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“The Troubles” – what a strange name for a war. In Northern Ireland, over the three decades between 1969 and 1998, 3000 people died violent deaths in a province the size of Connecticut; but we call it “The Troubles” – a name that seems more suitable to a long-standing family quarrel. At the same time, the civil conflict in Northern Ireland *was* in many ways a family quarrel, carried on between antagonists who knew each other exceedingly well, as Tim Pat Coogan conveys in his book "The Troubles."
Coogan, a former Irish Press editor, brings to his authorship of "The Troubles" decades of knowledge and experience studying the Northern Ireland conflict; he seems to know everyone involved in the conflict, and his encyclopedic knowledge of Irish history serves him well as he sets forth his history of the Troubles.
Going all the way back to the medieval beginnings of British involvement in Ireland, Coogan quickly brings the reader forward to the year 1969, when long-standing grievances between Northern Ireland’s dominant unionist, Protestant majority and the province’s largely disenfranchised nationalist, Catholic minority burst out in violence. Coogan’s journalistic experience serves him well through the way he cites primary sources, as when he provides the testimony of a Catholic priest recalling an August 1969 unionist attack on a Catholic neighborhood of Belfast: “We remember this night when the Falls Road area was devastated by gunfire and by petrol bombs. In the early hours of the morning I was standing at a fourth storey window of Clonard, looking out at a scene of desolation” (p. 100).
Coogan has sometimes been criticized for writing about the Northern Ireland conflict, and the history of Ireland generally, from an excessively nationalist perspective. And it is true that Coogan has written books about Michael Collins, but not Sir Edward Carson; about the IRA, but not the UVF. Yet Coogan is open about his inclinations toward the nationalist perspective; the book’s subtitle -- "Ireland’s Ordeal and the Search for Peace" -- provides a clear sense of the extent to which Coogan sees the Northern Ireland conflict as part of the broader sweep of Irish history generally. Coogan is frank about his perspective on the Troubles, as when he says that in a television debate with an Ulster unionist, “I argued as a Nationalist,” while his opponent “considered himself British and adumbrated the principles of his Belfast, Unionist and Protestant background” (p. 375). He is not pretending to be a disinterested and altogether objective observer; rather, he is reporting the on-the-ground facts from Northern Ireland, and stating what those facts mean to him.
Coogan is most conscientious in setting forth the intricacies and complexities of the conflict’s intelligence and media dimensions. Chapter 10, “Legal Weaponry,” dealing as it does with the military-intelligence dimension of the Troubles, may give unwary readers a bit of a headache. Before reading Coogan’s book, for example, I was not aware of a conflict between British intelligence agencies MI-5 (domestic intelligence) and MI-6 (foreign intelligence) regarding “whether the Six Counties [of Northern Ireland] were part of the ‘UK mainland’ or the ‘UK overseas’” (p. 291). Interesting to imagine that conversation, isn’t it? An MI-5 agent points out that Northern Ireland is one of the four largest units of the United Kingdom, along with England, Scotland, and Wales – “U.K. mainland,” clearly. In reply, an MI-6 agent sips his tea or claret and says, “My dear fellow, you will pardon me for pointing out that Northern Ireland is separated from Great Britain by North Channel and the Irish Sea, and is therefore clearly to be regarded as ‘U.K. overseas.’”
Chapter 11, “The Media War,” discusses perceptively the efforts of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government to control the terms in which the conflict was discussed, banning some programs and demanding the editing of others, but may be most memorable for Coogan’s verdict regarding Great Britain’s often strident tabloid newspapers: “Where the tabloid press is concerned, let me say merely that, as with Aids and cancer, I hope that some day a cure will be found” (p. 377).
Coogan is often harshly critical of unionist leaders like Ian Paisley, and of the Thatcher ministry’s approach to the Troubles. But he praises American leaders like U.S. President Bill Clinton, who worked hard to bring the opposing parties to the negotiating table in the 1994 ceasefire.
This book, published in 1996, fairly cries out for an update, considering that just two years later, the Good Friday accords of 1998 brought to troubled Northern Ireland a peace agreement that, miraculously, has lasted.
I read "The Troubles" while traveling in Northern Ireland, and was delighted to find, in my visit to the province, that the commitment to peace among citizens of Northern Ireland, whatever their political convictions, is strong. In Belfast, one can, if one wishes, take a “black taxi” tour and see the wall murals in the nationalist and unionist neighborhoods that were epicenters of the Troubles; or one can tour the very fine Titanic museum by the old Harland & Wolff docks, and observe how Belfast works to re-define herself. In Derry/Londonderry, historically a city so divided that its citizens can’t even agree upon what the city should be called (it is sardonically referred to as “Stroke City”), there is a Peace Bridge across the River Foyle, and a Peace Flame, and a statue called “Hands Across the Divide” that shows two people, symbolic of the Catholic/nationalist and Protestant/unionist communities, reaching toward each other across the space between them – not quite clasping hands in friendship just yet, but almost there. The details of the Northern Ireland conflict, as one reads about them in Coogan’s book, are painful in the extreme; but today, almost twenty years after the Good Friday accords were signed, one can look at the relatively tranquil life of the once-troubled province with a strong sense of hope. And if peace can take hold in a war-torn place like Northern Ireland, perhaps someday it can take hold everywhere.