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God and the Gun: the Church and Irish Terrorism

Martin Dillon. Orion Books, London 1998. ISBN 0 75281 631 4   £6.99 Amazon Co UK

Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien has described the author, Martin Dillon, as ‘the greatest living authority on Irish terrorism’. If he ever was, he has since lost his touch. His previous works have been well-received, particularly The Shankill Butchers, Stone Cold and Killer in Clowntown.  Since leaving Ulster, however, he seems to have lost his way. His last book on the Provisional IRA, The Enemy Within, was inferior sensationalist stuff.

In God and the Gun, Dillon claims to look at the role of the Church and ‘Irish terrorism’. In this task he fails utterly. This is not to say that the book is uninteresting. Despite its many faults, and elementary errors of fact, it is – in parts – a gripping read.

The conflict in Ulster has been primarily one of nationality but it is impossible to ignore its ‘religious’ dimension.  Ulsterfolk have not been fighting a theological battle but everyone’s religious upbringing and background colours their outlook on the situation. Many of the main paramilitary players in both republican and loyalist groups are regular worshippers – ‘good Christians’ despite having committed some horrendous atrocities over the past thirty years.  Dillon has met and interviewed notable Protestant and Catholic paramilitary activists and former activists to try and understand how the manage to reconcile killing with their Christian convictions. Most fascinating was the testimony of Billy Wright who went on to form the Loyalist Volunteer Force splinter group.  Billy Wright was later to die in Long Kesh prison at the hands of INLA fellow-prisoners.

Wright has been involved with the Young Citizen Volunteers as a teenager.  He was imprisoned on arms and hijacking charges in 1977 and soon after his release was again held in custody on the testimony of the ‘supergrass’ Clifford McKeown.  During his time in prison, he began to read the Bible and made a ‘commitment to Christ’ after his release in 1983. This caused him to abandon his terrorist affiliations.  However, the ‘act of treachery’ that brought in the Hillsborough Pact of November 1985 called him back to arms.  Wright took the militarist view that constitutional politics was a waste of time – ‘if I was to be involved in politics, in a sense it would be from a paramilitary prospectus.  There’s absolutely no way one could walk with Christ and align oneself to paramilitary activity.’  Despite his abandonment of his ‘walk with Christ’, he was deeply imbued with a fundamentalist Protestant Christian outlook but willing to lose his personal faith and his eternal soul in order to fight for his beliefs in Faith, Fatherland and Family.  Wright was a complex character and Dillon is at his best when he lets Wright speak for himself and spares the reader his own speculations and opinions.

It is interesting to note that Protestant terrorists seem to feel more guilt than their Catholic counterparts. UFF and UVF men often became evangelical Christians when give time to reflect in prison.  On the other hand, their Catholic counterparts became more ideologically committed republicans with no apparent sense of guilt for their acts of violence. There must be some deep theological or cultural significance here, but Dillon leaves this avenue largely unexplored.  Someone else will have to do that job sometime as this book falls short of the task.

David Kerr

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