The Ultras: a Novel by Eoin McNamee £10.99 Faber ISBN 0-571-20775-8 The Ultras
is a work of “faction”: it is a fictional novel with a heavy factual content, containing numerous references to real events and real people. This is always a tricky feat to pull off. George MacDonald Fraser did it well; others less so. The central figure of The Ultras
is the late Captain Robert Nairac GC, who was abducted, tortured and murdered by the PIRA in 1977. His body has never been found. Not only Nairac but other real people, including his superior, Major Julian “Tony” Ball, Andrew Nightingale and Loyalist militants Boyle and Jackson appear under their own names. These people are safely dead and will not be reaching for their lawyers. Others are thinly disguised but recognisable. The MI6 agent “Clyde Knox” is clearly Craig Smellie (now also dead); “David Erskine” is Fred Holroyd, with touches of Colin Wallace, and so on. The Four-Square laundry service and the Gemini massage parlour are accurately described.
The action takes place at two different periods of history: a fairly common literary device. Much of the time it is the 1970s. The covert war in Ireland is at its height. Different British agencies are competing for a slice of the action. MI5 (the Security Service) resent the intrusion of MI6 (the Secret Intelligence Service) into “their” Province; the two agencies seem more like enemies than allies. Army intelligence is suspicious of both. The RUC distrusts all three. They compete for “assets” (agents); their proxy assassins prowl Belfast
and the border areas at night. In the centre is the mysterious figure of Robert Nairac, who seems to be working for everyone, or for none; or for persons unknown; may even be writing his own script; out of control. Twenty-five years on, one of the protagonists, Blair
Agnew, a drink-sodden and ruined ex-RUC officer living in a caravan, is trying to make sense of it all; to separate fact from fiction, and to lay his own ghosts to rest. For him too, Nairac is central: “salvation through Nairac”; yet his task is hopeless and only leads him further into darkness.
This is a novel about Nairac and others, written from an Irish perspective. That is what makes it interesting. It is a good read, if you like McNamee’s dark, grim, gritty style, which is said to be reminiscent of Raymond Chandler. It also rends me of Ian Rankin: Blair
Agnew is a bit like Inspector Rebus. Some of the book has to be supposition. Intriguingly, it has been suggested that it was published as a novel for libel reasons; it might contain more unverifiable fact than we realise. The author has obviously done a lot of research and has surely spoken to people who knew Nairac.
However Nairac was a real person and has living relations and friends. They will not be best pleased by assertions that Nairac was personally involved in the infamous Miami Show Band massacre: it is fairly clear that he was not. It was a bungled Loyalist stunt. Moreover McNamee seems to take it for granted that he was likewise deeply implicated in the murders of IRA officers John Francis Green and Peter Cleary. This is “not proven”. McNamee apparently accepts that Nairac’s remains were fed into a meat and bone processing plant and can never be recovered: that now seems unlikely.
McNamee has also decided that Nairac was recruited by “Five”: MI5, in other words, while he was at Oxford, and was “really” working for them in Northern Ireland. I am not an expert on the Agencies, but I have been reliably informed that you cannot work for them and the Army at the same time. If Nairac had said to his Oxford MI5 talent-spotter - assuming that there was one – “I want to join the Army”, he would have been told, “You must make a choice. You cannot do both. If after three years you want to come out of the Forces, come and see us again then.” He was still an army officer when he was murdered, six years after leaving Oxford.
I know rather more about falconry, which was one of Nairac’s hobbies, or obsessions. Here McNamee displays profound ignorance. This makes me wonder about other aspects of Nairac's life that McNamee describes so confidently. There is no falconry centre at Ampleforth. Falconry was not on the curriculum. There is and was no resident falconer. Nairac taught himself, using old books as guides. The place where falcons are kept is a mews; not a “falconry”. Falconry is the art of using falcons. Nairac is described as keeping a kite in his rooms at Oxford. In fact the bird was a goshawk. Kites are not usually used for falconry. And African vultures most certainly are not. At different times Nairac is known to have used a buzzard, goshawks, sparrow-hawks and kestrels. One of his kestrels appeared in the film “Kes”.
McNamee tackles Nairac’s sexuality fairly directly. He has decided that he was homosexual and was seduced at Ampleforth. I too think that he might well have been gay – a view that is shared by his Oxford contemporary Duncan Fallowell - although, as a devout Catholic, and a member of the armed forces at a time when exposure meant disgrace and expulsion, it is a question whether he was practicing. There some evidence – not a lot – that his experience in Northern Ireland effectively destroyed his religious beliefs; having lost them and the restraint that they enjoined, he may have indulged himself towards the end of his short life. If so, I for one would not begrudge him his fun. What is much less plausible is that Nairac is depicted as having been seduced by Mr Walmsley, an unprepossessing imaginary figure, who is both the "falconry tutor" at Ampleforth and an MI5 talent-spotter. He also seems to run the CCF.
McNamee admitted in an interview that he had hoped to “explain” Nairac in his novel but was eventually defeated by the complexity of his subject’s character. I am not surprised. Nairac was one of the most intelligent, complex beings who ever trod this planet. He was also one of the bravest. He cannot be easily explained. What a waste of a brilliant man.