Tuesday 20 February 2018

Review: The North Pawns In The Game by Barry Flynn

Collins Press, €12.99

Pawns In The Game has been timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Maze hunger strikes, though with a broader intent of placing the tactic of prisoners starving themselves to death within a historical context of "struggle and indifference".

Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of the whole thing is not that Bobby Sands and the other men who died in 1981 should be remembered, but that the other 12 who lost their lives between 1917 and 1981 have been so thoroughly forgotten.

Flynn (better known as a BBC Radio Ulster sports correspondent) does a solid job of retelling their stories; journalists and students typing frantically to a deadline should find it a useful resource for checking out facts, figures and quotes. The tragic waste of life is also well conveyed. The chapter on Frank Stagg is particularly gripping.

The book, though, never analyses the hunger strikers themselves with any depth, preferring instead to portray what they were doing on its own terms, and to caricature their opponents in the manner of hardhearted villains from a silent film.

Flynn's indignation becomes unintentionally comic after a while. What did he expect the IRA's enemies to do when faced with such moral blackmail? Capitulate meekly?

Inevitably, the greatest interest will be on the hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981, especially since they've become such a divisive issue within the republican movement since the publication of Richard O'Rawe's Blanketmen, which alleged that a deal was on offer earlier than previously admitted, which would have saved the lives of six of the men who died. According to O'Rawe, this was rejected by the Sinn Fein/IRA leadership for political advantage.

Flynn devotes some time to analysing this controversy, but never really takes O'Rawe seriously.

The final truth of that period may eventually be known, but it's too cursorily dealt with here.

Indeed his conclusion that it is "incredible" to say "dying men were sacrificed on the altar of political convenience to prove a point" is markedly at odds with his own title. Pawns are sacrificed almost by definition.

In the end, Flynn's book is briskly readable, but is too one-sided to be definitive. My 15-year-old self in Belfast in 1981 would have loved it, because it's soaked in the partisan passions of that time. But 30 years on, readers are entitled to expect more sober scrutiny. The book even ends with a triumphalist passage about the growth of Sinn Fein more fitting to a propagandist pamphlet. It makes for excellent hagiography, but lopsided history.

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