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The Northern Ireland Troubles in Britain

Impacts, Engagements, Legacies and Memories


Edited by Graham Dawson, Stephen Hopkins and Jo Dover


Manchester: University Press, 2017

Paperback. xxi+369 pages. ISBN 978-0719096327. £29.95


Reviewed by Christophe Gillissen

Université de Caen Normandie






In 1990, John Whyte, in his magisterial study of writings on Northern Ireland (Interpreting Northern Ireland, Clarendon Press), concluded that Northern Ireland was the most studied region in the world in terms of publications per inhabitant. If the volume of books and articles has fallen somewhat since the end of the conflict, it is nonetheless remarkable that some of its aspects, and in particular such an important one as its effects on Great Britain, should have been relatively neglected. Images like that of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, devastated by an IRA bomb during the Conservative Party Conference in 1984, may be familiar, but little substantive research has been carried out in relation to the links between the Northern Irish conflict and the neighbouring island according to the editors [1]. It is that gap that this book aims at helping to fill.

It is organised in four main parts. The first one deals with British institutional perceptions of the conflict: seven chapters focus on perspectives within the British government, British political parties, and the British Army. Studies of political memoirs offer illuminating insights into the way British ministers dealt with the Troubles. While James Callaghan, the first Home Secretary to intervene in Northern Irish affairs, did so with considerable energy, the long-term effect of his efforts cannot be gauged with any degree of certainty: they were curtailed at an early stage by the general election of 1970, and the publication of his memoirs at an awkward moment suggests the former Chancellor was mostly intent on re-establishing his reputation within the Labour Party after the devaluation of 1967 for which he had taken the blame. Reginald Maudling, his successor, is famously noted for leaving Northern Ireland, where he had just made his first visit, by asking for a large glass of whisky and commenting, ‘What a bloody awful place’, which is perhaps all too representative of the British governing class in its perception of the ‘province’. Opinions differ as to the memoirs of Merlyn Rees, who haplessly watched the collapse of the power-sharing assembly in 1974, however: for John Newsinger they count among ‘the most soporific late twentieth-century British political memoirs’ [30], while Stephen Hopkins considers that they nonetheless reflect genuine concern for the well-being of the people of Northern Ireland [67]. As to Tony Blair, his success in achieving peace in Northern Ireland cannot be overvalued, even if his memoirs tend to be ‘messianic’ on the subject [34], presumably as a counterpoint to the chapter devoted to the fateful decision to participate in the American invasion of Iraq.  

Unlike former ministers, soldiers cannot hope to sell their memoirs on their own names; they must correspond to publishing companies’ understanding of the market. Readers of such publications being presumably in search of sensational accounts, there is the possibility of exaggeration. Nevertheless, some of those memoirs do confirm the impression of many Northern Irish Catholics: the dominant culture – a ‘conditioning’ enforced by officers – within some elite regiments, such as the Parachutists or the SAS, could not but result in illegal killings. One grisly anecdote among others will serve to illustrate the problem with sending such regiments to carry out what was essentially a police mission within the United Kingdom: when a Parachutist battalion killed its first person in 1971, the driver of a van that had backfired and who was mistaken for a sniper, one of the Paras obtained a piece of his skull which was then used as an ash tray [25]. Needless to say, when the Paras later killed 13 unarmed civilians during Bloody Sunday, the Catholic population had little hesitation in attributing blame for the killings. But other British soldiers came back from their tour in Northern Ireland deeply transformed by the experience: Ted Aubertin, who was shot through the head and left 80% disabled, suffered from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], a condition then unknown by Army doctors [37]. His personal journey, which led him to collaborate with several groups working for peace and reconciliation, constitutes an account that is an integral part of the conflict’s legacy in Great Britain. In the same way, Jenny McMahon, a physical training instructor with the Women’s Royal Army Corps, was injured when an IRA bomb went off in a coach in England in 1974, but she went on to help servicemen recover from their wounds when they came back from Northern Ireland, then Iraq and Afghanistan. But service in Northern Ireland remained problematic in terms of traditional army postings: it did not correspond to the norms of representation of military life, and many soldiers’ families campaigned to bring back their boys from Ulster during the first half of the 1970s, threatening Army recruitment and contributing to support in Britain for withdrawal from Northern Ireland [53]. Many soldiers, often young men from poor neighbourhoods, were unsettled by the resemblance between their home towns and Northern Ireland, some of them harbouring ‘a certain sense of identification with those they were deployed against’ [101], others suffering serious mental issues when they came back.

The second part of the book offers insights into the way various activists and movements challenged the British State’s response to the conflict, with five chapters dealing with the subject. The 1970s and, to a lesser extent, the 1980s were characterised by widespread activism, which could not fail to take action in relation to the Troubles and their side effects. In 1969 Aly Renwick, a former soldier, helped establish the Irish Civil Rights Solidarity Campaign and later the Anti-Internment League, before founding the Troops Out Movement in 1973. Susan O’Halloran, who campaigned for Sinn Féin in Britain, relates the time between 1975 and 1985, when the party had no other channels to express its voice in the neighbouring island. She was obviously under surveillance, but many ordinary Irish people living in Britain felt the weight of suspicion, especially after the Prevention of Terrorism Act was passed in 1974. As Paddy Hillyard suggested in his seminal book, Suspect Community (Pluto Press, 1993), the result was widespread violation of human rights and civil liberties for the Irish community in Britain. Feminist and Labour organisations established some links with Northern Ireland, notably over the issue of strip-searching which became systematic in Armagh Jail after 1982, but the relationship between feminism and Irish republicanism remained marginal and uneasy on the whole.

The third part of the book proposes five chapters on representations of the Troubles in British culture and the media. The press generally defended the traditional image of British soldiers, despite events like Bloody Sunday that undermined the Army’s integrity. Even in 2010, when the Saville Report established the Army’s responsibility in the 1972 killing of innocent civilians, most newspapers interpreted Bloody Sunday as a regrettable accident, while an Irish commentator like Seamus Deane considered that the ‘killing of Irish people by British troops’ was ‘an ideological imperative’ [195], an imperative underwritten by many British newspapers. Few of them criticised the broadcasting ban introduced in 1988, which prevented access to the media for members of illegal organisations, i.e. members of Sinn Féin, though both the BBC and ITV stood up to government attempts to censor documentaries.

In three of his short stories – ‘Another Christmas’ (1978), ‘Being Stolen From’ (1981) and ‘The Mourning’ (2000) –, William Trevor enriches our understanding of the psychological and emotional impact of the conflict on the relationship between the Irish and the British communities in London. Maude Casey, born to Irish parents in England, has first-hand experience of the suspicion and abuse Irish people could experience in Britain during the conflict. Her writing is a way of surviving in an environment that took a heavy toll: Irish-born men were ‘the only migrant group whose mortality is higher in Britain than in their country of origin’ [221].

Finally, the fourth part of the book grapples with the issues of memory and of dealing with the past, to which seven chapters are devoted. The 1993 Warrington bombs caused the death of two young boys, an event that sent shock waves throughout the British Isles. If the IRA had no choice but to apologise, the reaction of the parents of the two boys was exceptional in terms of human dignity. Their campaign to promote peace and reconciliation led to the construction of a Peace Centre in Warrington which accompanied official efforts to build bridges between Britain and Ireland. Other relatives of victims have followed a similar path: Annie Bowman lost her father at the age of three, when an IRA bomb exploded as the 29-year old officer in Derry was clearing the place. She joined the Warrington Peace Centre and has worked to promote peace in the British Isles, in Africa, and in the Middle East. Her moving testimony to the power of forgiveness shows that terrible ordeals do sometimes bring out the best in people. An Irish family living in Britain, like the O’Reillys, never talked about the stigma they endured through the decades, until one of the children, Laura, interviewed her parents and siblings. Her research project allowed all the family members to better understand their lives, but this oral history is also of wider interest in the sense that it is probably representative of what many similar families experienced.

Jo Berry’s family is less usual: her father, a Conservative MP, died in the explosion of the Brighton Grand Hotel in 1984. After meeting members of the Warrington Peace Centre, she eventually established contact with the IRA bomber, Patrick Magee, on his release from prison, and together they have performed a dialogue, Facing the Enemy, in Britain and in Ireland, but also in Lebanon, Rwanda, etc., which has had an enormous impact on spectators.

Many such individual efforts are needed to shape collective memories, which remain raw concerning the Northern Irish conflict. Aaron Edwards argues that if the Republican movement has tried to use the debate about truth recovery to establish a narrative focused on security forces, it is necessary to achieve a more balanced one if reconciliation is the ultimate objective. Within the Unionist community, commemorative efforts have been centred on England in the case of the Ulster Special Constabulary Association, which created a specific memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Lichfield in 2006, an initiative that may be seen as a way of consolidating the bonds between both islands.

G.K. Chesterton famously remarked about the English wars in Ireland in the 17th century that while the Irish could not forget that history, the British could not remember it. According to the editors, that attitude prevailed into the 20th century [2], and British debates – or rather English debates – about Brexit suggest that little has changed in the 21st. Interestingly enough, the idea for the book was born in France, at a conference organised by the Irish Studies Centre at the University of Rennes 2 in 2010. It may well be that the view from outside Great Britain helped to identify a field of research that deserved greater attention. In any case, this volume constitutes a useful addition to the series Manchester University Press has constituted in Irish Studies, as well as a valuable contribution to a better understanding of the repercussions of the Troubles on the mainland.


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