Book ‘Northern Spy’ by Flynn Berry

Read online PDF by 'Northern Spy: A Novel' by Flynn Berry
The acclaimed author of Under the Harrow and A Double Life returns with her most riveting novel to date: the story of two sisters who become entangled with the IRA. A producer at the BBC and mother to a new baby, Tessa is at work in Belfast one day when the news of another raid comes on the air. The IRA may have gone underground in the two decades since the Good Friday Agreement, but they never really went away, and lately bomb threats, security checkpoints, and helicopters floating ominously over the city have become features of everyday life. As the news reporter requests the public's help in locating those responsible for the robbery, security footage reveals Tessa's sister, Marian...
Publisher: Viking (April 6, 2021)  Hardcover: 288 pages  ISBN-10: 0735224994  ISBN-13: 978-0735224995  Dimensions: 6.3 x 0.95 x 9.28 inches

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Book excerpt


— IRA graffiti, 2019



We are born with a startle reflex. Apparently it’s caused by the sensation of falling. Sometimes, in his crib, my son will fling out his arms, and I hold my hand to his chest to reassure him.

It happens less often now than in the first months. He doesn’t constantly think the ground is falling away beneath him. I do, though. My startle reflex has never been so strong. Of course it is, everyone’s is at the moment. That’s part of living in Northern Ireland, at this point in time, during this phase of terrorism.

It’s difficult to know how scared to be. The threat level is severe, but, then, it has been for years. The government evaluates terrorist organizations based on capacity, timescale, and intent. At the moment, we should be worried about the IRA on all three counts. An attack might be imminent, but no one can say where.

The odds are, not here. Not on this lane, where I’m walking with the baby. A gunman isn’t about to appear around the bend in the road. I always watch for one in Belfast, on my way to work, but not out here, surrounded by hedgerows and potato fields.

We live, for all intents and purposes, in the middle of nowhere. My house is on the Ards peninsula, a curve of land between Strangford Lough, a deep saltwater inlet, and the sea. Greyabbey is a tiny village, a twist on the lough road. Four hundred houses set among green fields and lanes and orchards. On the lough shore, canoes float in the reeds. This doesn’t look like a conflict zone, it looks like the place you’d return to after a war.

Finn sits in his carrier on my chest, facing forward down the lane. I chat to him and he babbles back at me, kicking his heels against my thighs. Ahead of us, birds disappear into gaps in the hedgerow. At the edge of the pasture, a row of telephone poles rises along the road. Past them, the sky is white toward the sea.

My son is six months old. The conflict might be over by the time he can walk or read. It might end before he learns to clap or says his first word or drinks from a cup or has whole fruit instead of purée. All of this might never touch him.

It should already be over, of course. My sister and I were born near the end of the Troubles. We were children in 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, we painted peace signs and doves on bedsheets and hung them from our windows. It was all meant to be finished then.

Except bodies were still being found in peat bogs along the border. Searches were being conducted to find informers the IRA had disappeared. The coroner’s inquests hadn’t all finished, or the investigations into police collusion, and riots still broke out every year during marching season. At certain funerals, men in ski masks and mirrored sunglasses would appear in the cortège, chamber their handguns, and fire shots over the coffin, which was odd, since they said they’d decommissioned all their weapons.

So it was never peace exactly. The basic argument of the Troubles hadn’t been resolved: most Catholics still wanted a united Ireland, most Protestants wanted to remain part of the UK. The schools were still segregated. You still knew, in every town, which was the Catholic bakery, which was the Protestant taxi firm.

How could anyone not have seen this coming? We were living in a tinderbox. Of course it was going to catch, and when it did, so many men were ready to throw themselves back into the fighting. Peace hadn’t suited them. They hadn’t made a success of it. In their statements and communiqués, I could sense their relief, like they were sleeper agents, left behind in an enemy country, glad that they hadn’t been forgotten.

From the lane, I turn onto the lough road. The water is platinum with sunlight. It will be hot again today. I want this walk to last, but soon we’re at the main street, and his day care. I kiss Finn goodbye, confident, as always, that between now and tomorrow morning I’ll find the trick that will let me spend the day both at work and with him.

My phone rings as I near the bus stop. “Have you heard from Marian today?” my mother asks.

“No, why?”

“There’s supposed to be a thunderstorm.” Marian has gone to the north coast for a few days. She is staying in a rented cottage on a headland near Ballycastle. “She’s not diving, is she?”

“No,” I say, not mentioning what Marian had told me about wanting to swim into the caves at Ballintoy, if she could time it right with the tides.

I hoped she would. I liked the thought of her swimming through the limestone arches, bobbing in the water inside the mouth of the caves. It would be like an antidote, the quiet and the spaciousness. The exact opposite of Belfast, of her work as a paramedic, sitting in the back of an ambulance, racing through red lights, steeling herself for the moment when the doors will open.

“There’s no sense in doing that on your own.”

“She’s not diving, mam. See you tonight, okay?” On Thursdays, when we broadcast our program, my mother collects Finn from day care, since I don’t get home in time. It means a long day for her. She works as a housekeeper for a couple in Bangor. She cleans their house, buys their food, washes their clothes. They keep the thermostat so high all year that she works in a pair of shorts and a tank top. Twice a week, she puts on a coat to drag their bins down the long gravel drive and back up again. They recently spent half a million pounds to put a heated single-lane swimming pool under their house, which neither of us can believe she has never used.

“Not even when they’re away?” asked Marian.

Our mam laughed. “Catch yourself on.”


On the bus into the city, I look through my reflection at the lough. Across its vast surface, the faint shapes of the Mourne mountains rise in the distance.

I send Marian a message, then scroll up to the picture she sent me yesterday of herself standing on the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge. Tourists used to wait for hours to cross the bridge, but now it hangs empty for most of the year, the waves crashing a hundred feet beneath it. In the picture, she is alone, her hands gripping the ropes, laughing.

Marian has wavy brown hair that she wears loose, or piled on top of her head with a gold clasp. We look similar—same eyes, and cheekbones, and dark hair—though Marian’s is an inch shorter than mine, and softer. Her natural expression, when she’s not speaking, is open and amused, like she’s waiting to hear the end of a joke, while mine tends to be more grave. Both have their drawbacks. I often have to reassure people that I’m not worried when I am, in fact, thinking, and Marian, who has been a paramedic for six years, still gets asked on every shift if she’s new to the job. She will say, “I’m going to insert an IV line now,” and the patient will look alarmed and say, “Have you done that before?”

Neither of us looks like our mother, who is blonde and sturdy, with an air of brisk warmth. We look like our father and his side of the family, his sisters and parents, which seems unfair, given that we never see him, or any of them.

I allow myself to daydream until the road separates from the lough, then open my phone to start reading the news. I produce a weekly political radio program at the BBC. Some of the broadcasts devolve into local politicians shouting over each other, but others turn electric, especially now. You can’t live in Northern Ireland at the moment and not be interested in politics.

When we reach Belfast, I stop at Deanes for a flat white. Everything about the café and the other customers seems ordinary. You can’t tell from the outside, but the IRA has this city under its thumb. They run security rackets. Every building site has to pay them protection money, and all the restaurants in west Belfast have doormen. An IRA representative will tell the owner, “You need two doormen on Thursday and Friday nights.”

“Wise up,” the owner says. “I don’t need security, it’s only a restaurant.”

Then they send in twenty lads to smash the place up, return the next day, and say, “See? I said you needed security.”

It’s easier to pay them the money than to complain. It’s easier to do a lot of the things that they ask, given the alternatives.

Our former neighbor’s son was caught selling drugs by the IRA. They accused him, without any irony, of endangering the community. She was told to bring him behind the Riverview shops for a punishment beating, but they ended up kneecapping him.

“You brought him to be beaten?” I asked.

“Aye, but I didn’t say they could shoot him. They had no call to fucking shoot him.”

Leaving the café, I turn down Dublin Road and Broadcasting House comes into view, a limestone edifice with giant satellite dishes angled from its roof. I’ve only been back at work for a couple of weeks. Those six months of maternity leave were dense, elemental. Returning to work, I felt like Rip Van Winkle, like I’d woken after decades, except no one else had aged. Nothing at the office has changed, and I have to act like I haven’t either. If I seem distracted or tired, slower than before, my bosses might decide that someone without a baby, or at least not a single mother, would manage the job better. So I pretend to be well rested and focused, despite sleeping in four-hour increments at night, despite several times a day missing Finn so much it hurts to breathe.

In Broadcasting House, I hold my badge to the scanner and then loop the lanyard around my neck. Our morning staff meeting is about to start. I hurry up the stairs, down a corridor, and into a conference room crowded with news editors and correspondents.

“Morning,” says Simon as I find a seat. “Quite a lot on today. Obviously we have the Milltown cemetery shooting, what’s happening there?”

“It was a suicide attempt,” says Clodagh. “And what’s his condition?”

The Irish News has him critically ill and the Belfast Telegraph has him dead.”

“Right. We’ll wait before calling it.”

“Who did we kill last year?” asks James.

“Lord Stanhope,” says Simon. “I had a very stern call from him.”

“And who’s this man?”

“Andrew Wheeler,” says Clodagh. “He’s a property developer.”

“Why would a property developer shoot himself in Milltown cemetery?” I ask.

Clodagh shrugs. “All we have is that he was found at the graveyard.”

“We should wait on this,” says Esther. Her tone is neutral but everyone feels chastened anyway. We don’t cover suicides, to avoid inadvertently encouraging others.

“But is it in the public’s interest to know?” asks Simon. “Does he have a paramilitary connection?”

“None of the groups have claimed him.”

“Okay,” he says. “Esther’s right, let’s hold off for now. Other stories kicking around today?”

“Another expenses scandal,” says Nicholas. “Roger Colefax was on the Today program this morning.”

“He wasn’t brilliant, it has to be said. Very equivocal about the whole thing.”

“Did he apologize?”

“No, but it looks like he’s going to resign.”

“We won’t take it today unless he does step down. Priya?”

“We’re on the Cillian Burke trial. It’s going to collapse at any minute.”

“Isn’t he on tape confessing?” asks Nicholas.

“It was covert surveillance,” says Priya. “And MI5 is refusing to reveal its methods. Their witness keeps saying he can’t answer on the grounds of national security.”

Nicholas whistles. Cillian Burke is on trial for ordering the attack in a market in Castlerock that killed twelve people. He has been a leader in the IRA since the Troubles, responsible for multiple car bombs and shootings. Now he will either be given a life sentence or be acquitted and reengage.

“There won’t be a conviction,” says Priya. “Not if MI5 won’t explain the recording.”

I doubt the security service will compromise. MI5 comes here to test new methods, to build capacity, to prepare its agents for their real fight, which is against international terror groups. We’re only their training ground.

Simon turns to me. “Tessa? What do you have on Politics this week?”

“The justice minister is coming in,” I say, and the room turns gratifyingly alert. “This will be her first interview since proposing the bill.”

“Well done,” says Esther, and the whip-round continues until it reaches sport, at which point everyone feels comfortable not listening. A few people read the newspapers on their laps while Harry says something about rugby. We’re all grateful to sport, though, since they can fill any dead space on air, they’re so used to talking about nothing.

After the meeting, Nicholas and I find a table in the canteen on the top floor, level with the roofs of other buildings and the dome of city hall. He says, “Right, what do we have?”

I show him the running order, though he needs very little producing. Nicholas became our political correspondent years ago. He started at the BBC in the ’90s, riding to riots on his bicycle, traipsing into fields to interview British Special Forces officers.

I like to play a game with myself of finding a political figure or statistic that Nicholas doesn’t already know. He could present tonight’s program from a ditch, probably, but we still sit together working through the questions. He reads one aloud. “Let’s be sharper here, don’t you think?”

In person, he’s kind and amiable, but he’s a brutal interviewer. “These people have quite a lot of power,” he says. “The least they can do is explain themselves.”

We keep working until Clodagh calls him. “We’ve got Helen Lucas in reception and Danny’s not back from Stormont, can you tape her interview?”

“Sure, sure,” says Nicholas, gathering his papers and coffee cup. “Tessa, we’re in good nick for tonight, aren’t we?”

“We’re grand.”

After he leaves, I put on a pair of headphones and listen to a speech Rebecca Main gave last week at a school in Carrickmacross. She has only been the justice minister for a few weeks, but she’s already drawing large crowds of supporters and protesters. “The United Kingdom will never bend to terrorism,” she says. I stop the clip, leaning forward. She is wearing a bulletproof vest. You can just make out its shape under her suit.

Rebecca Main lives in a house in south Belfast with a panic room and a security detail outside. I wonder if either helps her feel safe. I wonder how she feels about being constantly under threat.

It was exciting in the beginning, when the unrest started. No one wants to admit that, but it has to be said. In the first few weeks, when the protests and riots and hijackings began, the conflict was disruptive, rippling across ordinary routines. You couldn’t take your usual routes. Certain intersections would be barred by a crowd—mostly young men, mostly shouting, some with their shirts off, some throwing rocks—or by a bus that had been tipped on its side and set on fire. Sometimes we stood on the roof of Broadcasting House and watched black flags of smoke rising around the city. While working, or traveling across Belfast to my flat, I felt resourceful and competent simply for doing what I’d always done.

One morning a news crew from America was in the café around the corner from my flat. The reporter wore construction boots, jeans, and a bulletproof vest. I watched him with curiosity and scorn at his precautions, his self-conscious air of bravery. I thought, You’re only flying in, you don’t live here like I do.

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to live during the Blitz, and now I think I know. At first, the fear and adrenaline were sharpeners, they did make you more awake. Happier, even. Nothing was dull anymore. Every act—stringing up wet laundry, buying a bottle of beer—felt significant, portentous. It was a relief, in a way, to have larger things than yourself to worry about. To be joined by other people in those worries.

I recently read a scientific paper that said that murder victims, before they die, are flooded with serotonin, oxytocin, hormones that create a sense of euphoria as the body tries to protect itself from the knowledge of what’s happening. That’s how I think of myself during those first weeks now.

At my desk, I write Nicholas’s introduction for Rebecca Main. I polish the rest of the running order, call press officers, and answer emails, with one eye on the news bulletins flowing in from our outside sources. One says that the power stations are concerned about blackouts. The thunderstorm is expected to reach land by evening. I think of Marian, watching the storm come in. The clouds might have already started to darken at the north coast, over the fishing boats in Ballycastle harbor, the rope bridge, the sea stacks. She might be swimming, if the sea isn’t already too rough. We always joke about being part selkie. I check my phone, though she hasn’t written back yet.

Before our guest arrives, I sit outside on the fire stairs eating a Mars bar and drinking a cup of tea while Colette smokes a cigarette. She’s from west Belfast, too, Ballymurphy. She knows my cousins, my uncles.

“How’s Rory doing at school?” I ask.

“He still hates it. Who can blame him?”

“Is it the kids or the teachers?”

“Both. He says he wants to go to St. Joseph’s, can you credit it?”

“Jesus, things must be bad.” Colette sighs.

“I’m thinking about getting him a dog.”

Last summer, Colette was walking down the Falls Road when a car bomb exploded. She was thrown to the ground by the blast, but made it home with only bruises. At work the next day, she looked at Esther like she was mad for suggesting some time off.

“Who’s on Politics tonight?” she asks.

“The justice minister, Rebecca Main. Have you ever had her?”

Colette is the makeup artist for all the guests on the evening news, politicians, academics, actresses. They often end up telling her their secrets in her makeup room, her wee confessional.

She nods. “I liked Rebecca.”

“Did she tell you anything?”

“No. She’s cleverer than that.”

Colette stubs out her cigarette. We pull ourselves to our feet and she keys in the security code for the fire door.

The justice minister arrives, with two close protection officers. She shakes Nicholas’s hand, then mine. Our runner wheels in the trolley and sets about pouring her a coffee from a silver carafe. I don’t ask her officers if they want anything. They always say no, even to sealed bottles of water. We move toward the studio. I step into the sound booth, and John nods at me, fiddling with his vape, while Dire Straits pours from the speakers. “Enjoying yourself in here?”

The justice minister arrives, with two close protection officers. She shakes Nicholas’s hand, then mine. Our runner wheels in the trolley and sets about pouring her a coffee from a silver carafe. I don’t ask her officers if they want anything. They always say no, even to sealed bottles of water.

We move toward the studio. I step into the sound booth, and John nods at me, fiddling with his vape, while Dire Straits pours from the speakers.

“Enjoying yourself in here?”

“Quiet before the storm,” he says.

“No, this one will be a doddle.”

We both look up. On the other side of the glass, Rebecca Main slips the headphones on over her ears. Nicholas says, “Can you hear all right?” She nods, clasping her hands on the table.

Above the soundboard, a television screen shows BBC One. The evening news is about to start, when the hour turns over. Across this building, in the main studio, our presenters will be under the lights, waiting to read the day’s headlines.

Our runner comes in. “Does Nicholas have water?” I ask.


“You’ve time.”

After he leaves, John murmurs, “Is he new?”

I nod. “Everyone has to start somewhere.”

“Mm-hmm.” John adjusts the soundboard, and the frequency needles swing, yellow, red, blue.

“Do you need to practice the top?” I ask into the microphone, and Nicholas shakes his head.

John pulls up our music. I lean forward and say, “Thirty seconds, Nicholas.”

When the six o’clock news bulletin finishes, our on-air light turns yellow. Nicholas reads my introduction, then says, “Thank you for joining us, Ms. Main.”

“My pleasure.”

“You’ve recently introduced a bill to loosen the safeguards on investigatory powers. One provision in the bill would allow the police to hold a suspect without charge for thirty days. Why now? Wouldn’t you say our police need more regulation, not less?”

“We’re living in a difficult time,” she says in a clear, low voice. “Terror groups don’t want us to adapt, they don’t want us to rise to meet them. This bill will greatly reduce their ability to maneuver in our society.”

“Perhaps,” says Nicholas, “or perhaps introducing these measures will benefit them by further alienating more of our population from their government. You might be creating new recruits.”

“Not at all. These are simple, sensible measures,” she says. My pulse is speeding and my face feels hot, as usual. Thousands of people are listening around the province. Nothing can go wrong while we’re on air.

One of her close protection officers is in the hall and one is in the studio, standing in the corner. Through the glass, I can see the white of his shirt and the spiral of his earpiece.

“But thirty days—that’s internment, isn’t it?”

“The police need time to gather the evidence for a prosecution, in order to prevent further offenses.”

“The current limit is thirty-six hours. That’s quite a dramatic increase, isn’t it?” I hold down the microphone and say into his earpiece, “Two thousand percent.”

“Two thousand percent,” he says. “It will be the longest detainment period in Europe.”

“Well, we’re able to make these decisions independently, to respond to our own particular circumstances.”

John says to me, “Do you have music for the end?”

“I’ll send it to you.”

Nicholas asks about other particulars of the bill, then turns to the threats made against her. She brushes them off, making a joke about the security preparations that must be in place for her to attend one of her son’s rugby games.

With a few minutes left, I press the microphone again. “You wanted to ask her about the pamphlets.”

“Let’s talk about the mailings your party has been sending to houses in Belfast,” says Nicholas. “Do you not consider it divisive, asking citizens to spy on their neighbors?”

“Look, these incidents take planning,” she says. “Everyone should know how to spot suspicious behavior. This isn’t about snooping on your neighbors, it’s about preventing the next attack.”

When I look up from my notes, my sister is on the television screen. Her cheeks are flushed, like she’s been out in the cold.

She is standing with two men outside a petrol station, by a row of fuel pumps. Her ambulance must have been sent out to a call, though for some reason she isn’t wearing her uniform.

“The police are appealing for witnesses after an armed robbery in Templepatrick,” says the closed caption. A ringing starts in my ears. Only Marian’s face is in view of the security camera, the two men are turned away.

“Tessa?” says John, sounding panicked, and I send him the music clip without really looking away from the television.

“Are we over time?” I hear my voice say.

“No, we’re bang on,” he says.

Marian has something in her hands. She is leaning down and pulling it toward her. It takes me a moment to understand what I’m watching, as her hair and then her face seem to disappear. When she straightens, she’s wearing a black ski mask.

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