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Unearthing the ghosts of Northern Ireland's dirty war with Patrick Radden Keefe: podcast & transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with the New Yorker's Patrick Radden Keefe about Keefe's brilliant new book "Say Nothing," which traces the history of the Troubles.

No war can last forever, and when peace comes, those who lived through the horror of violence and hatred have to find a way to live with each other. So it is in Northern Ireland, where since 1998 Catholics and Unionists have lived side by side in a tenuous peace despite the three decades of bloodshed, violence and oppression that tore it apart from 1968 to 1998. But just because peace arrives doesn't mean old dark secrets disappear.

This week Patrick Radden Keefe discusses his brilliant new book "Say Nothing," which traces the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland through the tale of just one atrocity: the murder of a single mother of ten children, and the efforts to find out who did it. Keefe describes the process by which people become so radicalized they are able to commit war crimes, as well as what it means to the victims, the perpetrators and an entire traumatized society once peace actually comes, and dark mysteries remain. The book is a masterpiece and the lessons Keefe draws apply to any society anywhere trying to reckon with its past.

CHRIS HAYES: Good Friday Agreement, 1998. Peace of a tenuous, intense sort takes hold. There are still sectarian tensions and political conflict and occasional outbreaks of violence. But Gerry Adams is now a resolutely mainstream political figure, and rumors start to circulate that in Boston University there's a big archive of taped confessions of war crimes that implicate Gerry Adams.


CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to "Why is This Happening," with me, your host, Chris Hayes. So you may or may not be following the whole Brexit situation. I have a weird, perverse obsession with it. I think partly because I live in the cluster that is our news cycle here in the United States of America and I just think, "Well, wow, there's something else that's even more screwed up than American politics at the moment." There's a lot of things about whether the UK will leave the European Union and under what terms that are dicey, in terms of trade and immigration, free flow of people.

But there's one specific thing that's dangerous. There's one specific part of it that people worry about creating the conditions of violence and that has to do with the fairly durable, but at the same time tenuous, peace in Northern Ireland. So, you've got six counties in the north of Ireland that are a part of the UK, although they're governed under a kind of power-sharing agreement that's pursuant to a peace deal called the "Good Friday Accords," which were struck in 1998. And it creates a sort of special status in which that part of Northern Ireland is not part of the Republic of Ireland, but it has some sort of self-autonomy.

Now, when the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland — which are on the same island just in case that's not clear — when they're both in the EU, it doesn't matter because the whole point is free movement of people across borders. It's called the Schengen Area and if you fly into Paris, you can get on a train and go to Austria and there's no passport control because you're within the ambit of what is the European Union. It's this sort of brilliant, amazing thing about the European Union. Okay, well what happens when the UK kicks out of the European Union and all of a sudden you can't just cross from the border from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland? And not just any border, a border that was one of the most tense militarized sites of tension and conflict anywhere in Europe or in the world for a period of time.

Suddenly, all of that comes back. Right? You've got the Peace Accords, you've got the EU and now UK kicks out of the European Union and all that comes back and the structure of peace that has been built up over 20 years starts to get called into question. So, this issue is very live on the minds of people in the UK. And it calls a lot to mind for me because I remember growing up. You know, there's certain news stories about parts of the world of your youth that stay with you, like the famine in Ethiopia, children are starving in Ethiopia, the wars in Lebanon. The idea that there's a bombing in Beirut. Beirut is this sort of war-torn and besieged place, which is like imprinted in my mind and the other big one of my youth is Northern Ireland, the troubles in Northern Ireland.

So, starting in 1968 and extending through 1998, there's 30 years of essentially irregular war, guerrilla-style warfare, street violence and terrorist bombings that take place in which the largely Catholic provisional IRA in Northern Ireland wants to have autonomy and independence from England. The UK responds with military force and there's escalating battles between the two. It is an incredible tense situation on the ground because you have what are called loyalists and Protestants living side-by-side with Catholics. The Catholics generally are sympathetic to the cause of the IRA and independence, the loyalists are sympathetic to the UK. These people live cheek-by-jowl in a dense urban environment and these sectarian tensions explode and ripple through the entire community and you have thousands of people over the course of 30 years who die. Thousands of people, 52 percent of them civilians.

That's what the troubles were and the troubles extended out past Northern Ireland, as you'll hear in our conversation, to impact all of London. There were bombings in London. There was this kind of constant fear that followed people throughout the UK. And the thing to me that I find kind of hopeful and also jarring about it, is that it seemed impossible at the time. I remember growing up and thinking: "This is just one of those conflicts that there's no end to." These people hate each other and the conflict goes back literally hundreds of years and the first land was given to the Scots and English settlers in Ireland. And then they did. And then they went from bloody, horrific violence, constant conflict, fear and hatred, to a tenuous, but fairly durable peace. Peace was made.

And that's the hopeful part. It's the part that when I look at, say, what is happening in the West Bank and Gaza and Israel, that things that seem intractable aren't intractable. And, in fact, that war violence, occupation, things like that are finite. They can only go on for so long. At a certain point they end. But, the other side of that is that peace brings with it many ghosts. That the violence isn't undone, the memories aren't washed, the war experience doesn't go away, the trauma people experience doesn't go away, it stays there. It stays in the people who now live side-by-side in the tenuous peace. Things they saw that were terrible, people they lost, unspeakable acts they committed, those are all there, rumbling around in people's souls in the back of their heads, as they live through the tenuous peace.

And today's conversation is about how those ghosts haunt us. It's a conversation with Patrick Radden Keefe, who's really one of the most remarkable journalists and writers, I think, in English non-fiction. And this book, I have to say which you will hear me gush about, somewhat annoyingly in the conversation, is genuinely a masterpiece. And it's a book about a murder that took place in Northern Ireland. It's called "Say Nothing: A True Story Of Murder And Memory In Northern Ireland." It's about the murder of a woman who was disappeared. It's about who committed that murder and why and what that murder meant. I would urge you strongly to read this book. I would also tell you that in this conversation, there are spoilers. They're not super-enormous spoilers, because the book is created with a kind of dramatic irony. It's a spoiler in sort of the way that Oedipus marries his mom in the third act spoiler. We sort of know where this is going.

But there are spoilers and before we get to the spoilers, we put in a little hook to say, "Here's a spoiler." But it's a book that I think has profound implications for all kinds of conflict. It has profound implications for the way that we think about tribalism in politics, when we think about violence and conflict and tension along sectarian lines. In the American context, it makes us remember that our divisions are actually relatively peaceful, compared to other divisions that other countries have experienced and that our divisions that feels historically baked in are contingent in their own way; that all divisions are somewhat contingent. They're produced by history. They're produced by categories that humans create and can un-create, that we can actually transcend the animus and hatreds and divisions. There's a lot of profound implications.

And there's also a really profound implication about what peace looks like, as we think in this country about ending a very long period of war, the longest period of war in American history. So, all of that is wrapped up in this incredible tale, just the facts of which and characters of which, the plot of which is gripping and moving and shocking and which Patrick Radden Keefe tells with incredible aplomb.

I'm going to start with a little gush. I probably have already gushed in the intro. This is me communicating with my future self, who I know pretty well.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Gush freely, my friend.

CHRIS HAYES: I know what he's going to do. So, that guy, my future self will have gushed the intro to be like, "Oh, my God, this book's so good," but you're here now and I have to say, it's a masterpiece. It is a masterpiece, this book. Just the absolute best kind of historical narrative, journalistic writing.


CHRIS HAYES: So upsetting, and moving, and real — real bleak at times.


CHRIS HAYES: I mean, one takeaway — and we're going to get into all of this — one takeaway I have is just like, the landscape of Belfast as described in this book is brutal to contemplate.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Yeah, I mean, it took me so long to wrap my mind around that and then think of how to try and capture that on the page in a way that would feel real today, kind of vivid, as oppressive as it actually was at that time.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, partly it's because — and we're going to talk about what the central spine of the narrative is — but partly it's an urban environment, in which you have the patchwork of urban geography.


CHRIS HAYES: You have a huge amount of kind of brutalist architecture and then you have, cheek-by-jowl woven into that fabric, a war zone along essentially religious lines that people are living in, like block-to-block.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Right. And most of them are poor. And they have big families.

CHRIS HAYES: That's part of the thing, like big, brutal concrete architecture, real poor.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Too many people.

CHRIS HAYES: Real big families crowded into little apartments, lots of guns and explosions.


CHRIS HAYES: It just seems like a real bleak situation.

PATRICK R KEEFE: It's a nightmare.


PATRICK R KEEFE: Yeah, and part of what I was hoping to capture was that obviously any conflict is a highly contingent thing, but to make it feel vivid enough that you would think to yourself, "Well, what if I was 19 and one of 11 kids living in a two-bedroom house in that kind of an environment and I was unemployed? What would I do?"


PATRICK R KEEFE: Just to try and kind of explain how it is that some people ended up on the front lines of this thing.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, so let's talk about, at the broadest level, it's a story of an unsolved mystery that is solved. What is the mystery that is unsolved for so long and then is solved?

PATRICK R KEEFE: The Troubles break out in 1968, 1969 and the most violent year of all was 1972, an incredibly dangerous time in Belfast. And one winter night at the end of 1972, there was a woman named Jean McConville, who was a widow. Her husband had died earlier that year. She was a mother of 10. She lived in an apartment in a housing complex in West Belfast. And one night she was home with her kids and a gang of masked intruders came to the door and they were armed and they said they needed to take Jean away and talk to her and her kids were screaming, they were clinging to her legs. The gang took her away. They said, "We'll bring her back in a few hours," and they never did. She disappeared and it was a forced disappearance. The kids grew up not knowing what had happened to their mother in any conclusive sense.

And in 2003, there was a guy walking on a beach. So, this is 31 years later, there's a guy walking on a beach in the Republic of Ireland and he stumbles across some bones sticking out of the sand and it was Jean McConville. She had been discovered. So, at that point, the children were at least able to bury their mother. But there were these pretty deep questions about what had happened to her and why she was killed and disappeared in this manner and that was one of the things I was trying to investigate in the book.

CHRIS HAYES: She was Protestant.


CHRIS HAYES: She had married a Catholic man.


CHRIS HAYES: And they had, prior to his death, been the subject of kind of anti-Catholic oppression and bigotry in Northern Ireland where that was fairly commonplace. Their household is on kind of both sides of this dividing line.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Right. They get married before the Troubles really break out at a time when mixed marriages were unusual, but it wasn't radioactive, but they weren't common.

CHRIS HAYES: And it wasn't traitorous to your side.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Yes, absolutely. And then they're living in Protestant East Belfast and the family gets hounded out because the father is Catholic, her husband is Catholic, so they're too Catholic for East Belfast. So they move across. There's this crazy period of time in 1971, really, when really over the course of a summer you get all this internal migration within the city of Belfast, where you'll have these neighborhoods that are 85 percent Catholic and the Protestants are hounded out and then across town, there's a neighborhood that's 85 percent Protestant. The Catholics were hounded out. There's all these people moving out of one house and into another and then somebody else immediately comes in and occupies the place they've just vacated, so during this process, the family moves to West Belfast, but they're too Protestant for West Belfast, so they end up kind of stuck in-between.

An armed British soldier on patrol in Belfast on march 24, 1971.John Minihan / Evening Standard via Getty Images file

CHRIS HAYES: Shortly prior to her disappearance, a few things happen. The British Armed Forces have now kind of come into Belfast in this year, amidst all the violence, and are a kind of occupying colonial army, essentially, right?


CHRIS HAYES: And she sees a British solider... is it in the lobby of her apartment building?

PATRICK R KEEFE: Yeah, they had these kind of balconies out in front. It was almost like if you think about an old kind of motel or hotel where you walk up to the external balcony and that's how you enter and so they had these balconies that stretched across and it was one night, there would these gunfights right outside the apartment at night. The kids, who I interviewed, remember then this would happen, they would all pull their mattresses in the middle of the floor and just sleep in the middle of the apartment at night. And this was happening one night and what the kids remember is that they hear this moaning outside the door and Jean goes to the door and her kids actually say, "Don't get involved. Don't do anything." And what she says to her son, Archie, who tells her not to do this, she says, "You know, that's some mother's son out there."

And she goes out and there's a British soldier and he's wounded and she kind of cares for him. She brings him a pillow and tries to take care of him, but ends up coming back in and closing the door and in the morning, the soldier is gone and someone has painted the words "Brit Lover" across the door of the apartment.



CHRIS HAYES: And this is how long before she is taken?

PATRICK R KEEFE: Look, this is one of the tricky things in this book, is that this is an incident that multiple children of Jean McConville remember in photo-realistic detail and, yet, there's no record in the British Army's records of this time of any soldier being wounded in the vicinity of their apartment during that period. So this is the thing that I had to negotiate again, and again, and again, is the vagaries of memory and imperfect record-keeping and then obviously when you're talking about the British government, sometimes record-keeping that has been deliberately obscured, so we don't know. The children remember this being maybe a year or within a year around the time in advance of the mother getting taken away.

CHRIS HAYES: She's disappeared and the context for that, which is one of the things that I found really moving and remarkable about the book is, it's a book about occupation and terrorism, I think. And radicalization and the yin-and-yang, push-and-pull sort of cycle that produces both of those things. And one of the things I think you do really well, and it was a thing that I don't think I quite grasped about the Troubles is, I think this is true of other conflicts, too. We think about ancient hatreds. Yes, there's William of Orange and yes, there's Oliver Cromwell and yes, the Protestants and Catholics are at each other's throats in incredibly bloody ways for a long period of time, but prior to 1968, that is not the case and there's a non-violent Civil Rights movement and then that changes. What changes it to get to bring about what we think of as the Troubles?

PATRICK R KEEFE: A bunch of things. The story in tell in the book, one of the central figures in the book and, in fact, the way that I came to this story in the first place, is this woman, Dolours Price who is —

CHRIS HAYES: Fascinating character.

PATRICK R KEEFE: An amazing person. I read an obituary when she died in 2013 and that was the seed for this whole book. She had grown up in this Irish Republican family going back generations on both sides. Her family had been in the IRA. As a little girl, she's sitting on her father's lap and in lieu of bedtime stories, he would tell she and her younger sister the best way for mixing improvised explosives. So they were raised in a tradition where it was felt that the British have always been an occupying force in Ireland and you have a duty to violently expel them. And there's this funny inversion of teenage rebellion, which is that in the late 60s when she's a teenager and her younger sister, Marian, as well, they are influenced by the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. and you know, it's 1968, 1969. They go on a peace march from Belfast to Derry and it's amazing how consciously it's modeled on the American Civil Rights movement.

CHRIS HAYES: Yes. I had no idea that that was the case until I read the book.

PATRICK R KEEFE: They're singing, "We shall overcome." I mean, they studied the Selma march and so she would have these fights with her father, where she would say violence is not the way. It never worked for the IRA. We're going to do this peacefully and they get beaten up by a loyalist mob, the march does, and she comes home and actually sees her mother. Here's this woman, Chrissy Price, and Chrissy Price sees her two daughters. They show upon the doorstep. They're all battered and bruised and she says, "Why did you not fight back?" As I said earlier, these things are often contingent and so you had a peaceful Civil Rights movement and there was an overreaction to that. So you had loyalists, you had Ian Paisley, you had people who were cracking down on that and felt quite threatened by it.

CHRIS HAYES: Yup. Although these are, I would describe them as right-wing bigoted proto-fascists.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Yes, absolutely.

CHRIS HAYES: They're street thugs.


CHRIS HAYES: I mean, they're not your classic —

PATRICK R KEEFE: No, I mean, who come out and beat you with clubs, yeah. But then the IRA says, "Hey, look. Catholics have always needed to defend themselves, so we need to get guns." And then you get this amazing moment when the British Army comes in and contrary to, I think, the perception that you would have now if you look back on the Troubles, the crazy thing about the moment when the British Army comes in, is the Catholic population in Belfast and Derry welcome them with open arms. Housewives come out and bring them cups of tea because the sense is, "We're getting beaten up by the cops and by the loyalists. Finally, here is a neutral arbiter to come in and take care of things."

CHRIS HAYES: Right, because there are, basically, these loyalist mobs that are running roughshod.


CHRIS HAYES: And so, now the law is here.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Finally, the law is here. Right.

CHRIS HAYES: Now the state has come with its monopoly on violence, to stop the loyalist mobs from pursuing their vendettas against us.

PATRICK R KEEFE: At that point, it becomes a story of occupation. One of the things I thought about a lot when I was doing the books is, I wanted to focus very closely on this narrative but, of course, there's all these analogies. And so, it was an effort not to talk about Iraq.

CHRIS HAYES: Iraq. I mean, Iraq haunts the entire book, because you watch move, by move, by move how everything goes to s--t, basically.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Yeah. And a lot it just through irrational escalation, and the way these hatreds develop, and then obviously also radicalization. ISIS doesn't appear anywhere in the book, and obviously, the context of ISIS is in some respects, entirely different from that of the IRA. But during the four years I spent working on this, we are reading these fascinating pieces of work. My colleagues of mine at the New Yorker wrote about a young teenager in Belgium who gets radicalized and goes off. And how do you explain that?

CHRIS HAYES: Exactly. To me, what was powerful about this book is, it's been hard for me to get myself into the mindset of that Belgian teenager. It's really hard for me. And I think this is a product of cultural and ethnic distance, frankly.


CHRIS HAYES: Into the mind of someone that joins the Taliban or Al-Qaeda. It's much easier, for me for whatever reason, to get my mind into these young Northern Irish radicals, who go on a trajectory towards utter sociopathic violence.


CHRIS HAYES: Sociopaths. They are sociopaths. By 200 pages in the book, they do something that is so crazy and shocking.


CHRIS HAYES: And, you've kind of gone on this journey with them through their radicalization and you arrive at this point, which is a car bombing in London.

Tell us about that because that to me is this key point in the book.


CHRIS HAYES: We've got these young people, they're devoted to the cause, they're dodging bullets from the British, the British are treating them like utter s--t, the troops are in their backyard, they're trying to kill them.


CHRIS HAYES: We're watching the troops get radicalized because they've now got these irregular units, who don't wear uniforms, and don't play by the rules of law, and everyone starting to get more and more.

PATRICK R KEEFE: It just gets very dirty, very fast on all sides.

CHRIS HAYES: Dirty, exactly. It gets real dirty, really fast. Then it's like, these people who've been following, who we feel sympathetic towards, who have been getting worse and worse in their moral transgressions, then go do this crazy thing.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Right. I mean, I'm glad to hear you say that you read it that way because I did want you to identify with these people. I worried, a little bit frankly, because part of what I was trying to do in the beginning of the book, was show you they were genuinely oppressed.


PATRICK R KEEFE: This is the really tricky thing, if you want to understand why somebody joins the IRA or joins any group, part of it is that they're young, there's romance in it, there's glamour in it — which is really tricky material if you're a writer. I don't want to romanticize it, but I do want to capture what was seductive, in the sense of righteousness that they felt.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. In an objective sense.


CHRIS HAYES: You do not want to communicate that it is romantic to blow people up. But in a sort of narrative and subjective sense, it is romantic to them.

PATRICK R KEEFE: You have to. Yeah. I sort of decided that I wanted to tell this story through the points of view of this handful of characters.

Then you get to early 1973. This is what you were referring to. Dolours Price, she has become the first woman to be accepted in the IRA as a frontline soldier. Many women had been in the Women's Council of the IRA. She said, "I don't want to do that." It's an interesting combination of feminism, but then also, she came from this elite IRA family. And so, there was a sense in which she was also trading on her pedigree.


PATRICK R KEEFE: She said, "I want to be out there with a gun."

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. Republican privilege.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Yeah, exactly. Exactly, of a different sort.

At a certain point, she said, "You know, we're setting off all these bombs in Northern Ireland and blowing up our own people in order to get the attention of the British. The British seem hardly to notice. What if we were to go and set off bombs on the mainland?" She proposed this idea, it was approved. She was just in her early 20s, and she led a bombing mission to Central London. It was supposed be six cars, but they ended up with four. They brought these car bombs, these massive car bombs into London, parked the cars in public places, and...

You end up with this scenario, which became pretty typical for the IRA where, what they told themselves was: "We're not out to kill people. That's not what we're looking to do. We're not mass murders. What we want to do is just make a demonstration and scare people."

CHRIS HAYES: Wake them up.

PATRICK R KEEFE: "Wake them up, so we will call in warnings." And so, an hour before these bombs are supposed to go off, some guy with an incomprehensibly think Irish brogue, calls some random person at the London Times, and reels off a series of license plate numbers.

CHRIS HAYES: And you've got this scene. This scene, I just want to stop you there because the scene in the book is so good. There's a transit strike.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Yeah. There's cars everywhere.

CHRIS HAYES: So, there's all these cars parked, and it's so human because they're thinking, "This is not about killing civilians. We'll warn them." And there's some reporter taking down indecipherable brogue of license plates, and then there's an hour to get these cars.

PATRICK R KEEFE: When they're scrambling to find the cars, yeah. I think the line I used in the book is that ... The problem and this would happen again, and again, and again with the IRA, where they would say, "We're not mass murders." It was just always that things were going wrong. They would always say, "Oh, that one went wrong." It's that there's no margin for serendipity. They had this absolutist sense.

When the Brits failed to diffuse the bomb, they would effectively say it's almost like a false flag attack. They would say, "Oh, they did it on purpose because it would be a propaganda win for them to allow a bomb to go off."

CHRIS HAYES: One of the things that you're tracking is the process of radicalization and the process of moral rationalization of increasingly vile reckless hideous acts.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Yeah. Right, but I mean I should say, one of the things that was interesting to me about these people, the handful of people in the IRA that I was writing about, is that however self-deluded they became, and there's no sense I hope to any objective reader of the book that I cosign on any of the stuff they are doing, but it was important and interesting to me that at every step along the way, they were having serious moral conversations about, "here are the things I'm willing to do."

CHRIS HAYES: 100 percent.

PATRICK R KEEFE: It wasn't just do to other people, it was also do to themselves. These are people who risk their lives, and who went on a hunger strike. The whole time, all the way along the way at every step, they were saying, "Okay, what's justified? How do I make sense of this?"

There was a notional moral architecture. It might be one that you and I find repellent, and it may also be that they ended up really deluding themselves about that.


PATRICK R KEEFE: But it wasn't that they were psychopaths who weren't giving this any thought.

CHRIS HAYES: That's right, and it wasn't senseless. It was sense full, in the sense of, it was in pursuit, they thought.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Of a purpose.

CHRIS HAYES: Of a purpose and a libratory purpose of an actual oppressive colonial occupation of their people.


I would make the argument that if you look at Northern Ireland in the decades prior to the troubles, they were not wrong about the suppression. It was a brutal, brutal place, particularly if you were Catholic.

Image: Northern Ireland Troubles Retrospective
British soldiers take aim at civil rights demonstrators in the Falls Road, Belfast on July 10, 1970.Malcolm Stroud / Express via Getty Images file

CHRIS HAYES: In fact, one of the things that you write about that I did not know is that the British Army is coming off a rotation of fighting a bunch of anti-colonial wars in places like Kenya.


CHRIS HAYES: They're fighting the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya, and then that's brought home to Belfast.


CHRIS HAYES: For me, one thing that has really stuck with me is, I think in America, the central lines of our battle are so clearly race all the time. You can lose sight of the fact that humans don't need race to hate each other and to oppress each other.


CHRIS HAYES: So, it's like, there's no race issue here, but the Army comes straight from Kenya to freaking West Belfast.


CHRIS HAYES: Where they are treating these people like dirt.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Yeah. I mean, I would hasten to say, it was much worse for the Mau Mau.

CHRIS HAYES: Yes. I should be very clear.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. There were things that happened to the Mau Mau, that even as bad as Northern Ireland was, it didn't get that bad.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. Maybe actually that cuts against my point in some ways.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Well, possibly. Except here's a sense in which I completely agree with you is that, for me as an outsider going to Belfast where talk about the narcissism of minor differences. I mean, these tribal distinctions, to an outsider, are impossible to see.

CHRIS HAYES: Indecipherable.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Yes! Absolutely. If you go to any of these flashpoints. If you're out and have been out on these nights when there is sectarian violence in the streets of Belfast, these are all white, working-class, Christian people who come from the same place and speak in accents that to them there are differences but to me, there really aren't. Those differences feel decisive to them and rooted in this painful history.

CHRIS HAYES: I want to go back actually to the central mystery of the book, which is the murder of Jean McConville. We'll do that right after this.

Gerry Adams though is also a big figure in this. I learned a lot about him. Who is he? What relationship does he have to people like Dolours Price and others who have become, essentially, warriors for the cause.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Gerry Adams is one of the most iconic figures of this, perhaps the most iconic figure of this conflict. A guy who grew up in Belfast, like Dolours Price who grew up in an old-line Republican family. He joined the IRA when was quite young, and he was this really shrewd analytical guy. He was always, just kind of a cut above intellectually, and he became the Belfast Brigade Commander of the IRA. People like Dolours Price took orders from him. She reported to him. He was her commanding officer.

Adams eventually pivots to a view that... I think privately really, he realized at a pretty early stage, we're not going fight the British into the sea. There's going to be some kind of political settlement here.

A big turning point for him was the hunger strike. In the early 1980s, Bobby Sands and nine other hunger strikers died. At that point, you get this huge upswell of support for the cause of Irish republicanism. Adams, I think, has this moment where he realizes, "God, if you put a bomb in a public place, you may win some strategic gains, but you're also going to lose a lot of support. Whereas, if we run candidates for office, and we get out there and do politics, that's another way of doing it."

At that point, Adams starts counseling a two-track approach. They called it yhe Armalite and ballot box. You've got a machine gun in one hand and voting papers in the other. They start running candidates. The party, which is affiliated with the IRA, is called Sinn Féin.

Adams ends up becoming this huge figure who steers the IRA out of its violent past, and gets it to the Good Friday agreement in 1998, in which the conflict ends. Today, he is this very well-known politician in Ireland. Sinn Féin has become a hugely successful legitimate political party in both the north and the nouth in Ireland.

But the interesting thing, is that dating right back to pretty early on, Adams would deny that he had ever been in the IRA. He would say, "Oh, well I've only ever been in Sinn Féin. I'm a political person."

During the peace process, it created a political space in which, if you're Bill Clinton, or George Mitchell, or Tony Blair, or any of these people that are involved in the peace process, it created a plausible deniability in which you could say you weren't negotiating with terrorists.


PATRICK R KEEFE: You're negotiating with Gerry Adams, and he may turn around and talk to the IRA, but he's not in the IRA himself.

CHRIS HAYES: He himself is not a bomber.


Everybody knew that this was ...

CHRIS HAYES: Bulls--t.

PATRICK R KEEFE: This fiction, but it was kind of useful fiction.

The conflict ends in 1998. This in some ways, is the big emotional heart of the book. When the conflict ends, the Brits don't leave. It ends up being a brokered peace, in which you're going to get the principle of consent, which is essentially if at some point in the future a majority of people want Ireland to reunify, then the governments of the UK and Ireland will be obliged. They'll have to make that happen, so eventually, you'll get a referendum.

But unless or until that happens, what's left of the IRA will tolerate the idea of a power-sharing arrangement with the British and British dominion over Northern Ireland will continue.

For Dolours Price, this is a huge betrayal because she and some of the other people I write about who were close to her. In fact, even Gerry Adams — I quote him in the book — he himself in the '70s said precisely, "It's a terrible thing to kill someone but the British have been oppressing us for hundreds of years. If we can achieve the end of getting the British out of Ireland, then all these dreadful means that we employ will be justified."

So, 1998, you've got the Good Friday agreement. I don't know about you, but I remember this happening. I remember as an Irish-American growing up in Boston thinking, "This is a tremendous moment. This is a landmark deal. A conflict has ended."

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. I grew up in a neighborhood in the Bronx that was an Irish-Catholic neighborhood in Bronx. It was a neighborhood called Norwood, for the first 10 or 11 years that had become increasingly Irish-Irish in the 1980s, partly because of economic problems in the Republic of Ireland.


CHRIS HAYES: But Terry George lived in that neighborhood.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Is that right?

CHRIS HAYES: I used to carpool with his daughter Orla.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Orla! I knew Orla.


PATRICK R KEEFE: Yeah. That's too funny.

CHRIS HAYES: We used to carpool to school together with Orla. There was a million Irish pubs and a lot of Irish folks who had come over, this kind of pro-IRA sentiment, frankly.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Sure, yeah. Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Just pretty much straight out. You'd see the flag and the whole nine. Yeah, the Good Friday accords were a big deal.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Yeah, and look, I think we should celebrate the peace deal but not lose sight of the fact that you end up with a generation of foot soldiers, who suddenly feel this very acute sense of moral injury. They feel like, "How do I now make sense of this trauma that I'm dealing with, about the awful things that I did?" That's just because of the peace deal. You then layer on the fact that if you're Dolours Price, Gerry Adams, the guy who in many instances gave you the orders to do these things.

CHRIS HAYES: To go do the terrible things.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Who you went back to and reported back to afterward is now saying, "Oh, I now personally was never in the IRA. I sleep just fine at night because I have none of that blood on my hands." It drove her mad.

CHRIS HAYES: I want to just make a note here to people because it is a mystery, the book. I want to move into what happens.


CHRIS HAYES: If you want to read the book and you don't want spoilers, I'm warning you right now. I feel like to fully reckon with the moral lessons, we have to actually get through the what happened part.


CHRIS HAYES: But if you're reading the book right now, and it is kind of a page-turner. I want to let you know that you should bail out here. We watched the trajectory of these people and then we watched what happened. We know what happened to Jean, this is the mother who is taken. In 2003, her body is found, her bones. What happens to solve the mystery of what happened?

PATRICK R KEEFE: Jean McConville's kids grow up not knowing exactly what happened to her, but having a pretty good idea. They get split up, they get sent off to orphanages, they have a pretty awful life. They have a pretty good sense, at a certain point, that the IRA took her away and killed her.

During the peace process, this question comes up about, "Well, what about the bodies of the disappeared?" The funny thing about Northern Ireland, it's so small, whereas in Chile, or Spain, or any number of other places where you've seen this forced disappearance as an instrument of war. In Mexico, this has happened too. We don't even know what the aggregate numbers are of people who have been disappeared.


Image: Northern Ireland Troubles Retrospective
Children hijack vehicles to celebrate the shooting of a British soldier by an IRA sniper in West Belfast on April 12, 1972.Alex Bowie / Getty Images file

PATRICK R KEEFE: In Northern Ireland, we know exactly. There's 16 people. You can name them. Jean McConville was one of them.

CHRIS HAYES: She was a fairly famous case. I mean, it's on TV at the time.


CHRIS HAYES: There's 10 kids. The TV camera is on the 10 kids wriggling around on the couch, whose mother has disappeared.


CHRIS HAYES: This was not an everyday occurrence.

PATRICK R KEEFE: No, so stark.

CHRIS HAYES: This was a big deal.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Yeah. The children then as adults made noise in a way that was quite brave.


PATRICK R KEEFE: Even before the peace deal, they came out and said, "We need answers. We need to know what happened to our mother." What the IRA said at the time was, "She was taken away and killed because she was an informant for the British Army." The kids have always denied this. The IRA, to this day, maintains that she was an informant, that she was giving some information.

The body is found in 2003. We probably wouldn't have known much more about what happened to Jean McConville, were it not for the fact that after the peace process, Boston College decided that they wanted to mark the end of this conflict in some way. So they decided to create an archive of the reminisces of people who were frontline soldiers on both sides in the conflict. But they realized pretty quickly that if you're going to do this, given that people are going to be talking about these terrible things they've done and the peace agreement never really created any truth and reconciliation process. There was no immunity created. So they'd have to do it in secret because otherwise you could have prosecutions.

So they start doing these interviews in an atmosphere of great secrecy, and the agreement is, Chris, if you come and tell me the awful things you did, we will seal your oral history at Boston College until your death. It won't be released until after you're dead. One of the people who came in and talked was Dolours Price. Through a really complicated sequence of events, it turns out that this promise about secrecy that BC made was not a promise that they legally were in a position to make. So the whole thing comes apart in a pretty spectacular fashion. And in 2010, 2011, rumors start circulating in Northern Ireland that across an ocean at a university in Boston, there's this archive of all these former combatants from the IRA talking about the things they did, and they might be talking about one of the most notorious war crimes of the Troubles, which is the disappearance and killing of Jean McConville. And that they might even be suggesting that the person who ordered this was Gerry Adams.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, just take a second for a second because this is the Good Friday agreement of 1998. Peace of a tenuous intense sort takes hold. the Troubles are over. There are still sectarian tensions and politician conflict and occasional outbreaks of violence, but Gerry Adams is now a resolutely mainstream political figure.


CHRIS HAYES: And rumors start to circulate that in a Boston University there's a big archive of taped confessions of war crimes that implicate Gerry Adams.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Yeah. And even in peace time, post-Troubles Belfast, the cops, they renamed the police. After the Good Friday agreement, they said, "Okay. We won't call it the Royal Alstrack Constabulary anymore. We're rechristen it the police service of Northern Ireland."

CHRIS HAYES: Probably a good call.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Yeah. But it's mostly the same cops.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. Who were, just to be clear for people that don't know the context, are largely-

PATRICK R KEEFE: Largely protestant.

CHRIS HAYES: Largely protestant and aligned with the what had been the kind of ruling British loyalist forces and had also very much had a history of looking the other way as loyalist, protestant mobs beat the crap out of —

PATRICK R KEEFE: If not actively facilitating their work. Yes. But also, this professional cohort hates no one on Earth more than Gerry Adams. I mean, they saw him as the IRA leader. The IRA was an organization that actively targeted cops for assassination. A lot of these guys who today are in the police force had uncles, fathers, other relatives who were killed by the IRA. So when the authorities hear that this archive might exist, they way to get their hands on it.

In terms of what happened to Jean McConville, I ended up spending a lot of time looking at this and trying to piece it together. Before she died, Dolours Price who was suffering from terrible PTSD and had drug and alcohol problems and clearly had this desire, which I think actually was born out of some of therapy she was doing, to testify and to say, "Here are the things I did. I was ordered to do them but I did them." And she acknowledged that she had played some role in this, that she had driven Jean McConville down across the border to her death.

And as I was doing the research for the book, I ended up getting ahold of an interview that ended up being stored at Boston College, which she did with a journalist that hadn't been published. She did in 2010. And in that interview, she talks about how she brought Jean McConville down across the border, turned her over to the local unit of the IRA. They dug a grave. There were supposed to kill McConville, but they couldn't bring themselves to do it. She thought because she was a woman. So they send back to Belfast and Dolours Price goes back because she's got to finish the job. She did it with two other people, and one of them was a guy she names, a guy name Pat McClure who was a kind of a figure in the book, and then there was a third person who she didn't name. A kind of unknown identity.

And when I'd been working on this project for four years very late in the game through almost an accident of reporting, I figured out who that person was. It was Dolours Price's younger sister, Marian. Marian Price actually fired the shot that killed Jean McConville, and Dolours Price is dead. Pat McClure's dead. Marian Price is still alive and had never been publicly identified as having played a role in this. Once I worked that out, I had both I think a legal and a kind of journalistic ethical question about whether or not I should publish the name.

CHRIS HAYES: You cracked the case. I mean, in a matter of speaking, I mean, I just want to be clear of what was just said here. This is a mystery. This is a notorious war crime that happened during the Troubles. It's a place that has not, because you said, has not had a truth and reconciliation commission, has not had any formal process for people to come clean about what they did, to come clean about what they saw, about the injuries that they committed and the injuries that they were victims of.


CHRIS HAYES: And to me also there's this layer, and maybe I'm being sort of ridiculous or ethnically stereotyping as someone who's Irish Catholic myself of just like a culture of repression.


CHRIS HAYES: Where like man, do I know firsthand.


CHRIS HAYES: Like Irish Catholic folks.

PATRICK R KEEFE: It's a social instinct as much as it is a political one.

CHRIS HAYES: Don't want to f-----gi talk about their s--t.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Yeah, yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: And like trying to get them to talk... like forget war crimes, just like what's up with your relationship is a struggle.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Not just that, but I mean another thing that I don't mention in the book but to me was kind of lurking in my mind the whole time is the Catholic Church scandals. I mean, this is the—

CHRIS HAYES: The ultimate example.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Very, very similar tendency where there's something that everybody sort of knows or sort of is roughly the—

CHRIS HAYES: The open secret and we don't talk about it.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Absolutely.

CHRIS HAYES: It's like, man, is that poison. It is spiritual and mental and emotional poison for society, for a culture, for individuals. It's poison. And what you're talking about is this poison living, just living intergenerationally, right? I mean, who killed our mother? Who took away out mother? What happened in the apartment that night where we heard the knock and we were next door and we didn't want to know but we know. What did we do? What happened after I followed your orders? What happened to her? Like all of that just haunting everyone, hanging over everyone, hanging over an entire society.

PATRICK R KEEFE: Well, and not only that, I mean, it's interesting. There's some studies now on trauma there and there are these studies on cross generational trauma where you have kids that are born into families, the kids never were alive during the Troubles, but they grow up in these families that are just full of ghosts and they inherit that trauma. I mean, the thing I was going to say about Marian Price is she's denied it. I should say she no commented me for five months, and then finally denied it. And she hasn't been prosecuted because there's not enough, there's no physical evidence. All the witnesses are dead. If I had an iota of doubt, I would never have published the name. It would have been a grotesque thing to do. So I'm pretty confident. Anybody who reads the book I sort of show my work, and I think it's possible to look at it and not come out believing that I'm correct.

CHRIS HAYES: That was my feelings.

PATRICK R KEEFE: In terms of cracking the case, it's not as though she's been hauled off to jail.

CHRIS HAYES: Dolours Price is this tragic figure because when you talk about moral injury, which is something that we know about in the sort of psychological literature of war, right? That people are more likely to suffer PTSD for their commissions of acts of violence than as being victims of acts of violence. And that there's a moment, sort of peak stoic warrior when the cops take her in prison in the London Bombing. They refused clothes, any clothes at all, and they're naked under blankets because they're like, "We're soldiers. We're not criminals. We won't wear your bloody, imperial criminal uniform." And they don't say anything, and there's a moment where the interrogator like looks at the watch and she like gives a little smile. It's like here's an image of this person who has put themselves into total Samurai sarrior mode, and then you see what it did to her later.


CHRIS HAYES: That counterpoint of like peak, like just complete armor around her, and then what you found out is it ate away at her.

PATRICK R KEEFE: One of the sections is called "The Clear, Clean Shear Thing," which is a line from Patrick Pearse, this famous poet and revolutionary. He basically says, "We never surrender. We never compromise. Irish republicanism means that you won't accept one iota of compromise.” He was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916, and he gets executed as a young man. He lives on as a martyr and Dolours Price grows up hearing stories about him. To me, one of the big interesting questions I wanted to explore was what happens when you get older? What happens if you don't die? What happens if you survive and now you're in your 40s or 50s and you're older; you've got a family of your own and you start looking back at this stuff?

CHRIS HAYES: What is the ultimate resolution of all this? I mean, you depict a peace process that's tense and tenuous and shot through with ghosts, this war crime murder mystery resurfaces, this taped confession, the implication of Gerry Adams. Like where does this end up, and what does it mean for the present situation in Northern Ireland?

PATRICK R KEEFE: Well, it's interesting. I spent the first few years working on this, and part of what was appealing to me about it as a subject is that on the one hand, it's a history story, on the other hand, the history's everywhere. It's very alive and fresh and dangerous. You get that with the Boston College process, but just if you're in Northern Ireland, every day you open the paper and there's some huge fight over some atrocity from decades ago. So everybody's living with these questions. But when I would talk to people about the book I was writing, I always had a little trouble explaining. There was a little bit of a sense of, "Oh, I thought that was all taken care of. I thought that was kind of in the outbox of history." And then Brexit happens. And strangely enough, I actually think it was precisely that tendency to forget about the Irish border and the tensions that persist and how brittle the peace is to forget that that allowed voters to sign on to Brexit and not think, "Well, what a second. If we did this, wouldn't the old Irish border get reinscribed and in fact become the only land border between the UK and the EU, and might that cause some problems?"

I mean, I sort of joked that my nine-year-old son, if you gave him the pieces, he's got enough deductive reasoning to piece that together. And so that to me is the context strangely in which the book comes out is one in which the continuing shadow of the Troubles and the brittleness of that peace is suddenly really dangerous in a way that it wasn't event a couple of years ago. Because I think if you do have a scenario in which the UK crashes out of Europe and there is no plan and they have to reinstate a hard border, I don't think the Troubles are going to come back. But I do think that these tensions, which are already simmering right there beneath the surface, will get pretty severely inflamed.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. I mean, for people who have been following this, probably the thorniest issue of Brexit is the fact that there is no border because both Ireland and Northern Ireland and the UK are in the EU. If it crashes out, then suddenly there is a border, and now all of a sudden all sorts of questions come back about what that border looks like and who can move back and forth between it.

PATRICK R KEEFE: And it was the symbol. I mean, for decades the border was this symbol. You had watchtowers. You had people going back and forth. You'd have a guy with a rifle searching your car, and just the iconography of it. If you bring that back, I think it could be hazardous. It's funny, there's a piece in the Irish Times the other day by a guy who was actually one of the Brexiteers. He's looking back ruefully on some of the mistakes he made, but he said, "In all our early strategic conversations, it just never came up." Nobody in the room with the Leave crowd said, "Hey, wait a second. What about Northern Ireland?"

CHRIS HAYES: The final thought I had here, I remember this thought really crystal clear coming to me the day after 9/11, and thinking about war and peace, and thinking about growing up and looking at conflicts in places like Northern Ireland, which we're about the same age, was a huge part of the global news when we were growing up. I remember having thought, "How would I feel if I sat there and watched a future U.S. President shake hands with Osama Bin Laden?" I remember having that thought the day after because I thought to myself, "I can't imagine that. That's unimaginable. He just murdered 3000 people here." And yet, that's what peace is, and reading your book, I realized like when I thought about those cops thinking about Gerry Adams and the way that people must have felt about various oppositional figures of mayhem, terrorism, violence, and war crimes that at the end, that's what peace is.

PATRICK R KEEFE: It's compromise. Part of what I wanted to look into was on a deeper level, just the nature of absolutism and where are its limits and where should they be. And this is sort of where I come down on Gerry Adams. I mean, if you read the book, he's not the most emotionally sympathetic figure. In fact, a number of people like Dolours Price end up feeling deeply betrayed by him. And yet, unavoidably, you have to acknowledge the fact that this is a guy who took a violent organization and he steered it away from violence. And he deserves credit for that even if I think he had to sell out his comrades in the process.

CHRIS HAYES: The book is called “Say Nothing.” It's out now. Patrick Radden Keefe is a staff writer at The New Yorker, and it's, like I said, it's a masterpiece. It's just about as good as nonfiction gets. You should absolutely buy it. I can't impress that upon you enough, and if you are reading the book, well I guess it's too late for spoiler alerts, but we did one amid. But Patrick, thank you so much.


CHRIS HAYES: Once again my great thanks to Patrick Radden Keefe, a staff writer at The New Yorker, author of “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland.” By the way, special bonus this week. We have a bonus WITHpod with Patrick in a few days. It's something going to come out Thursday morning because he wrote an incredible piece about the Sackler family, which is the family behind Purdue Pharma and Oxycotin, and many people think were key drivers of the opioid epidemic. He wrote an incredible piece in The New Yorker. He's actually writing a book about them, and since he came to the studio and I've been wanting to talk about that topic, I basically did this podcast, stopped him, and made him talk to me about the Sacklers. And that conversation we will bring to you on Thursday.

As always, we love to hear your feedback. We got great feedback about our conversation with Mariame Kaba, @prisonculture, about prison abolition. Lots of people listened to that, lots of people said it changed the way they thought. I got some people who were angry about it, that I didn't push her hard enough, and that her ideas are crazy. All of that's good feedback. I love to hear it across the board. You can always tweet us, the #WITHPod, email

Related links:

“Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland," by Patrick Radden Keefe

"Why Is This Happening" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the "All In" team, and future of music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here by going to