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Review: Making Sense of the Troubles: The Story of the Conflict in Northern Ireland

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Making Sense of the Troubles: The Story of the Conflict in Northern Ireland
Making Sense of the Troubles: The Story of the Conflict in Northern Ireland by David McKittrick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am a complete novice when it comes to the history of Ireland and Northern Ireland, so I come to the subject with an open mind and as a book with blank pages waiting to be filled in. I was born just a few years after the “The Troubles” began and while conscious that they were occurring, I never really knew much more about them than the violence that was reported on the evening news. I knew that there were problems but I didn’t know what those problems were. Throughout my education, mentions of “The Troubles” and details of Irish history were sparing. Truth be told, even though I’m of Irish heritage I really didn’t pay the subject much mind until I read A.F.N. Clarke’s book Contact last year. That book along with tweets from some Irish hams that I follow prompted me to want to read and learn more about the topic. I began searching for on Amazon and Making Sense of the Troubles: The Story of the Conflict in Northern Ireland by David McKittrick and David McVea caught my eye and it seemed to be a good comprehensive starting point on the Troubles.

“The Troubles have left behind a terrible legacy, of dead and wounded on all sides, scarring people it affected both directly and indirectly, not only in Northern Ireland but also across the British Isles, in a way that may take generations to heal. At one time many people thought the conflict was simply insoluble.”

As I read about the players in Northern Ireland, the Unionists, Republicans, and Nationalists I was pleased that the authors didn’t favor one group over the other. There wasn’t any judgment of one over the others; there wasn’t any taking of sides. Where there was violence perpetrated by a group, it was attributed to them without an effort to justify why. The parties were presented warts and all. Prior to reading Making Sense of the Troubles and Contact before it, I knew that there was hostility and violence from both sides but I never knew the extent of it on the Unionist side. Before reading Making Sense of the Troubles I didn’t understand the extent of how the Catholics were repressed in Northern Ireland; marginalized and forced out of the political process, denied equal chances at housing and education, and generally repressed by the Protestant majority. Likewise, when it came to how Great Britain and Ireland became involved, there was no preference. Mistakes by the government weren’t glossed over. I wasn’t aware of how the British government put “The Troubles” on the back burner and overlooked Northern Ireland until things got to the point it could no longer be ignored. It seemed to me that the authors took as objective approach as possible on a topic in which it would be very easy to take sides.

“Peace came to Northern Ireland because the truculent parties got the best that was available to them after taking decades to work out that they had been pursuing political fantasies, not because Blair or anyone else showered them with wisdom and grace or applied any particular genius to contriving a deal.”

McKittrick and McVea chronicled the acts of violence and how the effects that had on “The Troubles” and the relationships between the parties involved but they also placed an emphasis on personalities and how the various personalities had an effect on the development of “The Troubles” and the negotiations and peace process in Northern Ireland. O’Neill, Faulkner, Paisley, Trimble, Hume, Adams, and others are presented as objectively as possible with mention of the successes as well as failures and shortcomings. Hume, Adams, and Paisley are mentioned as the three dominant figures but I see Trimble as a fourth dominant figure. Once vehemently opposed to working with Sinn Fein, he came around and led his party to take part in the peace process. He and Hume are the two personalities I came away with the most respect for. Paisley, although dominant is one that I found difficulty in forming any respect for (quite honestly, he reminds me of some of the politicians in our government today). I would have to say that the jury is out on Adams; I don’t know quite what to make of him – whether he was genuinely interested in the peace process or whether he was being opportunistic.

“Whether the new government system succeeds or fails, however, there is a widespread sense that a corner has been turned. It is too much to expect a future of friendship and harmony, for all those involved inflicted much damage on each other. Yet it is not too much to hope that the major campaigns of organised violence are in their last days, and that the death toll will continue to decline.”

Ultimately, the authors conclude that while Nationalists have accepted the peace process, there is still a lot of skepticism on the part of the Unionists. While many Nationalists have accepted that the problems North Ireland faces are complex and are participating in the peace process, many Unionists are dissatisfied with it. Despite the uncertainty this indicates, McKittrick and McVea conclude that there is a “widespread feeling that a corner has been turned.” While things aren’t all unicorns and rainbows there is hope that the violence is ending and better times are ahead:

“Peace if there is to be peace, will always be imperfect, and there will always be controversy: yet for all that , it can be forecast with some confidence that the future will bring much improvement on the last three turbulent decades.”

The rest of the book, A sizeable portion in fact, (from the 56% point in the Kindle version) consists of a chronology of the troubles. In the Kindle version, it isn’t as useful but in the print version I can see where it could be useful to keep a second bookmark in the chronology so you could flip back and forth between it and where you’re reading.

After reading Making Sense of the Troubles I know far more about them and far more about Northern Ireland in general. Do I understand “The Troubles” after reading the book? No, I don’t, but I don’t blame that on the book – I blame it on the subject matter itself. It isn’t an easy read, not because of the way it’s written but because what you read about is so often frustrating and depressing but you do come away from reading it with more knowledge on the “The Troubles” and the problems that Northern Ireland faced and continues to face, and will face in the future. As someone who didn’t have a lot of prior knowledge on the subject but wanted to learn more about it, I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to do the same.

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