How the Irish Became Troubled

by Kristian Williams
The May 23 issue of the London Review of Books contains a lengthy article by Clair Wills, briefly sketching out a different sort of three-way fight during the Troubles in Northern Ireland: “The Catholic community’s reasonable demands for an end to discrimination were met with a violent backlash, orchestrated by Protestant extremists and supported by a sectarian police force [until the] . . . British army brought peace to the streets.
Relatively quickly, one of these parties became definitely aligned with another, creating a more straightforward bipolar conflict: “on one side [were] ‘Tories,’ the RUC, the army, the military police, Paisley and his supporters, and [the legislature at] Stormont,” and “on the other were moderates, socialists, republicans, and . . . ‘hooligans’.” But then, again, a third force emerged: “the women’s peace movement.” 
Wills’ abbreviated history also contains many cautionary points about the tendency of violence to become self-perpetuating with little ultimate gain, the uneasy relationship between ethnic identity and economic inequality, and the inadequacy of “power-sharing” arrangements that “institutionalized rather than transcended sectarianism.”  Undoubtedly there are lessons here that might reach beyond the context of the six counties.
The full article by Wills, originally at LRB, can also be found at the website, Portside
Excerpts from the article,

Eamonn McCann’s War and an Irish Town was published some months later. It is an account of how the working-class revolution McCann had hoped to bring about in Derry in 1968 developed, by the early 1970s, into sectarian warfare. Reissued last year, to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the October 1968 civil rights march in Derry, it is a study in the messy history of violence. There are no clear beginnings to this story and, as we were reminded by the killing of Lyra McKee on 18 April this year, there is no clear end either…

 Yet looking back from a distance of nearly fifty years what is most striking about War and an Irish Town is the clash between the clarity (and simplifications) of its account of Northern Ireland’s past, and McCann’s confusion over the meaning of the present. He tells a detailed history of the events he has just lived through, including the IRA split in 1970, the growth of republican sentiment among the protesters, the effects of the programme of mass internment in 1971, of Bloody Sunday in January 1972 and the introduction of direct rule from Westminster in March of that year. He acknowledges the part played by ‘old’ republicans, as well as the newer kinds – socialist republicans in the Official IRA, and irreconcilables like Martin McGuinness, who joined the Provisionals. He describes how the British soldiers took on the role of the RUC, until they became indistinguishable from it. (‘The only difference between the army and the RUC was that the army was better at it.’) But the story he tells is also of people caught up in events, rather than orchestrating them. Even as the crisis unfolded ‘outsiders’ kept trying to determine who started it, but for McCann that is the wrong question: ‘The controversies which occupied hours of parliamentary time and acres of newsprint, about which side threw the first stone or whether the soldiers, when the fighting started, had acted impartially – were of little interest to the rioters and potential rioters of the Bogside and the Creggan.’

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