EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Gerry Kelly, his new book and his part in the IRA – By Brian Rowan 

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There will be those who will hate Gerry Kelly’s book – ‘Playing My Part’; hate it for the absence of any apology for the IRA’s actions and campaign, and dismiss it for that reason.

It is in this frame of thinking that apology gets confused with what we call truth.

The argument travels along these lines; that the Past can only be addressed and answered by a statement that it was wrong, should not have happened, didn’t need to happen and, as a consequence, some must wear sackcloth and ashes.

In terms of any proper scrutiny of the conflict years, this type of thinking is in the narrowest of frames.

The more  difficult choice is to read books such as this; not by way of endorsing or condoning, but for learning, for explanation and for some better understanding and knowledge.

War and then peace are about a multitude of experiences and interpretations .

So, we are challenged to think not just about what happened, but why and to step outside our comfort zones.


Don’t turn the pages expecting all of the detail.

We have not got to a point in the shaping of some legacy process that would allow for such openness.

So, for obvious reasons, this is a managed, controlled, edited and redacted version of events spread over a near-300 pages.

In a contributing foreword, Gerry Adams explains why.

“This is an honest book. Funny in parts. It is a story worth reading. There may, of course, be omissions in how the story is told. How could it be otherwise? I’m sure Gerry [Kelly] has no wish to go back to prison, or to be responsible for others going there. I certainly wouldn’t blame him for that.”

Within those few sentences is our legacy dilemma; how to achieve maximum information across all the sides when the possibility of jail remains.

“If I’d told the full truth, I might as well have walked into jail,” Gerry Kelly told me when I first spoke with him about his book.

So, he accepts it is written within those limitations and constraints.

It ends in 1989 when he was released from jail; there is nothing about Gerry Kelly inside the IRA beyond that date; nothing of his role in the leadership of that organisation, about the secret back-channel contacts with the British, about how the ceasefires, decommissioning, the ending of the armed campaign and the eventual endorsement of policing were achieved; stories for another day and, perhaps, another book.

He told me he is “proud” of his part in the IRA – “also proud that I was part of bringing the conflict to an end. As proud of one as the other.”

Although not addressed in this book, Gerry Kelly – alongside Martin McGuinness – was part of those back-channel contacts with the British that, pre-ceasefire, were exploring ways out of conflict.

After the 1994 ceasefire, and again with McGuinness, he was part of the Sinn Fein delegation that entered exploratory dialogue with British officials and, more than a decade later, he was one of the lead voices in the internal republican debate on policing.

“I didn’t agree with everything the IRA did. A mistake in a conflict can be huge – much bigger than a mistake [because of the loss of life].”


There are lines in this book that jump out, including that thought that he took time to work out what was expected of him.

Turn another page, and you read how he describes his teenage years: “I was a Catholic without politics.”

Then there is a poem – written in jail – remembering his late mother Agnes; its end thought and line on how grief can run insidiously deep.


A year after joining the IRA, Kelly was part of a unit sent to Britain on a bombing operation.

You read in the short segment above how this came about and I speak to him in detail in the interview that follows.

This traces the Kelly story inside the IRA (in as much as he is prepared to discuss it at this time); joining that organisation in 1972, the bombs in Britain, arrest, hunger strike, escape, being on-the-run, recapture and, then, his release.

He makes clear in the interview that he will not help me read between the lines.

In an earlier conversation, I had asked him about fear: “Once I committed to joining [the IRA], I knew what it meant. I expected to die or go to jail. In a general sense, I wasn’t afraid. In specific incidents, of course, afraid, but never enough to stop me.”


Books, such as the one he has written – even within the limitations described earlier – are important to our learning.

They should not be dismissed. They should be read and included in some archive on the Past along with other accounts written by those with different experiences and knowledge of the conflict period.

Reading does not mean agreeing.

All we are challenged to accept is that there are different narratives and that there will never be an agreed script on the conflict years.

‘Playing My Part’ is but one piece in a much bigger jigsaw – an important piece in terms of learning.


I asked Gerry Kelly about that remarkable Sinn Fein result in the Irish General Election, and what it means for the ‘New Ireland’ push and argument.

This interview with  Gerry Kelly for the  eamonnmallie.com website was recorded on February 12th.


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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process and contributed chapters to 'Reporting the Troubles' and 'Brexit and Northern Ireland: Bordering on Confusion'.


  1. “All we are challenged to accept is that there are different narratives and that there will never be an agreed script on the conflict years.”

    “All” – good grief, that’s an understatement if ever I read one; and as good an illustration as any of the problem we face when we abandon the concept of objective truth (whether we confuse it with apology or not).

  2. “If I’d told the full truth, I might as well have walked into jail,” Gerry Kelly told me when I first spoke with him about his book.


    What is the point of the book?

  3. It takes courage to admit that you were wrong. I hereby admit that my attitude to the PIRA terrorists who murdered my parishioners and friends was wrong. As a Christian cleric I had to admit my attitude was wrong and changed it. It would take courage for Gerry Kelly to admit that the IRA terror campaign was wrong but that courage is not found d in this book.


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