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Avoidance

I’m sure many of us enjoyed Emmet O’Connor’s essay “The Blame Game”, which is a commentary on Who Was Responsible for the Troubles? The Northern Ireland Conflict. I thank him for taking so much time and space to set forth his own views, some of which connect with the book reviewed. The essay also raises general questions about subjectivity in the writing of history and more specifically the problems of writing contemporary history, in this case on the Northern Ireland Troubles.

It is helpful, as Emmet does, to begin with a biographical detail. As he relates, I stood against Gerry Adams in the 2005 Westminster election in West Belfast on a human rights platform. He adds: “It was a gesture both brave and foolhardy.” I’m not sure about the first. Do terrorist groups, of either the Orange or Green variety, really want to waste a bullet on an academic scribbler? Still, I suppose we shouldn’t ignore the IRA murder of law lecturer Edgar Graham, or the loyalist gun attack on politics professor Adrian Guelke. I can hardly fail to mention that my lectureship at Queen’s University arose directly from the murder of the Irish historian Miriam Daly. I was her replacement. The really brave ones as I write are the demonstrators in Myanmar and Russia who stand against brutal state forces. I would hope there are some historians and other academics in their ranks. We too have civic responsibilities, though I accept these might be given expression in many different ways other than the political.

I’m even less sure what “foolhardy” means in this context. The UK general election of 2005 offered an opportunity to highlight the appalling nature of “punishment” beatings and shootings as practised by loyalist and republican paramilitaries. This Orange-on-Orange and Green-on-Green violence inflicted life-changing injuries, both physical and psychological, on victims drawn from within their own communities. This is one of the major themes of the book and an integral part of what we euphemistically call “The Troubles”.

The black spot for human rights violations of this kind was loyalist and republican West Belfast. The MP for the constituency for more than two decades had been Gerry Adams. The major perpetrator of these violations was the IRA. Sinn Féin was its cheerleader in the public arena. Mr Adams was president of Sinn Féin. He deplored these attacks, as he once told me. He had said so publicly as well, describing them as “rough justice”. But what we were witnessing, week in and week out, in good weather and bad, were human rights abuses in the MP’s own backyard. This seemed like ineffectual leadership on a grand scale. There was a case for bringing the abuses on the Falls and the Shankill into the open. This our little human rights’ group tried to do. If memory serves me well, we did not triumph in the electoral contest (but that was scarcely the point).

Emmet sees me as an inveterate critic of nationalism. Actually no. I find nationalism as a cohesive ideology preferable to tribalism or theocracy, or nepotistic or caste beliefs, because it has the potential to encompass difference and encourage patriotic endeavour within a national society. It has of course to be transcended by more universal values. In deformed versions, it has the potential for unbounded evil. So, I am a critic of British, American, Russian, Serbian ultra-nationalism, to name but a few. I am also a critic of Irish ultra-nationalism as represented by the IRA and Sinn Féin, as well as of loyalist extremists as represented by the UVF, the UDA and the Progressive Unionist Party. If, as I argue, the IRA was the primary engine – not the only one of course – for the descent into ethno-national violence and driving the insurgency onwards for a quarter century or more, then historians and others should call that out. Omerta is not an option.

Irish nationalism in recent decades is much better than that, as manifested by the SDLP, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour. My preference is for a socialist or social democratic form of government, ach sin scéal eile. But the more fundamental commitment is to democratic values and practices and respect for human rights. It helps in writing history as well. Notions of value-free history died a long time ago.

Curiously, for a historian of labour, Emmet is silent on the role of nationalist and loyalist extremism in undermining the labour movement in Northern Ireland. Who Was Responsible for the Troubles? does not shy away from this destructive consequence of the Troubles. I recall the words of the great trade unionist and socialist Paddy Devlin, whom I had the privilege of knowing in his later years. Commenting on his candidature in the European elections of 1979, he remarked ruefully: “Most of the 572,239 votes cast were allotted on a tribal basis.” Devlin got one per cent of the vote. Sadly, this was a predictable outcome after ten years of national and communal bloodletting.

Almost any time I write about loyalist and republican violence I tend to get the one-eyed reaction that I am being unfair to republicans. It is as if the discussion of loyalist terror was written in invisible ink. In similar fashion Emmet falls into the pattern of seeing only slights to Irish nationalism while glossing over criticism of loyalism. Such selectivity is a common failing and in a sense understandable. There is an asymmetry in the politics of terror and peace in Northern Ireland. The Northern nationalist community has learned to cohabit with the heirs (and not just the heirs) of violent republicanism. This was apparent even before the Good Friday Agreement. In 1997, the IRA having resumed “armed struggle”, the Sinn Féin vote advanced to almost 40 per cent of the nationalist electorate. That particular year, in that it signalled the future, is arguably more significant than 2001, when Sinn Féin finally overtook the SDLP. It meant very large numbers of nationalists were prepared to look the other way when it came to killings, bombings and mutilations.

On the unionist side there hasn’t been the same groundswell of support for a political party unambiguously committed to the use of violence in advancing a political agenda. It is true the DUP dallied with Protestant paramilitaries during moments of high political tension in 1974, in 1997, and again in 1985-86 but the links were tenuous or short-lived. The PUP is the real counterpart to Sinn Féin, that is, a political party linked to a terror group. The trouble for commentators is that the PUP is insignificant in terms of popular support, it produces few public statements, and so attention inevitably focuses on Sinn Féin, which really is a big political player. But the critique, in principle, is the same for both. It is a fascinating question for sociologists and political scientists as to why one community came to embrace the bearers of the gun and the other did not.

Emmet is of course right in saying that the concise discussion in the book of key actors other than the IRA and Sinn Féin – the British and Irish states, the police, loyalist paramilitaries, the major political parties, the Christian churches, the civil rights movement, People’s Democracy – might have benefited from more extended discussion. True, but then my aim was to produce a single volume book. I think a rereading might also show that interactions between various historical forces, what I term the malign dialectic of Orange and Green, helped shape the tragic dénouement of communal warfare.

There are a few droll misrepresentations in the review about “whataboutery” and “bar-stool psychology” but these and some ad hominem asides are for the gallery and need not detain us. More serious is the claim that I argue that the driving force for the “armed struggle” was vengeance. This calls for more attentive reading. Emmet will find on page 75, in black and white, the following: “The primary objective of armed struggle was to achieve a united Ireland.” And yes, contrary to what he seems to imply (or perhaps it is simply poor phrasing), unity under those conditions would indeed have meant coercing “Protestants and unionists of the north into an enlarged nationalist state”.

In a rather odd digression, Emmet tells us the IRA volunteers of the Border campaign of the 1950s were instructed to “engage the British army, and avoid contact with the RUC and B Specials so as not to be drawn into a sectarian conflict”. Strange. What did the IRA expect to find inside the RUC barracks at Derrylin, Lisnaskea and Brookeborough when it attacked them at the outset of the Border campaign? Not RUC? For the record, a half dozen RUC men were killed ‑ but no British soldiers.

In a related digression Emmet tells us that students at Ulster University who do undergraduate dissertations on the Provisional IRA tend to choose research topics relating to the Blanketmen or the Hunger Strikes of 1980-81. The reason seems to be that so little else of the Provisional IRA campaign fits the desired mould of heroic freedom fighting. This is a valuable and revealing observation. It is one that draws on Emmet’s own personal experience. It serves to validate the more general point, one exemplified in Who Was Responsible for the Troubles?, that personal experience can usefully illuminate and inform understandings of the past. As I say in the preface: “In a sense we are all ethnographers of our place and time but unlike the natural scientist we are implicated in what we study, whether we care to recognise this dilemma or not.” This is most obviously true in relation to the writing of contemporary or near contemporary history, where personal experience, which is nothing if not subjective, may be especially rich. There are of course pitfalls galore for the unwary but reflexivity – the practice of examining critically one’s own social and ideological formation – goes some way towards disciplining the process of research and writing.

There are interesting personal lines of interpretation of the Northern conflict in Emmet’s essay. Some I would agree with. Some are a tad eccentric. Others I would like to think about. Perhaps we should accentuate the positive. He agrees that the IRA failed in its self-appointed role as defender of Northern Catholics; in fact its campaign brought murder to their doorsteps. He is critical of “Sinn Féin elites [who] seem perversely intent on representing the long war as a heroic struggle for freedom …” He believes the IRA campaign was a failure. He also finds that Who Was Responsible for the Troubles? is “a powerful reminder of what the Troubles entailed and what a dirty little war it was”. And the sordid underbelly of paramilitary “punishment” attacks on civilians, including children, he believes is dissected with “originality and authority”.

Analysing the Northern Ireland conflict raises thorny issues for historians, some of which I discussed in the Dublin Review of Books essay “Making History in Ireland” (https://www.drb.ie/essays/making-history-in-ireland). With more space I would reflect further on the dual role of citizen and academic, always bearing in mind the dictum of the anthropologist Martyn Hammersley that “there is no way that students of society can escape the social world in order to study it”. There are of course those in the academy who, having progressed through stages of political disillusionment, now take refuge in a world-weary cynicism.

In the end Emmet is not an apologist for reactionary nationalism, more a conflicted by-stander. There are different philosophical premises to our respective approaches to history. Emmet speaks of “hardened historians who like old-school detachment”. Yet his interpretative statements and his comments on motives, as evidenced by his essay, are suffused with value judgements and the subjectivity he so earnestly decries.

2/3/2021

Who Was Responsible for the Troubles? The Northern Ireland Conflict is published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.