Making Sense of the Troubles by David McKittrick and David McVea
Since the mid nineteen sixties we have in our various ways cudgelled our brains to understand how this generation of the long conflict, centuries old, between two neighbouring islands, one of them G.B.Shaw called 'John Bull's other Island' (Ireland, as if you didn't know!) might with justice be honourably terminated.
I have recently been reading a book entitled, 'Making Sense of the Troubles', by David McKittrick and David McVea (Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 2000. ISBN: 0-85640-686-4; Penguin Books, 2001. ISBN: 0-14-100305-7).
David McKittrick, the Northern Ireland correspondent for 'The Independent', 'journalist of the year' (1999) in the Northern Ireland press and broadcasting awards and the 'Orwell Prize' recipient in 2000 was also the main author of the book 'Lost Lives' (Edinburgh, Mainstream, 1999. ISBN 1 84018 227 X). This book detailed the stories of all those who had died as a result of 'The Troubles'. In 2001 it was awarded the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize for its promotion of peace and understanding in Ireland.
David McVea was head of the politics department of a leading grammar school in Belfast and is currently an Assistant Examiner on Northern Ireland's Examination Board.
Starting in the 1920s, through to 2000, this narrative of events and the politics of Northern Ireland is comprehensive yet compact. It is a penetrating insight and analysis of the internal politics of two beleaguered communities, conditioned and imprisoned in the history of conquest and reconquest over centuries, who find themselves now as it were handcuffed or connected by leg-irons as they struggle to come to terms with the new structures of government contained in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
The roles played by assorted organisations, politicians, governments, ministers and civil servants under heavily biased administrations and the failed attempts at reform are dealt with by the authors with objectivity and deep knowledge.
The O'Neill years, the rise of Paisley and Paisleyism, the off-on relationship between the turbulent cleric and Trimble and the part played by the Orange element are well covered and illuminate the understanding even of those already steeped in the history of the Six Counties since it came into existence as a mini entity in 1920.
The context within which the Ulster Workers' Strike took place, the Sunningdale discussions, the failed structures arising from them is explored while the hunger strikes and their aftermath are fitted into the scheme of the book.
The circumstances leading to the dissolution of the Stormont Parliament in March 1972, the differing approaches of each new Secretary of State thereafter and of the different Westminster and Dublin governments are shrewdly explained.
The impact of the IRA bombing campaigns before and after ceasefires, Enniskillen, Canary Wharf and the near miss attempt to assassinate the British cabinet in Brighton, Derry's Bloody Sunday and the Omagh bomb are all put into context.
Discussions between John Hume and Gerry Adams, secret governmental negotiations or contacts with the IRA are all fitted neatly into the pattern of events which lead eventually to the Agreement on April 10th 1998. Acknowledgment is given to the role played in this by former US President Bill Clinton and his special representative Senator George Mitchell who was crucial to the settlement before its signing and since in respect of decommissioning.
In the summary under the heading 'Perspectives' the reader will see straws in the wind outlined as the Agreement itself, because of continuing strains in both communities and their respective organisations faces an uncertain future.
I concur with Joanna Braniff in the Belfast newspaperThe Irish News who said, "This is an extremely important publication and I would strongly advocate that it be made compulsory reading for everyone in Northern Ireland because for the first time it is our history, all of its warts and all, presented in a clear and understandable way".
The chronology of events from 1920 to 2000 and the tables as well as a glossary of terms and organisations makes this book essential reading for all those who wish for assistance in 'Making Sense of the Troubles'.
©: Samuel H. Boyd, 30 August 2002.
Samuel H. Boyd
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