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JONATHAN ALLEN
Playwright looks into IRA’s paranoid heart

Danny Morrison tells Richard Hodkinson his membership of the IRA inspired his latest play




One of Ulster’s 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 Morrison’s 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 I’ve 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. It’s the death of your work if you can’t 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 Wrong Man.
“It’s 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 Morrison’s change of career indicate that he feels the armed conflict in Ulster was a mistake? “Oh, no. You can’t 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 Morrison’s 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?
“I’d 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 O’Toole 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 there’s a sense, particularly in the North that ‘we shouldn’t touch Morrison’ – that because of where I’m coming from, what I’m writing must be propaganda.
“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 suspect’s position and also from the perspective of the police interrogators. Obviously it’s not possible to be wholly objective but I don’t 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. It’s 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 IRA’s approach at that time.”
While he is no longer a member of the IRA or Sinn Fein, Morrison’s 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 play’s author.

• The Wrong Man opens at the Pleasance Theatre on March 12. Call the box office on 020 7609 1800.