Playwright looks into IRAs paranoid heart
Danny Morrison tells Richard Hodkinson his membership
of the IRA inspired his latest play
One of Ulsters murals for Bobby Sands
The Armalite and the ballot box is the phrase that came to
define the intractable political conundrum of Northern Ireland.
The man who coined the phrase is Danny Morrison, former IRA volunteer
and one-time director of publicity for Sinn Fein. His name is
better known to historians of Irish Republicanism than to theatre-goers,
but he hopes the opening of his play, The Wrong Man, at the Pleasance
Theatre, on Saturday, will secure his growing literary reputation.
I began writing my novel The Wrong Man when I was in jail
in the mid 1990s, he recounts with a frankness that is disarming
but unsettling to anyone with a clear recollection of the Republicans
London bombing campaigns.
But Danny Morrisons literary career has not developed as
a result of a personal political U-turn. He remains a committed
Republican and is unapologetic about his paramilitary past. He
has simply retired from active engagement in politics and now
devotes his energies to novels, plays, memoirs and journalism.
His subject matter is often inspired by the Troubles, however,
so surely a writer who was the official mouthpiece for hunger
striker Bobby Sands must be tempted to use his fiction to bang
the Republican drum?
Early on, when I was writing my first short stories there
was a real danger of me doing that, yes, he says. But
Ive thought about this a great deal and decided some time
ago that the art has to rise above the polemic.
For a book or a play to work the art has to be sovereign,
has to have values that are universal and an appeal that is beyond
the local and parochial. There has to be a sympathy for other
people and their circumstances. Its the death of your work
if you cant do that.
Jailed seven times for his Republican activities and freed most
recently as a result of the 1990s IRA cease-fire, Morrison stood
at the very heart of militant Irish politics for more than 20
years. He was ideally placed, then, to address the theme of paranoia
and betrayal in an active IRA cell, the subject matter of The
Its set among the IRA, but the themes are universal,
he says. In response to the hunger strikes in 1981 the British
government introduced supergrass trials in which they
would arrest someone involved in the IRA and pressure them to
give evidence against the rest of the organisation.
The result was that hundreds of men were sent to jail, so
the IRA in the mid-1980s was extremely paranoid. That is at the
heart of the play that centres on an IRA unit which suspects one
of its members is an informer.
You have to say it was a brilliant tactic by the British
government, Morrison says. It completely debilitated
the IRA they were almost paralysed, afraid to operate in
case there was an informer in the ranks. There was huge fear and
an incredible amount of distrust.
The author of three novels and two volumes of memoirs, does Morrisons
change of career indicate that he feels the armed conflict in
Ulster was a mistake? Oh, no. You cant extrapolate
that from what I write today, he replies. I regret,
obviously, that people lost their lives in the conflict, but at
the time I was convinced that it was the only way forward. I did
resist taking part at first and the process of my coming to physical
force was a slow and tortuous one. It was only after many people
had been killed and things happened to friends that I decided
to join the IRA.
Even then there were things that were being done in the
Republican cause that I found unconscionable.
He was unprepared to give details.
Reviews of Morrisons books have often focused on his political
beliefs. As an artist, will he ever be able to escape the shadow
of his militant past? Does he even want to?
Id like to be free of some of the prejudices, yes,
he says. My first three books were handed to reviewers who
were politically opposed to me. Ruth Dudley Edwards in The Independent
was totally anti-Republican. Fintan OToole in the Irish
Times is completely hostile to Republicans, so I think, in the
case of my novels, writers have tended to review the man rather
than the work.
I think theres a sense, particularly in the North
that we shouldnt touch Morrison that
because of where Im coming from, what Im writing must
But in the case of The Wrong Man, for example, I work very
hard so that the audience is able to see the situation from the
IRA point of view, but also from the informer suspects position
and also from the perspective of the police interrogators. Obviously
its not possible to be wholly objective but I dont
make moral judgements.
Finally, that defining phrase. Through all his literary works
and his many pieces of journalism, has he ever written a line
more likely to enter the vernacular than the Armalite and
the ballot box?
He laughs and says: Never. Not even close. I should have
copyrighted it when I had the chance. Its even been used
as the title of a book, but not by me, unfortunately. I was just
fortunate to hit on the phrase that perfectly encapsulated the
IRAs approach at that time.
While he is no longer a member of the IRA or Sinn Fein, Morrisons
work at the Pleasance should prove to be a fascinating cautionary
tale of what happens when the Armalite achieves precedence over
the ballot box in Ulster politics. Nobody was in a better position
to see the effects of this imbalance first time around than the
The Wrong Man opens at the Pleasance Theatre on March 12.
Call the box office on 020 7609 1800.