Some of the most important books to emerge from ‘the Troubles’ were written not by academics but by journalists, activists, and protagonists. Books like Eamonn McCann’s War and an Irish Town, Bernadette Devlin’s Price of My Soul, Susan McKay’s Bear in Mind these Dead and David Beresford’s account of the 1981 hunger strike, Ten Men Dead offer insights that academic work often struggles to match. In recent years memoirs by, and interviews with, former soldiers, police officers, paramilitaries, and informers, have provided some of the most important sources of new knowledge and understanding of the conflict. I think, for example, of former RUC officer Colin Breen’s 2017 book A Force Like No Other, which the author initially intended as ‘a humorous book about weird and wonderful encounters between police officers and the public’ (viii) but which became instead a testament to the emotional and physical toll of the conflict. More than with most academic subjects, the writings of journalists and participants has been hugely influential in shaping both public and academic understandings and they inform much of my own research and teaching. I confine myself here though to five academic books.
Integration and Division: Geographical Perspectives on the Northern Ireland, edited by Fred Boal, and J. Neville Douglas, and published in 1982, was probably the first academic book on the North that I read. It was certainly the first that drew me in and convinced me that academic work could offer a fuller understanding of the seemingly random and incomprehensible sequence of killings and bombings that dominated the news in Ireland in the 1970s and 80s.
In reaching across scales and centuries, from the maps of British and Irish ‘Hearths’ in the Clogher Valley in the 17th century to the mapping of killings during the Troubles it foregrounded the territorial configurations of conflict and the persistent shaping power of decisions made in the distant and recent past. ‘History’ was immediately present in the here and now; in the correlation between the religious composition of a district and its altitude, in housing estates and rural towns whose layout, location, and demographics were the outcome of plans and struggles in the past. That it was an edited collection with multiple voices on related themes made it all the more valuable.
The book helped to connect contemporary events in the North with the topic that dominated my reading at the time, the civil rights struggle in the United States and the related politics of black militancy and separatism. When I read Integration and Division I was working my way through a stack of paperbacks on the US civil rights movement bought by my parents when we lived in Canada in the late 1960s, among them the 1968 report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders with its fine-grained analysis of the local escalation of confrontation in cities across the US in 1967, and Mississippi From Within by Shirley Tucker, a selection of hundreds of reports and photographs from Mississippi’s twenty daily newspapers over the course of twelve months in 1964-65, one of the most intense phases of the civil rights campaign. The political importance of the territorial configuration of racial division in the United States, of the patterns of settlement laid down in the south during slavery, and then in northern and western cities during the great migration of African-Americans in the 20th century were clear. Integration and Division alerted me to the similar importance of these sedimented territorial layers in explaining patterns of contemporary conflict in the Irish context.
I was doing a research MA looking at Derry in the 1950s and 60s when I read The State in Northern Ireland 1921-1972 co-authored by Paul Bew (later my PhD supervisor at Queen’s), Henry Patterson, and Peter Gibbon. Their painstaking tracing of internal divisions and debates within the state apparatus through archival records influenced me more than I realised at the time. Their work opened up new possibilities for a more nuanced understanding of policy and cautioned against simplistic characterisations of the state as a determined Leviathan with a clear unified will. The book’s tracing of a struggle between populists and anti-populists within the state apparatus sought to explain how and why Northern Ireland developed as it did after partition. In the 19th century the British state in Ireland had successfully co-opted large sections of the previously-excluded Catholic population, not least through concerted efforts to recruit Catholics to the police force and the judiciary. The State in Northern Ireland offers a convincing explanation of the obstacles to co-option in the new Northern Ireland as Unionist governments, inclined in any case to exclude the ‘disloyal’, were influenced by grassroots loyalist pressure to intensify exclusion.
Two aspects of the book were unconvincing though. The Marxist framing of the inquiry in the first edition gave it the feeling of a book that began with an answer and then assembled the evidence required to support it. That answer foregrounded social class, rejected ‘Green Marxist’ analyses, and tended to downplay the political significance of ethnonational division. This weakness was remedied in the second edition, published soon after the 1994 IRA ceasefire, by the simple expedient of excising Chapter 1, ‘Marxism and Ireland’. Second time around Marx didn’t even make it into the index.
The book argues that the development of Northern Ireland in an exclusionary direction was a contingent development rather than an inevitable consequence of its foundation and that the partition of Ireland was therefore not inherently regressive. It was ‘The strategy of class alliance pursued by the unionist bourgeoisie, together with the diplomatic strategies of the British ruling class, [that] were responsible for the establishment of a Northern Ireland state with a sectarian-populist flavour’ (p.47). It might have been otherwise, they argue. But the argument rather goes against the weight of the evidence presented. When one side in the state’s internal debates is defeated over and over again it suggests not contingency but structural pressures inherent to the polity. That the polity was established for, and by, one ethnonational group in order to escape the rule of another group, but incorporated a large minority from the latter within its boundaries, is surely the central reason for its exclusionary character.
I read Politics of Legitimacy: Struggles in a Belfast Community, Frank Burton’s ethnographic study of Ardoyne, long before I encountered academic debates on legitimacy and I didn’t really get his dense sociological argument. Instead what stood out was the intimate local view of life during conflict that is usually only offered by memoirs and autobiographies and novels. It conveyed a visceral sense of the intensity and everyday presence of the conflict in areas such as Ardoyne in the early 1970s when Burton spent a year there, an atmosphere so richly and vividly conveyed more recently in Anna Burns’ Milkman. Burton captured another aspect of daily life that is to the forefront in Milkman – the micro-spatialities of the divided city and the claiming and ownership of space, including personal space. And it was the first book I read that discussed the practice of ‘telling’ – identifying whether someone is Catholic or Protestant. I was struck especially by Burton’s observation that the intense violence had stimulated unusually high levels of ‘sociation’ in what was already a tightly-knit and densely-connected local space. Although violence forced certain silences, the regular dramatic events in the local area ensured that there was always something new to talk about and that people were knitted even more closely together. The book went a long way to explaining why the IRA had been able to build substantial support and acquiescence in Catholic working-class areas. One of the minor academic mysteries of Troubles scholarship is Burton’s disappearance from academic debates. There seems to be no trace of his having written anything subsequently and I find no hint online of what he went on to do.
John McGarry and Brendan O’Leary’s Explaining Northern Ireland is a masterly synthesis of competing interpretations of the conflict. Although now a quarter of a century old I still assign the chapters on nationalism and unionism, on orange and green Marxism and on comparative perspectives (‘No Place Apart’) to students. I haven’t found a newer text that surpasses it for liveliness, subtlety, and clarity. And of course it is entertainingly provocative in places. When I first came across McGarry and O’Leary’s work in the mid 1990s I had recently finished my PhD at Queen’s and cursed my bad luck that their work had not been available earlier. They provided a crucial intellectual foundation for the peace process at a critical moment. Living in Belfast in the early 1990s it seemed to me that academic and public discourse was dominated by a broadly pro-unionist (with a small u) consensus that located the middle ground between unionism and nationalism—and thus the expected meeting place in any grand compromise—much closer to unionism than to nationalism. The consensus was compatible with a fairly unambitious and cautious approach by the British government and didn’t present any great challenge to the argument that the conflict would ultimately be ended by defeating ‘the men of violence’.
McGarry and O’Leary’s work—reinforced by important contributions such as Joe Ruane and Jennifer Todd’s 1996 Dynamics of Conflict in Northern Ireland – played a major role in shifting the ground for compromise to a position much closer to the midway point between nationalist and unionist positions. They provided strong intellectual foundations for key aspects of the peace process, from demilitarisation, policing reform, and decommissioning through to new consociational structures of government. Students reading the chapters on unionism and nationalism today want to know how the ideological perspectives have developed since then. Although there is some excellent recent work on unionist, nationalist, and Marxist perspectives I don’t know of any work that provides a similarly powerful synthesis of contemporary interpretations of the conflict.
I’ll conclude with a book I haven’t finished reading yet, John Coakley and Jennifer Todd’s Negotiating a Settlement in Northern Ireland, 1969-2019. Both authors have a long record of ambitious and imaginative scholarship and Jennifer Todd’s co-authored book with Joe Ruane The Dynamics of Conflict in Northern Ireland remains one of the great classics. The new book is sharply focused on elite decision-making and the functioning of state apparatuses in both Britain and Ireland. In this respect it has something in common with Bew, Patterson, and Gibbon’s The State in Northern Ireland. It examines elite negotiations aimed at ending the conflict, and I wish it had been available when I was finishing my own recent book on back-channel negotiations. The book is based on two major research projects led by the authors and conducted in association with the Institute for British-Irish Studies at University College Dublin over a period of many years. The research required a huge commitment of time and energy both by the authors and those who worked with them. It is dominated by edited transcripts of witness seminars and interviews with key protagonists covering four phases of elite negotiation: Sunningdale (1973) the Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985) the Downing Street Declaration (1993) and the Good Friday Agreement and its implementation (1998). Each section is preceded by a distilled, original analysis that draws on the new empirical materials. The interviews are works of scholarship in their own right as the interviewers draw out new perspectives. The interview with former Prime Minister John Major (pp.349-356) is a case in point. We might have thought there wasn’t a great deal more to say about the attitude of John Major and his government to the peace process in the 1990s but this interview makes clear there is much more to be explored. Of particular note are John Major’s analysis of the renewed IRA bombing campaign in 1996 as a form of internal communication within the Provisional movement; and his view that the IRA would not have broken their ceasefire if a Conservative victory in the next general election had seemed likely.
Students of the place of self-determination in the various agreements will be interested in the short but concentrated exchange on the question between former Irish Civil servant Dermot Nally and Quentin Thomas, political director at the Northern Ireland Office during the critical years of the peace process (p.255). The bulk of scholarship on the Troubles has looked at the deep social roots and social forces driving conflict but work on elite decision-making and state power – increasing in volume as the state papers are opened – redresses the imbalance and foregrounds the centrally important role of the state apparatus. In The State in Northern Ireland Bew and his co-authors argued decades ago that British governments, whether Labour or Conservative, had a consistent and bipartisan policy on the North before and during the Troubles: ‘…to minimise British involvement politically and militarily’. It is a view supported by John Major’s description of the view in the House of Commons tea-room: ‘… that a solution was impossible… and we should leave it to the security teams – “park it to one side”’ (p.349). When the British government departed in the 1990s from the minimalist policy described by Bew et al. and decided – in partnership with the Irish government – to commit huge amounts of time and energy to a compromise peace settlement, it had a dramatic transformational effect on all of the other forces involved. Unionists, nationalists, republicans and loyalists, were all forced to re-orientate and adapt to the shifting positions of the two governments, but especially the British government, the central power player. While both states frequently cited social forces and political attitudes as an impossible obstacle to settlement over the years, the peace process showed just how powerful an effect the states could exert when they determinedly pursued a course of action aimed at ending the conflict rather than ‘parking it to one side’.
Niall Ó Dochartaigh is Personal Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the National University of Ireland Galway. He is the author of Deniable Contact: Back-channel Negotiation in Northern Ireland (Oxford University Press, March 2021) and Civil Rights to Armalites: Derry and the Birth of the Irish Troubles (Cork University Press 1997; Palgrave, 2005).