October Books 6) Making Sense of the Troubles

6) Making Sense of the Troubles, by David McKittrick and David McVea

A few days ago I met with a delegation from Omagh, Strabane and Fermanagh to brief them on how they might link post-conflict reconciliation projects in the west of Northern Ireland with the countries I work on now – Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Georgia. As it happened I knew one of them vaguely from the early days of the peace talks in 1996, a politician from Omagh whose niece was one of the 29 killed in the 1998 bomb in that town. They were kind enough to give me this book as a thank-you present for the briefing I gave them. I’ve spent today reading it. It’s brought a lot of stuff back that I don’t usually think about.

First off, this is one of the best books that I’ve read about the Troubles. It combines – not quite effortlessly, but at least effectively – at least three genres: i) the technocratic concentration on big picture processes that you get in Flackes and Elliott, Bew and Gillespie, and even (I must admit) my own websiteLost Lives.

It’s this last bit that is the most difficult to read. For instance: I discovered the other day that a woman I vaguely know here in Belgium is the daughter of one of the nine fatalities on Bloody Friday in 1972. Her mother was 37, the same age as I am now, when she was killed by an IRA bomb, leaving seven children (of whom my friend must have been the youngest, a baby). It doesn’t bear thinking about, but a book like this makes you think about it.

The book is generally very good on the political side, teasing out the motives for actors to behave as they did, relying on their own memoirs (where available) and balancing that with other people’s impressions, starting right back with Terence O’Neill in 1963. The one exception, bizarrely, is perhaps the single most important event of the 1990s, the 1994 IRA ceasefire, which in this book drops almost out of a clear blue sky (as indeed it seemed to a lot of us at the time). There isn’t really much explanation of why this happened at the time that it did.

I didn’t catch any factual errors (or rather, I thought I had, but when I checked, they were right and I was wrong). The book finishes in 2000 and therefore incorrectly predicts that the SDLP and UUP will respectively stay ahead of Sinn Fein and the UUP for the foreseeable future, but that mistake was made by others too. There are a number of infelicitous bits of editing, with different sentences carrying the same information often repeated in a single paragraph.

It’s a good book, but reading it all has left me rather drained. I’m left thinking of the concealed brutality of Desmond Egan’s poem, The Northern Ireland Question:

two wee girls
were playing tig near a car
how many counties would you say
are worth their scattered fingers?

[later edit: good Newton Emerson article in the Irish News.]

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