The story of the Northern Ireland troubles has its roots deep in Irish history. It is one of grief and loss, power, pride, murderous hatred, missed opportunities, contradictions, political double-dealing, some brave - if frequently doomed - efforts at a solution, and often just mind-boggling stupidity. Above all, though, it is one of terrible, heartbreaking sadness. It is impossible to read "Making Sense of the Troubles" by journalist David McKittrick and historian David McVea, without tears in the eyes.
It is an ambitious title. How can anyone make sense of the deaths of more than 3,500 people; many of them civilians, lots of them children or babies - even unborn babies?... and amid the carnage the terrible toll of grief-stricken families, Protestant and Catholic alike, whose lives would never be the same again.
And yet as the 'straightforward and accessible account' promised by the authors, the book is an unqualified success.
It tells the story chronologically, packing 43 years of history - from the 1920 Government of Ireland Act which established the province with its own government (supposedly subordinate to Westminster: in reality allowed to set its own, often corrupt, agenda) to the start of the O'Neill era in 1963 - into just 25 pages. And in that first chapter the authors show how early the seeds of a discontented state that could never be fully at peace with itself, were sown.
It was not just that the state was "born in violence" (428 people killed in the first two years of its existence); it wasn't even that the system itself was inherently flawed (how could it have been otherwise when the boundaries were set by Westminster and the Unionists with the precise aim of ensuring Protestant supremacy?); or even that the Protestants felt insecure, and the Catholics trapped in a hostile land.
All these were important enough factors in ensuring the province would one day erupt. But a dominant theme of the narrative, which starts on the second page and runs through it like a geological fault, is that of indifference.
The British handed power to the Ulster Unionists in 1921 and did nothing for more than 40 years to prevent them abusing it; the Irish of the 26 counties were too busy: "The Free State was aggrieved by the loss of what it regarded as its rightful territory, but concentrated instead on making a success of its own fledgling state."
There are some poignant moments recalled in the book, which speak profoundly of Southern Irish indifference to the plight of their Northern compatriots: the immense disappointment this engenders in the reader has to do with the fact that from the Irish themselves we expected more. That the British were callously indifferent to the plight of a Catholic minority is appalling but not entirely surprising - to learn that the Irish appeared to wash their hands of the North has a real sadness about it, especially when so much appears to have been made over the years of the controversial articles 2 and 3 of the 1937 Irish Constitution, laying claim to the State.
"Politically Northern nationalists were unwelcome ghosts at the feast in Dublin." say the authors.
One of Harold Wilson's aides recalled a lunch the opposition leader had with Taoiseach Jack Lynch in 1969. Wilson mooted the idea of Irish unity: "The fascinating moment came when Harold Wilson put forward the plan for turning the dream of unity into reality. I had thought they would jump for joy, but their reaction was more akin to falling through the floor."
So for all the rhetoric, it appears there was little appetite in the South for an end to partition, and in England no sympathy at all for those trapped in what even David Trimble was to call "a cold house for Catholics."
Even in so dispassionate and objective an account it is not difficult to see that while the authors believe the terrorists of both sides have the blood of innocents on their hands, the politicians of virtually every persuasion, and on both sides of the Irish Sea, must take a huge share of the blame. John Hume and Gerry Fitt of the SDLP, and Mo Mowlam the one-time Labour Secretary of State, are among the few to emerge with any credibility or real integrity.
For the rest - of Left or Right - their actions are marked by errors of judgement, insensitive decisions, and an almost wilful inability to see where their policies would inevitably lead. They cite Terence O'Neill's empty rhetoric of reform, which in the mid to late 60s did much to antagonise the Unionists and nothing whatever to appease the nationalists; Faulkner's policy of internment which brought a massive increase in violence in its wake; Margaret Thatcher's steely refusal to grant political status to the hunger strikers in the Maze; Reginald Maudling's lazy indifference and crass concept of "an acceptable level of violence."
Labour politicians emerge with not much more credit. Merlyn Rees, the Labour Northern Ireland Secretary, is portrayed as inexperienced and weak: his inability to get to grips with the Ulster Workers Council (UWC) strike in May 1974, meant the brief experiment of power-sharing after the Sunningdale Agreement was doomed to failure.
This is a profoundly readable book, clear in its aim and consistent in its execution, but a deeply moving one, too. To read it is to understand a little more about an otherwise baffling, and seemingly intractable, problem.I cannot commend it too highly.