Fifty Years On: The Troubles and the Struggle for Change in Northern Ireland, by Malachi O’Doherty, Atlantic Books, 407pp, £18.99, ISBN:
Nineteen sixty-nine was the year the North erupted, when all manner of atavistic, progressive and disruptive energies were released. It was a turning point, and also the start of an intricate web of ideologies, policies, polarities, hardened attitudes and the whole downward drift into badness and mayhem. The incorrigibility of Northern Ireland’s political and religious schism shocked everyone who contemplated it. And drawing it to the attention of the outside world did nothing to alleviate it. Neither did the initial effort to shake complacency at home. Twists in the way it was perceived and directed began to occur. What had started as a campaign for social justice, pure and simple, somehow gained a republican momentum, a countervailing marshalling of loyalist manpower and a reinforced, bitter sectarian overlay. There were reasons for all the exorbitant developments of the era, some glaringly obvious (for example nationalist disaffection and the whipping-up tactics of Rev Ian Paisley), some more devious, complicated or unascertainable. Many, many commentators have traced the course of events from the Battle of the Bogside to the Good Friday Agreement (say), and most of their writings are judicious and informative, even if the aim of some is to sort out the nationalist sheep from the unionist goats (or vice versa). There are exhaustive analyses of political initiatives, attempts to make sense of the Troubles (as in the book of that title by David McKittrick and David McVea), histories of the conflict, summaries of landmark events and personal accounts from the centre or the sidelines.
Malachi O’Doherty’s approach is rather different. Fifty Years On is part memoir, part social history and part journalistic enterprise. As the book’s subtitle announces, the emphasis falls on social change, the need to implement it and the forces retarding it at various times. A widespread change of attitude, it seems, has come late though abundantly to Northern Ireland, with a number of issues out in the open which would not have impinged on the public consciousness fifty years ago. O’Doherty devotes a good deal of space to contemporary strategies for social advancement. Calls for rape-trial reform, same-sex marriage and so forth, are noted and saluted here. Of course, with some highly topical causes, Northern Ireland still lags conspicuously behind the rest of the UK ‑ indeed, behind the rest of the modern world. Despite the Democratic Unionist Party’s insistence on the utter Britishness of the Northern Ireland constitution, the party reserves the right to keep the province apart from liberal policies enacted in Britain and elsewhere. It is still in the business of saving Ulster from sodomy (as far as it can), and of putting up a sharp resistance to the legalisation of abortion (for example). In other words, the DUP is British when it suits it and not when it doesn’t.
You can relish the irony inherent in this situation, and others. In 1969, as O’Doherty points out, unionists viewed the Irish Republic as excessively Catholic, and were horrorstruck at the thought of being incorporated into a Papist regime. Some of them even suspected the Civil Rights activists of being “puppets of the Pope”. Fifty years later a wheel of distrust and aversion having come full circle, diehard unionists have come to regard the South as excessively liberal, “an affront to their evangelical Christianity”, O’Doherty says, before adding: “There’s no pleasing some people.” The dry note is typical of his modus operandi, his role as a determinedly detached observer of increasingly antiquated antics. Here he is at a recent “Eleventh-Night” bonfire in Sandy Row, watching “grown men [dancing] drunkenly round it chanting ‘Fuck the Pope’, still retaining some lingering illogical sense that the Vatican was the source of all their woes”.
This is entertaining, but loyalist lunacy is not the sole target of the author’s derisive impulse. There’s a “plague on both their houses” aspect to his view of extreme allegiances and their violent outcomes. One of the things he has dissociated himself from is the ethos of his home territory, Riverdale in West Belfast, where republican solidarity was the order of the day throughout the period of his young adulthood. An earlier book, The Trouble with Guns (1998), “attempts to unpick some of the mythology of republicanism” while showing O’Doherty strenuously resisting pressure to align himself with the dominant neighbourhood mindset: that is, a profound sense of grievance and support for physical force as a means of redressing it. He went further. His largely unadmiring, “unauthorised” life of Gerry Adams (2017) presents the then president of Sinn Féin as ruthless and duplicitous (though O’Doherty keeps his tone fairly moderate and refrains from out-and-out condemnation). As a journalist with the Sunday News in 1972 (the subject of his 2007 book The Telling Year), O’Doherty witnessed at first hand the effects of the IRA’s bombing campaign, and this was guaranteed to reinforce his opposition to violence in the furtherance of any objective whatever. He has cultivated an independent stance, a kind of maverick alertness to every nuance of the horror and inhumanity of the long war ‑ people setting out to blow up other people or be blown up themselves ‑ and an outsider/insider perspective. The autobiographical facts, interspersed with passages of social comment and personal reminiscence, point up his right to a firm opinion.
Malachi O’Doherty was educated at a Christian Brothers’ secondary school on the Glen Road in Belfast. Among his fellow pupils were future priests, future IRA volunteers and hunger strikers, future British army recruits and community workers. He himself was sufficiently imbued with Catholic doctrine to attach himself to the Legion of Mary, “a religious group devoted to prayer and voluntary work”, whose members could congratulate themselves on the pious chores they undertook on behalf of Mary, Queen of Heaven. O’Doherty describes the various influences and distractions current at the time (the 1960s) which gradually undermined his adherence to church teaching and Catholic do-goodery. He takes part in student protests and takes up with a Protestant girl. He observes the areas of concern for individual malcontents. For some agitators, he notes, the priority is an Irish socialist republic, while for others it is free school milk. He sees the divisions within the separate communities complicating the basic sectarian division. He has become adept at casting a cool eye on the Catholic, the nationalist and the reformist imperatives of his youth. Revisiting the past and subjecting its moods and intensities to informed and disabused scrutiny, he comes away reasserting his view of the IRA campaign as “brutal and unnecessary” (an assessment with which readers may or may not agree). “There has been a revolt,” he insists, “but it is not the one the paramilitary armies fought for.” A transformation of Northern Irish society has occurred, willy-nilly, thanks to a natural progression, the decline of religion, and up-to-date forms of social enlightenment.
Fifty Years On covers nearly every social issue imaginable, from women’s rights to the rights of transvestites. (But not animal rights.) A major part of the book consists of interviews the author has conducted with representatives of every standpoint and every form of agitation in the entire spectrum of Northern Irish affiliations, then and now. He starts with Eamonn McCann, once a Young Socialist and still an advocate of every democratic principle going (well, apart from remaining in the European Union). McCann is informative about the origins and atmosphere of radical unrest in the pre-Troubles era. But he is only one of many whose opinions are solicited to add variety to the fifty-year span of O’Doherty’s undertaking. Another interviewee is Dee Fennell of the dissident republican party Saoradh (whose title, incidentally, doesn’t translate as “Leave”, as O’Doherty has it, but simply means “Liberation”, as in Saoradh na mBan, women’s liberation). Saoradh believes it upholds the true republican ideology while others have treacherously failed to stick to their guns. It embodies inflexibility, having turned its face against moderation or pragmatism. And of course a comparable retrogressive mentality exists in elements of the other side in the conflict, those for whom Twelfth-of-July braggadocio remains the dominant means of displaying a loyalist identity. Even an old-fashioned biblical locution isn’t altogether eradicated, with one spokesman for Protestantism recalling the IRA and all its offshoots and fellow-travellers as “agents of Satan”.
The different voices clamouring for justice could add up to a discordant chorus. But they also pinpoint areas of change, and the continuing need for change. O’Doherty has recorded priests, ex-priests, Presbyterian ministers, Progressive Unionist Party councillors, champions of loyalist cultural rights, of Irish-language legislation, of battered women’s rights, of abortion-law reform, and transcribed their comments without overt endorsement or rebuttal. As he says, he has made it his business to attend as many street protests as possible ‑ and he finds them, on the whole, to be joyous and exuberant affairs, a world away from the grim and resolute gatherings of the past. The call to tolerance and pleasure chimes with his amicable understanding, when it comes to something like the annual “Pride” parade in Belfast, into whose carnival embellishments he enters with gusto. (The name of this celebratory parade was changed from the original “Gay Pride” to accommodate the endless, and bewildering, variations in orientation which are coming at us from all quarters.) It doesn’t matter if you’re “a boring old heterosexual” yourself, you can none the less enjoy and applaud the sort of colourful demonstration which has people cocking a snook at Ulster dourness.
As O’Doherty sees it, the “Pride” festivities, along with a sympathetic awareness among the general public of specific women’s issues, environmental concerns, ethnic diversity and so on, are indications of a forwards momentum in Irish society ‑ while the “Brexit” disaster looks set to endanger progress and overturn hard-won benefits currently enjoyed. He quotes Claire Hanna of the SDLP, speaking at one of the outdoor meetings at which he presented himself in a spirit of empathy: “Brexit threatens our shared rights and protections, for the environment, workers, and threatens our ability to address all the issues that don’t stop at borders …” O’Doherty comes right up to date with all the Brexit-engendered dismay and deadlock (all so unnecessary), and with the murders of Ian Ogle and Lyra McKee, reminders that rogue militarism has not gone away. “Dissidents still murder people, usually alleging that they are criminals. They shoot people in the legs,” he remarks, adding that these punishments are apt to take place by appointment, “like a child ordered to attend a headmaster’s office for a caning”. (Anna Burns’s striking first novel, No Bones of 2001, has a passage about the consequences to young delinquents of shirking the call to be kneecapped. “I did warn youse, youse bunch of eejits.”) It is worrying, as O’Doherty implies, that in dissident circles Brexit may be viewed as an instance of “England’s difficulty [being] Ireland’s opportunity” ‑ harking back to 1916. We don’t know what will happen, but the indications are not good. O’Doherty’s natural buoyancy of outlook falters a bit here. Fifty Years On, however, is spirited and succinct in its coverage of the author’s life and times. He never slackens his hold on the multiplicity of motives and mores confronting him, or gets diverted from his purpose by any extraneous emotion. Articulate and engaging, he proceeds with exemplary caution through a half-century of local minefields, and sets out his findings with deftness and wit.
Patricia Craig is an author and critic. Her books include A Twisted Root: Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland.