The Coast of Death is a sequel to my novel, A Fine Country, published in 2000, about a plot by the Army Council, the IRA high command, to assassinate Mrs Thatcher, the Prime Minister, outside Number 10 Downing Street. In those days, it was still possible for members of the public to walk up and down Downing Street and observe the comings and goings from Numbers 10, and 11, the home of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The attempt failed narrowly and the would-be assassin, Hugh O'Neill, escaped. Some years later, the IRA traced Hugh to a small Greek island, where he lived with his English lover, Godfrey, and eked out a living guiding tourists on high-speed walks over the mountains. The IRA unit persuaded him to return to London to make a propaganda video.
I became interested, following the ceasefire, the Good Friday Agreement and the prospect of a power-sharing Assembly to govern Northern Ireland, how those who were involved in the IRA as active members over many years, were adapting to a more normal life.
As I watched the unfolding politics in Northern Ireland, where the two extreme parties, Sinn Fein, the party of the Nationalist Catholics, and the Reverend Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party for the Protestant majority, slowly but irrevocably displaced the more moderate SDLP and Ulster Unionist parties, I wondered how those former activists were coming to terms with their changed times. For some of course, a career in politics followed. Martin McGuinness, allegedly a former IRA Chief of Staff, is at the time of writing, deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, is an elected member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and like McGuinness, is a member of the British Parliament, though neither take their seats in Westminster. Some of the criminal element were running rackets. However, what of the others?
There was an interregnum between the poll on the Good Friday Agreement, where a majority of both communities voted in favour of the Agreement and the setting up of the Assembly, a period dominated by the manoeuvring of the various parties. The Unionists demanded the IRA disarm. The IRA stalled and wrung further concessions from the British Government, while the Unionists leant on the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the government of the Irish Republic and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, to exert pressure on what they always referred to as Sinn Fein/IRA. For the USA, George Mitchell acted as peacemaker and envoy for President Clinton, whose interventions at critical moments were crucial to the success of the Good Friday Agreement.
It was soon apparent that not all of the IRA were satisfied with the GFA, that a significant minority saw it as a sell-out, another compromise to their long fight for a united island of Ireland. In that, they were repeating, to a smaller extent, the aftermath of the 1921 Treaty signed by Michael Collins and others, which gave the twenty-six counties of Ireland limited freedom to set up the Irish Free State and led in time to the Republic of Ireland. This split the IRA, of which Collins was the de facto leader and the brains behind the successful guerrilla movement that brought Lloyd George and the British Government to offer a Treaty. The vote, by a small majority in the Irish Parliament to accept the Treaty, resulted in the Civil War and the killing of Michael Collins along with many other former comrades.