The Origins of the Troubles

Michael McCann reviews Northern Ireland: the origins of the Troubles by Thomas Hennessey, Gill and Macmillan, ISBN 0717133826, €29.99 hbk

OVER THE past several generations of Irish historical writing, much has been made of the need for scientific, research-driven, and bias-free scholarship. The nationalist interpretation of the past has been subjected to persistent criticism. However, the excesses of anti-nationalist historians seem immune from censure from among their peers.

Thomas Hennessey's Northern Ireland: the Origins of the Troubles epitomizes the negative potential in anti-nationalist historical writing. Extremely selective in his use of sources and careless and unprofessional in citing them; unbalanced to the point of offering a conspiratorial interpretation of events; Hennessey's study is more useful for the insight it offers into problems in the historiography of 'the Troubles' than for its scholarly merits.

The book's most glaring weakness is its failure to take advantage of the rich array of sources now available to historians of the late 1960s and early 1970s. While the author acknowledges in his introduction that "the archives have been opened and we have the opportunity to examine the decisions that helped shape the origins of the Troubles", the bulk of his study rests almost entirely on newspaper sources, and on the Belfast Telegraph in particular.

The "tragedy of modern Irish history" can be traced back to the civil rights agitation of the 1960s, Hennessey suggests: not to partition or the extraordinary policing structures and discrimination required to sustain it, but to those who challenged the status quo. "The left-wing agitators of Derry might protest about the oppressive nature of the Orange state but it was they who unleashed the forces of sectarian violence", Hennessey writes. At some level this is a book about blaming the victims.

At the heart of Hennessey's interpretation lies the argument that the Troubles were the product of a republican plot. Hennessey quotes selectively from the Cameron and Scarman reports to support this claim of republican control of the civil rights movement. In his discussion of a protest march on 24 August 1968, Hennessey attempts to use the presence of individual republicans to create the sinister impression that this was a republican march, which it was not. The author omits Cameron's observation that

"organisers prevented the public display of any banners except the Civil Rights banner" and that "there was a hope among many participants… that something new was taking place in Northern Ireland, in that there was a non-violent demonstration by people of many differing political antecedents and convictions, united on a common platform".

Hennessey's extended section on the pre-Troubles IRA at first seems to bolster his assertion of republican manipulation of civil rights agitation. He cites sources such as the Review of unlawful and allied organisations, (National Archives of Ireland) and Bob Purdy's Politics in the streets: the origins of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland.

Much of this material has also been cited in the Scarman Tribunal's Violence and civil disturbances in Northern Ireland in 1969, but Hennessey fails to include a statement from the Irish republican publicity bureau to Scarman dismissing what had been alleged and stating it "was never in fact more than a draft for discussion purposes'.

The author's depiction of oppositional politics and dynamics in the nationalist community is superficial in the extreme. In contrast to his treatment of unionist complexity, Hennessey seems content to use a single memoir, Paddy Doherty's Paddy Bogside, to generalise about the entire nationalist community in Derry. In his account of the burning of Bombay Street in August 1969, Hennessey quotes a loyalist source that blames the violence on the IRA but does not quote from a single nationalist inhabitant.

Hennessey seems anxious to downplay the extent of anti-nationalist discrimination. Roman Catholics merely "claimed", "believed", "felt", "perceived" that they were discriminated against. He exonerates the British government and the Stormont regime, placing the onus for the past thirty-five years on a single party to the conflict. The opening up of government documents should enhance our understanding of the past. Regrettably, in Thomas Hennessey's hands the great bulk of archival material has remained largely unused.

The rigorous guidelines set out by Irish Historical Studies in 1938, which have been wielded so aggressively in marginalizing the nationalist interpretation of the past, have been ignored in this. While the author concludes with a sharp critique of Protestant and Catholic 'mythmaking', he has indulged in precisely that, albeit under the guise of an academic study. Tragically, the surviving victims of the 'Troubles' have to live with the reality.

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