw it at wee girls going to Holy Cross School. How are you going to glamorise that?’

Indeed. Morrison mentions Gary Mitchell as a playwright who has dramatised the loyalist experience, though he could hardly be accused of trying to glamorise it. Mitchell’s play As the Beast Sleeps, also a BBC film, is about the internal collapse of a Ulster Defence Association (UDA) unit, and brilliantly captures the tension between the protagonists feeling that they are big men, and the political reality of their marginalisation in the context of the peace process.

Disputed bank robbery aside, it is doubtful whether a play set in the contemporary IRA would be much different. Morrison remains loyal to the republican movement, and may disagree, but what is beyond doubt is that the struggle that gives The Wrong Man its context is of a different era characterised by different political realities and different personal values. Danny Morrison is in a unique position to bring that era to life on an unsuspecting London stage.

First published on Culture Wars.