Sunday 22 October 2017

Review: The North: Making Sense of the Troubles – A History of the Northern Ireland by Conflict David McKittrick and David McVea

Penguin Viking, €21.45, pbk, 416 pages
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

The good news from Northern Ireland is that there is no news. That is the sober and undramatic conclusion of probably the most consistently perceptive and well-informed journalistic observer of the conflict there over the past three decades.

That the ballot box has replaced the Armalite as the preferred medium for political discourse is, of course, good news, but while the replacement of the bomb and the bullet with the boredom and banality of parish pump politics does not make headlines, it is a huge relief to a long-suffering population, the nearest they are likely to get to conflict resolution.

David McKittrick has won numerous awards for his coverage of the conflict, noted for accuracy, objectivity, knowledge of the terrain, understanding of the underlying forces and perceptive in his judgments.

David McVea, a teacher of history and a master of statistical analysis, has worked with McKittrick and others to produce the hugely impressive Lost Lives which, in listing the circumstances of every fatality, is a real monument of the troubles.

There could be no better guides through the maze (or indeed The Maze) of competing loyalties, of horror and brutality, of hopes raised and expectations dashed which characterised the unfolding progress of a bitter conflict.

This book is an updated reissue of a collaborative study published 12 years ago to rave reviews as a frank, accurate and authoritative narrative of events which should be required reading for anyone hoping to understand what had been going on in the North.

This new edition includes extra chapters to cover the intervening period when IRA arms were finally put beyond use and Sinn Féin backed the new policing arrangements while settling comfortably into government with the Democratic Unionist Party.

Ironically, the final chapter of the earlier edition predicted the continuing primacy of the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP and the early retirement of Paisley, which only goes to show that even the most perceptive commentators could not have envisaged the events of the next decade: the rise and rise of Paisley and Sinn Féin, the almost total eclipse of the two main parties and the final epiphany of Paisley sitting jovially in government with Martin McGuinness.

Having located the roots of the problem in the 16th and 17th-Century plantations which formed the basis for the modern demographic pattern and religious distribution, the narrative moves smoothly on through partition and the years of unionist dominance -- largely seen as a lost opportunity to come to terms with the Catholic/nationalist minority.

The unionist siege mentality (resulting from having indeed been besieged) was paralleled by nationalist insecurity, "besieged within the siege" in Seamus Heaney's phrase, unable to envisage relief except in a united Ireland, sustained by rhetorical support from the South (and little else).

Unionism is seen to have split into three groups -- those who favoured some modest reforms, those who would never yield, and those who might, if persuaded.

The fate of reforming leaders who went too far or too fast -- O'Neill and Faulkner -- and the paralysis induced by Molyneux's policy not to have a policy, and the final surprise of Trimble, elected as a hardliner only to lead the unionists into the ultimate compromise of the Good Friday Agreement and to be toppled himself in the end.

The reader is led confidently past all the main landmarks -- civil rights, Bloody Friday, internment, Bloody Sunday, Sunningdale, power-sharing, direct rule and hunger strikes and the violence of a prolonged IRA campaign and loyalist paramilitary retaliation.

All the main actors are identified, from O'Neill and Faulkner, Wilson and Callaghan, Heath and Whitelaw to Blair and Mowlam, Clinton and Mitchell, Lynch, FitzGerald, Haughey, Reynolds and Ahern.

Through it all, John Hume is identified as a towering and seminal figure. Adams's role with McGuinness in leading the republican movement from reliance on armed struggle to politics and ultimately into government is well-charted and analysed, with the rumbling threat of continuing dissident activity and the failure of loyalist paramilitaries to disarm fully.

The big unanswered question, for which a variety of explanations are offered, is why, at the end of his career, did Ian Paisley change the habits of a lifetime and defy his own fieriest rhetoric to sit down in government in chuckling collaboration with Sinn Féin (and a former IRA commander at that), a denouement none but he could have convinced his followers to accept.

This book, as enlarged and amended, will stand for some time as the standard authoritative and objective short history of the Troubles -- essential reading for anyone who seeks to understand what happened, and why.

The study is greatly enhanced by a 64-page chronology that steers the reader through the period and provides much additional detail which, while interesting and relevant, would have slowed the main narrative.

The general conclusion is that the conflict ended in an honourable draw, with a fairer society more at ease with itself, the constitutional question unresolved, but a conviction that issues could be handled and politics could be made to work.

If there was a single salutary lesson to be drawn by politicians and people, it was that co-operation was the way to create a new and better era.

Maurice Hayes is a former Northern Ireland Ombudsman and Senator

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