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'Portraits of the Troubles'

by Richard English, Professor of Politics, Queen's University Belfast.

This article appeared in ECRD Volume 4, Number 2 (September 2001)

REVIEWING: Sean FARREN and Robert F. MULVIHILL, Paths To A Settlement in Northern Ireland (Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe Limited Publishers, 2000) 252pp. Index. Pb.: 8.95; ISBN 0-86140-413-0; David McKITTRICK and David McVEA, Making Sense of the Troubles (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 2000) 354pp. Index. Hb.: 20.00; ISBN 0-85640-686-4; and Martyn TURNER, Railings: Political Cartoons, 1998-2000 (Belfast: Blackstaff Press) 92pp. Pb.: 6.99; ISBN 0-85640-687-2.

'How can you exaggerate the extreme?' So asks political cartoonist Martyn Turner, in the Introduction (p2) to his collection of drawings from the years 1998-2000. He notes that during this period two main issues have dominated the news in Ireland, one from the north and one from the south. In the latter, questions of corruption and sleaze have been to the fore; in the north, the evolving, shaky peace process has been the unrivalled story. Irish Times readers know Turner's work very well, and the cartoons in this volume wittily depict a range of political topics, covering but not restricted to the two main issues identified by the artist in his Introduction. For those with an interest in ethnic conflict, it will be the sharp-sighted depictions of northern irony which will be of greatest relevance. An example is that on p23 showing a victim of a republican punishment beating, lying in his hospital bed reading a newspaper with his feet since his broken arms are in plaster. The newspaper headline (alluding to the question of republican non-decommissioning) reads: 'IRA putting arms beyond use'.

The shifting of Northern Irish paramilitaries away from brutal violence is the real subject of the other two books here under review. Sean Farren and Robert F Mulvihill between them combine the expertise of the politician (Social Democratic and Labour Party Minister, Farren) with that of the academic (political scientist Mulvihill), and they do so to useful effect, as in Paths to a Settlement in Northern Ireland they apply 'a segment of the conflict studies literature to the Northern Ireland conflict' (pix). There are lengthy historical passages tracing the post-partition development of two sectarian states in Ireland, the northern one divided in a deep and menacing way between unionist and nationalist communities. These historical sections valuably lay the foundations for the book; the material here is largely familiar and there are some significant omissions from the bibliography (Mulholland or Cochrane on O'Neill), but this is perhaps unavoidable in a shortish book covering such a wide subject.

Identity-related questions are given prominence in Farren and Mulvihill's analysis. This is helpful, but occasionally one wonders whether one needs to look through the lenses of those insistently attached to rigid theory in order to reach the eventual conclusion. In their chapter on 'Psychocultural Theories of Conflict', for example, the authors observe, 'In Ireland generally and in Northern Ireland in particular, the social categorization effects expected from a dichotomized and polarized society have produced strong attachments to one's social identity' (p108). But does one really require self-consciously psychocultural theories of conflict to tell you that? This doubt is reinforced some pages later (p119), when the authors comment in the conclusion to this chapter that, 'Psychocultural conflict theory argues that polarized mutually hostile images rooted in both historical experiences and cultural institutions and practices are powerful barriers preventing the parties from addressing their substantive interest differences.' Psychocultural conflict theory may indeed argue this, but then so too, in frequently more elegant language, does almost everyone else.

The authors' discussion of unionism could have been more nuanced, and unionist reactions to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement in particular could have been drawn more accurately (again, reference to Feargal Cochrane's work might have helped). But if the book is perhaps weakest on unionism, it draws compensatory strength from the authors' insights into Irish nationalism. Farren and Mulvihill are very useful on the SDLP-Sinn Fein dialogue of the 1980s: 'While the 1988 series of SDLP-Sinn Fein contacts concluded without any apparent positive outcome, they did mark a significant change in the relationship of Sinn Fein to the overall political process. In signalling a desire by the Sinn Fein leadership to seek a political solution, these contacts had marked the beginning of a development the more positive fruits of which would become obvious in the early nineties' (p144). Indeed, the great value of this book is to establish the degree to which the roots of the 1990s Northern Irish process lie in the events of the 1980s, events such as the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement or the late-1980s SDLP-Sinn Fein dialogue. Key shifts in crucial political relationships occurred during this bloody decade, and this book helpfully outlines how and why.

If Farren and Mulvihill's book can join on the shelf those of other double acts writing on the Northern Irish troubles (Paul Bew and Henry Patterson, Brendan O'Leary and John McGarry, Tom Hadden and Kevin Boyle), then in David McKittrick and David McVea there is another two-author combination to reckon with. McKittrick is one of the most experienced and respected of journalists writing on the north, and McVea is an experienced, highly knowledgeable politics teacher. Together they aim, in Making Sense of the Troubles, to produce a concise history of that 'lethal but fascinating time' (pix). McKittrick and McVea feel a need 'for a review of what happened so that the mistakes of the past can be examined and learnt from' (pix). As the authors acknowledge, a vast number of books have already been produced on the subject, but theirs is a helpful single-volume introduction to this ghastly episode in Irish life. The style is lucid and accessible, and the book's chronology and tables provide relevant data.

The authors plausibly enough portray the thirty years' war as 'a more violent expression of existing animosities and unresolved issues of nationality, religion, power and territorial rivalry' (p1). National rather than ethnic definition is to the fore in their reading of the conflict: 'The heart of the Northern Ireland problem lies in [the] clash between two competing national aspirations' (p2). McKittrick and McVea's book traces the familiar story: a state born in violence in the 1920s, a pivotal period under Terence O'Neill in the 1960s, the depressing descent into violence at the end of the 1960s and the start of the 1970s, Mrs Thatcher's 'Pyrrhic victory' (p146) over the republican hunger-strikers in 1981, the mould-breaking 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, the 1987 IRA Enniskillen bombing and so on.

There are points with which one might take issue. The authors refer to Ulster Protestants' 'almost genetic' (p32) insecurity regarding London's intentions and actions. But would such a remark be made in describing other UK minority populations? Would people really accept a depiction of 'almost genetic' political tendencies on the part of, for example, British Pakistanis - or, for that matter, the Irish in Britain? Of course not, and rightly so. The book is not especially original in structure, material or argument. But its great value is that, in dealing with the extremes highlighted by Martyn Turner, McKittrick and McVea show admirable balance and calmness. And they end on a hopeful note: 'Whether the new government system succeeds or fails there is a widespread sense that a corner has been decisively turned it can be forecast with some confidence that the future will bring much improvement on the last three turbulent decades' (p242).

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