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The Blame Game

Emmet O’Connor

Who Was Responsible for the Troubles? The Northern Ireland Conflict, by Liam Kennedy, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 256 pp, €34.95 CAD, ISBN: 978-0228003687

Liam Kennedy is emeritus professor of economic history at Queen’s University, Belfast, but, with all due respect to his academic reputation, he is best known as a tireless polemicist against Irish nationalism. A measure of his commitment is his decision to stand against Gerry Adams in the 2005 Westminster election on an anti-punishment-beatings platform. It was a gesture both brave and foolhardy. In Who Was Responsible for the Troubles? Kennedy arraigns the Provisional IRA, primarily for being the motor force of violence in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. However, his antipathy to the mindset behind Irish nationalism was set out extensively in Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish? (2015), a book that earned some fame for coining the acronym MOPE. It is also useful as a contextual introduction to Who Was Responsible? and to Kennedy’s mentality.

This latest publication had a long gestation, from its inception during a visit with Ruth Dudley Edwards and Lionel Shriver to Forced Upon Us at West Belfast’s Féile an Phobail in 1999. The declamatory anti-Orange play was a torture for the trio. One wonders why they bothered. Dudley Edwards is a published apologist for the Orange Order. Shriver could barely conceal her disdain for – was it humanity or just the Northern Irish? – in her weekly commentaries on Radio Ulster’s Talkback in the 1990s. As for Kennedy, he is drawn to the topic like a tongue to a toothache. What really perplexed him was the audience’s intense and enthusiastic response to the play, and it led him to consider whether “the almost frantic desire to be reassured of the bigotry and inhumanity of the ‘other’ – the Protestant people – [came] from a sense of guilt about republican violence during the last three decades”.

Hence the book. No, I’m not clear about the logical progression either, but an undercurrent of the personal and bar-stool psychology runs throughout the text like a McGuffin. Fundamentally, the author is a decent Tipperary liberal adrift in angular Ulster, and embarrassed that his own tribe contributed generously to the bigotry. Herein lies the real “sense of guilt about republican violence”. Why did Northern Catholics doggedly support the IRA despite the mounting catalogue of horrors? Ostensibly, the book is an attempt to understand that question, though it’s probable that the author would find any form of nationalism obnoxious. For Kennedy, a united Ireland is about “coerc[ing] Protestants and unionists of the north into an enlarged nationalist state”. Loaded language is deployed freely throughout the text, and while Unionist misdeeds and state atrocities are acknowledged, the author bends over backwards to excuse them. Unionists gerrymandered; so did Fianna Fáil. The Great Famine was bad; the Holocaust was worse. Bloody Sunday was terrible, but it wasn’t Amritsar. Kennedy has his own version of “whataboutery”.

The case is made in an introduction and five chapters. Some chapters feature boxed inserts explaining salient events, personalities, or aspects of the Troubles. Chapter 1, “A parade of candidate”,’ is the bedrock, and the weakest. The line-up of suspects includes the security forces; “the security forces and others”, the others being touts, spies, informers and those who engaged actively in collusion with shooting and bombing; the Unionists; the “Orange state”; anti-Catholicism and “frenzied, Protestant preachers”; the “main Churches”; the “Loyalists: the Democratic Unionist Party”; the Protestant paramilitaries; the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA); People’s Democracy and the Trotskyites; the British state; the smaller republican paramilitaries; and the Official IRA.

Assessing each suspect individually, and then shouting “next” is an unworkable approach to the problem. History doesn’t happen in silos. It follows a course in which forces collide, evolve and trigger the law of unintended consequences. Moreover, it is impossible to do justice to each candidate in a few pages marred by some elementary errors in the evaluations. The civil rights movement, for example, wasn’t merely NICRA. NICRA was preceded by the Homeless Citizens’ League, the Campaign for Social Justice, the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster, the Wolfe Tone Societies, and decades of smouldering resentment among a people stuck on the wrong side of the line and doomed to being second class citizens in their own country. And much as its veterans would like to believe that it was inspired by Martin Luther King, the election of a Labour government in London in 1964 was more important in encouraging protest. It took the power of the British state to budge Stormont. The consideration of the Irish state’s responsibility is similarly truncated. Seán Lemass and TK Whitaker have been widely praised for their pursuit of constructive engagement with Stormont. What’s forgotten is that in the process they turned their backs on Northern nationalists, ignored the gathering storm, and left Jack Lynch completely unprepared for the crisis of August 1969. Lemass’s Northern policy was not just a failure; it was a dangerous failure. While accepting that Kennedy is not attempting a history, his review of the candidates for responsibility is perfunctory. One can almost hear Claude Rains, with a cynical sneer, snap “Round up the usual suspects”. Patently the decks are being cleared for the villain of the piece. Attentive readers will have spotted the glaring omission in the line-up.

Which brings us to “the elephant in the room”, as Kennedy puts it. Chapter 2 opens with a review of the rationales given by republicans for the emergence of the Provisionals. Kennedy is on firmer ground here. None of the excuses offered for the Provos stand up to scrutiny. The idea of the IRA as a communal defence is perhaps the most curious, as the IRA has never been effective in that role. As Kennedy points out, loyalists killed more than five hundred Catholics during the Troubles and the IRA killed twenty-eight loyalist paramilitaries. And yet, it is surely of significance that this myth was widely believed by people who felt defenceless before the British army, RUC and loyalists. Though the pursuit of a united Ireland was the real reason for the creation of the Provisionals, Kennedy deals with it in less than a page. One could argue that there was a logic to the IRA campaign in 1971. There were those in the British political elite, notably Harold Wilson, who thought they faced a recrudescence of the age-old Irish problem, which Englishmen had never understood, and that now it was time to go. Wilson spoke of a united Ireland within fifteen years. But opponents of withdrawal were many and well-connected, in both London and Dublin. It is not in the nature of states to give up territory. All over the world we see evidence of governments trying to hold onto places they don’t even like. When Merlyn Rees was replaced as Northern secretary of state by Roy Mason in 1976, it was obvious that Britain was digging in, psychologically. The “Stonemason”, as the Provos called him, told the British Labour Party annual conference that he’d had done with White Papers and the like. The IRA was a security problem and would be smashed. Why then did the Provisionals continue to believe that a few hundred men with Armalites could defeat a nuclear power? How could they claim to understand imperialism and believe that Britain secretly wanted to leave? Why did they fight on when persistently rejected by the bulk of nationalists, North and South? Kennedy’s answer is “Vengeance”. Paramilitaries on both sides were locked into a cycle of tit-for-tat killings.

Explaining the Provisionals as a pathology is a classic liberal trope, and one that illustrates the gulf in mentalities between the bien pensants of BT9 and the plain people of BT12 and BT48. And yet there was something different about the Provisionals. Before 1971, the IRA had a relatively clean record. No, not squeaky clean, and yes, historians are busy unearthing the underside of the War of Independence in this decade of commemorations. But compare the Provos with the “Border campaign” of 1956-62. In 1956 the strategy was to fight a guerrilla war like the flying columns of 1919-21. Volunteers were to wear uniforms to comply with the Geneva convention, engage the British army, and avoid contact with the RUC and B Specials so as not to be drawn into a sectarian conflict. They were also instructed not to be active in Belfast, for fear of provoking pogroms. The thinking was the product of Southern minds, the campaign was staffed by Southern volunteers in the main, it won little support in the six counties and turned into a fiasco. When it was called off, most people didn’t know it was still on. It had entailed the deaths of six RUC officers and eight IRA men. The contrast with the tactics and ferocity of “the long war” could not be greater. The paradox is that the Provos were the product of the sectarian state they purported to be fighting. The outcomes could only be a unilateral ceasefire and a political rethink, as in 1962, or a compromise with sectarianism. Sinn Féin worked hard for the latter.

As the 1980s progressed, the IRA began discounting the price of a ceasefire, from a British withdrawal, to a declaration of intent to withdraw, to London becoming a persuader for Irish unity, to a recognition of the right of the Irish people to self-determination. At that point John Hume initiated the talks that led to the “Peace Process”, realising that everyone wanted self-determination: it all depended on how one defined the unit concerned. In the end, the IRA settled for the ambiguity of “self-determination, North and south”, an acceptance by the British of the pretence that the IRA had not been defeated, and the promise of Sinn Féin’s admission to the talks table. It wasn’t much for twenty-five years of struggle. In fact it was the very thing the IRA had been fighting against: self-determination for Northern Ireland.

How on earth did Adams sell it to his people as a victory? For all his undoubted political skills, it would hardly have been possible if key elements had not realised that the game was up, and if the great majority of republicans did not want an end to a futile war. Sinn Féin was astute enough to appreciate that the world had changed after “the fall of the wall”. In what appeared to be a new era of American hegemony and a liberal capitalist global ethic, the party ditched the old nationalist language for a new rhetoric of rights and equality to chime with American thinking. Congressman Bruce Morrison encapsulated the approach when he spoke of creating “identities of choice” and moving from “the bloodlines of ethnicity to the lifelines of human rights”. We were now expected to believe that the Provisionals had emerged from the failure of NICRA to secure its demands by peaceful means. In the heel of the hunt, Sinn Féin signed up to the Belfast Agreement, which reinforced Northern Ireland’s position within the UK and was the weakest of all constitutional agreements since 1920 in its provision for cross-border co-operation. Twenty years on, Sinn Féin can’t even deliver a cross-border Covid strategy. The most acute illustration of the IRA’s failure was in the Irish government’s slogan in the 1998 referendum on amending articles 2 and 3 of Bunreacht na hÉireann: “Vote yes for peace”. The Republic was asked to remove the territorial claim to the North to get peace from the Provos! If you understand that, you understand the contradictions of the “peace process”. Still, it was consistent. All of the IRA’s wars since July 11th, 1921 (the Truce), the Civil War, the S Plan, the Northern campaign, the Border campaign, and the long war, have left both the organisation and the nationalist cause in a weaker position.

Again and again Kennedy addresses the question of whether there was an alternative to the Provisionals. As he points out, NICRA was quite successful in that most of its aims were conceded by the end of 1970, before the Provo campaign started. The fly in the ointment was that these reforms were squeezed out of Stormont by the British government and in no way reflected a change of heart among Unionists. Even today, one wonders how much has changed in hearts and minds. In 2018 BBC Radio Foyle marked the fiftieth  anniversary of the October 5th march with a series of vox pop recollections of local people. Though the contributors remained anonymous, it was easy to distinguish the Catholics from the Protestants. Catholics were ad idem. Things were bad. Injustices were real. The civil rights movement was necessary and brought a measure of emancipation. Few connected it with the IRA or socialism or with the flight of Protestants from the Derry’s city side to the mainly Protestant Waterside. Protestants on the other hand were at odds. Some said discrimination existed, others denied it. A common observation was that things were no better for working class Protestants, though why this should be an alibi or an excuse for doing nothing was not explained. Some saw the civil rights movement as a good idea initially. Most believed that at some stage it was hijacked by republicans or socialists, and led to polarisation and violence. An implicit theme in Protestant recollections, and something not appreciated by Catholics, is that while Protestants could be scathing about “big house” Unionism and “the fur coat brigade”, they regarded an attack on the state as an attack on themselves and the claims of the civil rights groups as a slander on their community. At a fiftieth anniversary conference in Derry’s Guildhall, Erskine Holmes, a leading Labourite who was on the October 5th march, made an impassioned denunciation of the slogan “One man, one vote” as a lie. The property franchise did, of course, apply to local elections only. All in all, Protestants felt the civil rights movement wasn’t worth the trouble it caused.

Two monographic chapters deal with paramilitary vigilantism and child victims of the Troubles. Both differ from the rest of the text in style and method, being more balanced, comprehensive and scholarly. Kennedy has undertaken substantial primary research on punishment beatings, and writes with originality and authority, covering both republican and loyalist communities. Brief comparisons are made with practices in the Black townships of apartheid South Africa and the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip. The numerous cases described make harrowing reading. Punishments emerged in Derry in late 1971, almost three years after the creation of the first “no-go” area in the city. Initially, the IRA, both Official and Provisional, targeted girls alleged to have consorted with British soldiers and subjected them to very public humiliation. Presumably because these almost ritual punishments failed to stem less “political” crime, like drug-dealing, burglary or vandalism, more private, routine, and horrific measures were adopted, like the notorious kneecapping. Kennedy ranges over the gamut of penalties and medieval-like torture involved. He also looks at the impact on the inquisitors, some of whom are known to have turned to drink or tranquilisers. Loyalist communities had to deal with the added problem of falling foul of the rivalries between the three main loyalist paramilitaries. Nonetheless, Kennedy concludes that “Catholic communities suffered proportionately more from vigilantism” as the loyalists were “less committed to performing ‘policing’ roles”. The ceasefires of 1994 increased the level of vigilantism as the paramilitaries redirected their energies and sought to assure communities that they were still in business. Kennedy accepts that the police, both RUC and PSNI, lost the trust of working class communities and agrees that there is no easy answer to the challenge of combating crime. His bottom line is that paramilitary methods are self-serving and brutal.

The related chapter on child victims covers much the same ground and is less comprehensive, being based more on anecdotal evidence and specific examples. Disgracefully, it’s a topic that’s underresearched, and Kennedy suggests on the basis of strong evidence that quangos and charities have deliberately avoided it for fear of the political ramifications. His account is no less distressing, though he doesn’t help his case by throwing all child abuse – including that in institutions run by religious orders – into the mix. After an impressively objective critique of vigilantism, we’re back to using any stick to beat the Provos.

Godwin’s law is the theory that the longer an argument continues, the more likely it is that someone will invoke an analogy with the Nazis. One might add that at that point, reason has yielded to emotion. Sure enough, the concluding chapter, “Guilt, shame, ideological evasion (and even atonement)”, opens with a reminder that the Germans confronted their National Socialist past and admitted they were wrong, despite the trauma involved. Kennedy sums up the core of his argument and the purpose of the book in the following:

If the central thesis of this book is correct, that this has been an asymmetrical conflict, that sections of the Catholic and nationalist population have waged a deliberate and prolonged ‘war’, not only against the British state but against their Protestant neighbours as well, then certain ‘good neighbourly’ recommendations follow. There is a case for a communal apology, as the Provisionals’ self-declared war is a matter for shame and regret on the part of all nationalists, north and south.

That nationalists have not already confessed their collective guilt is explained with reference to a series of “defence mechanisms” like “whataboutery”, denial, and the rewriting of history. Unionists are acquitted as very few of them voted for parties associated with violence. What about the DUP? Its connection with violence was marginal. What about the state? Didn’t the British army mean the Unionists didn’t need paramilitaries? The army was reacting to the IRA, and the French did worse in Algeria.

Some fine-tuning is needed here. The SDLP, the majority nationalist party until the ceasefires – which in itself is revealing – did condemn the Provisionals repeatedly. The Republic went further than the Unionists or the British in interrogating values and traditions that were believed to create a sympathetic climate for violence. Support for the Provos is easily explained among those who suffered most from the British army’s collective punishment tactics, and the sectarianism that still pervades all aspects of Northern Ireland. Within five years of the adoption of the “Armalite and ballot box” strategy it was clear to Adams that the Armalite was holding back success at the ballot box and would have to go. The rise in Sinn Féin’s electoral fortunes after the ceasefires had nothing to do with vindicating the war and everything to do with a failure of leadership in the SDLP, leading to the perception of Sinn Féin as “stand-up nationalism” and of the SDLP as “roll-over nationalism”. But once again, the author is being deceptive. What Kennedy is really trying to undermine is contemporary electoral support for Sinn Féin. He has a point in that Sinn Féin elites seem perversely intent on representing the long war as a heroic struggle for freedom instead of learning the lessons of a catastrophe for the cause of Irish unity. Some of it was sheer lunacy: blitzing the nationalist city of Derry and blowing up the Dublin-Belfast railway line being two egregious examples of the folly. Tellingly, undergraduates in Ulster University doing BA dissertations on the Provisionals usually choose to study the Blanketmen or the hunger strikes of 1980-81. They have little else to be proud of. Perhaps the most revealing consequence of the conflict is that it was the war that – substantially at least – ended the IRA and a tradition of military conspiracy going all the way back to 1858.

Who Was Responsible for the Troubles? is worth a look for its chapters on vigilantism and child victims. Its strength lies in its detailed dissection of the body count, and in that respect it is a powerful reminder of what the Troubles entailed and what a dirty little war it was. Ultimately, one’s judgment will depend on where one stands on Northern politics and, for outsiders, that is often determined by what one dislikes most about these angular people: the nationalism, the unionism, the violence or the bigotry. Kennedy’s admirers will enjoy his home thrusts and obiter dicta. Others will find him biased and selective. Hardened historians who like old-school detachment will think the book inordinately subjective. It is in places a very personal cri de coeur from one who might be the most anguished professor ever. Well, to each his own.


Emmet O’Connor lectures at Ulster University and has published widely on Irish labour history.



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