I met Rossa at a pub in Lancashire and we talked over several pints....
Brian Drake: You've written a very compelling novel of the Irish conflict, and as somebody who has family on the Irish side and friends on the British side, I thought you handled the issue well. What inspired this story?
Rossa McPhillips: 1) Thank you. My dad is Irish and my mum is English (but had an Irish father). I grew up in London but there was always a feeling about being 'London Irish'. You grew up with tales of Irish freedom, the rebel songs and we always went to Ireland in the summer to see relatives. It was a weird feeling though, as you felt English in Ireland and Irish in England. I was also a huge James Bond fan, who stands for everything that Irish nationalism is against. I wanted to join British Intelligence from an early age but it probably wouldn't have gone down well with my Dad or our Irish relatives. But I watched a great documentary by the journalist Peter Taylor, and he interviewed an ex-MI6 officer, Michael Oatley, who had been secretly negotiating with the IRA during the Troubles, when the UK government's official line was very much 'we don't talk to terrorists'.Oatley was an impressive figure, in the James Bond mould and I met him myself once. Very charming. His position as peacemaker between the sides appealed to me - maybe if I joined MI6 and could be a peacemaker both the Irish and British side of my family could get behind that? However, by the time I left university, the Troubles were well over, and 9/11 had happened.
BD: Did you continue looking for a government service job, or consider the private sector?
RM: I joined British Army Intelligence and concentrated on fighting Islamic terrorism. I never got to be a peacemaker, but Oatley and his role still fascinated me. Whilst in Army Intelligence, I got to liaise with MI6 all the time, and at an 'introduction day' at MI6 HQ, parallel diplomacy was touted as one of their key tasks. This is what they do - but we never hear about it [for good reason] and there's no books or films on it. Now, it's not just secretly negotiating with terrorists, it's speaking to regimes beyond the pale like in Syria, or if a world leader just wants to say something to the UK that he can't say in public; if he says it to the MI6 representative it will be graded 'Top Secret', handled with sensitivity and not turned into diplomatic gossip. So, a lot of avenues for stories there, but as someone who counted himself as 'London Irish' I had to tell the MI6-IRA backchannel story first.
BD: Can you tell us a little of your actual work for British Intelligence without putting a target on your back?
RM: In my career I was posted as an intelligence analyst to the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), part of UK Special Forces, and they had a long history in the Troubles. They continue to carry out surveillance in Northern Ireland on dissident republicans; it's their main area of work. I remember once there was an emergency when a dissident republican was going to put his car into a mechanic. The SRR had to scramble one night to remove the bug from the republican's car - in case the mechanic found it! I never worked on the Irish desk myself - I was looking into other parts of the world. Some of the old guys at SRR would talk of their time in Northern Ireland, and be wistful of the things they could get away with during the Troubles that they can't do now. SRR - who used to be called 14th Intelligence Company - and other special forces were given carte blanche to do as they pleased. That's reflected in the book. They could literally shoot IRA members and never expect to be questioned about it.
|Author McPhillips at an undisclosed location|
probably doing very exciting things
BD: What are one or two errors you see writers make who do not have your experience? What makes you roll your eyes and put a book down if it's too ridiculous?
RM: I've given talks about mistakes writers make about spying. The huge one is thinking MI6 or MI5 do what James Bond does. As above, MI6 run agents or do parallel diplomacy. They DO NOT kill people. Haven't done so since 1918. If the British government want someone killed - that's the job of UK Special Forces. If James Bond was real, he would be SAS or SBS, not MI6.
BD: When did you start writing? Who are some of your favorite authors?
RM: I've been writing since I was a kid. Not sure why, but I had an imagination and it just took off at school, and I won competitions which was great. My Mum encouraged me too, and she's not a bad writer herself! However, my parents were very much, 'We can't afford to support you as a writer, so you'll have to get a day job". My dad was an Irish builder, and my Mum an admin assistant at a school, so I had to do well at school. I'm still not a full-time writer, but that is the goal. My writing is primarily in the screenwriting sphere, and that's my first love. I will do more books though. Once writing pays the bills, and it's my day job, I know I've 'arrived'. I enjoy spy writers like Frederick Forsyth, and thriller writers like Lee Child. I was blown away by Don Winslow's 'The Border'...just wow. Have you read it? Go read it. Now.
BD: It's hard to put into words (and without giving away spoilers) exactly how well you seemed to capture the Irish situation, the mixed compromises, the dashed hopes, the near misses. Have we finally, in this day and age, reached a balance between England and Ireland where perhaps Republican violence is a thing of the past, or will it always simmer beneath the surface no matter how many votes (instead of bullets) are cast?
RM: I genuinely feel that there's been crimes committed by both sides in the conflict - by the British Army AND the paramilitaries. It was a dirty, murky, mucky war and no one has come out smelling of roses. The IRA murdered women and children which I'll never understand. But the killing of unarmed civilians by the Army? That's awful. I don't think it's hyperbolic to say that the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972 was a war crime, and all involved should be put to trial at the Hague. And thats as an ex-soldier myself. Peace has been hard won, but I think we need closure.
BD: How might that closure be acheived?
RM: We need inquiries set up to discover the truth of other atrocities, so we can learn and move on. 3,000 people were killed, but it's not reducible to that - times that number by 2, and you get a mother or husband affected by it, maybe times that number by 4 regarding brothers, sisters, friends affected. Part of the reason I was told that regular publishers turned this book down was that the Troubles is still raw, and people don't want to focus on that - as they know fault is on all sides. But that intolerance has led to ignorance over Northern Ireland regarding Brexit, which could bring about new violence (although not on the scale of the Troubles). I think more films and fiction books about the Troubles could help with closure. Although, even without Brexit, I think you will always have a small number of people who will resort to terrorism there, as long as there is no United Ireland. And if a United Ireland does happen, you'll have a small number of loyalist terrorists carrying out attacks. But 90% of people in Northern Ireland from both sides don't want violence, so there's hope that any terrorism over there can be contained. Simmer yes, boil - hopefully not.
BD: Can we expect more thrillers from you soon?
RM: Oh yes - more thrillers are on the way. I'm concentrating on my screenwriting career, for which I do have an agent, so it's just a case of hammering out lots of TV pilots and hope that one gets made, or, (more likely), it gets you a job on an existing show. Something like 'Deep State' would be up my street! In terms of prose, I'm thinking of carrying on the backchannel theme of secret talks and writing a thriller set in the modern day and focusing on al Qaeda or ISIS. I'm also looking at writing a thriller about the secret talks between the British and Hitler over a peace plan at the start of WW2. So watch this space!
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