Depoliticising the war in Northern Ireland
With its lurid descriptions of the 'feral youth' and fat 'toothless slatterns' of Belfast, Kevin Myers’ vicious attack on Irish Republicanism is an attempt to rewrite the history of the Troubles and absolve Britain of colonial guilt.
Books about the conflict in Northern Ireland often divide opinion; not so with Kevin Myers’ book. The British press, from the Tory Daily Telegraph to the liberal Observer, has fallen over itself to heap praise on Myers’ new work. Likewise, figures as diverse as Christopher Hitchens, Frank McGuinness and former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern provide ringing endorsements on the front cover.
Watching the Door recounts journalist Kevin Myers’ time in Belfast in the 1970s reporting on the ‘Troubles’. It’s a mixture of politics and biography. The title comes from the common practice in Belfast pubs at the height of the Troubles of drinkers keeping one eye on the door in case a gunman burst in to spray the bar with bullets or leave a bomb.
Sadly, I have to depart from the consensus about the merits of Myers’ book. Aside from the fact that a substantial part of it is dedicated to Myers’ puerile sexual exploits, the abject hatred he displays towards most of the Belfast-based working-class people he encountered is genuinely shocking. Yet his revulsion seems to have been either ignored by reviewers, or indeed endorsed: ‘Kevin Myers recreates the moral and political slum that was Belfast’, says Hitchens on the dustjacket.
In common with many of the mainstream journalists who reported on the Irish conflict throughout the 1970s, mostly from the bars of Belfast’s plushest hotels, Myers offers us that well-worn narrative of an irrational sectarian bloodbath with Britain as the honest brokers caught in the middle. Rather than being understood as a national, political conflict, with Britain and its allies on one side and the Irish Republican Army on the other, Myers, like so many other British observers, depicts the conflict as a mad bloody rampage by horrible Republicans. His book might, as all of the reviewers have claimed, be a stonking good read – but you don’t feel good after reading it; the fact that Myers’ bitter anti-Republicanism doesn’t prevent him from gleefully describing having sex with the wives of IRA men is just one of many unappetising aspects of this objectionable work.
Myers wears his anti-Republicanism as a badge of honour and makes no pretence of any kind of objectivity or neutrality when discussing the different sides in the conflict. Though he deals with Loyalist and British army atrocities, the thrust of the book is very clear: it is an assault on Republicanism, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and, more broadly, the Republican community. Myers’ hatred for all things Republican is palpable. He sets out to remove any sense of principle, ideology or ideals behind the Republican community or its political struggles. Time after time, the IRA campaign is described as ‘tawdry, narcissistic, tribal, clinically insane and not ideological’.
In the preface, Myers tells us very clearly that this struggle was nothing to do with politics, ideals, justice, or even God: ‘I witnessed the bloody chaos that results when the tribe is exalted over the individual, and when personal morality is abandoned to autonomous ethos of some imagined community, independent of God and law.’
Now that the Irish conflict is over (it ran from 1969 to 1994, with some isolated outbursts of violence in the later 1990s), the IRA has disbanded and the Republican challenge to British rule is defeated, there is no prospect of a united Ireland – indeed, the IRA’s political counterpart, Sinn Fein, now shares power in the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, a partitionist institution which they previously pledged to destroy. But none of that, it seems, is enough for Myers and his ilk. For them it is also necessary to bury any semblance of legitimacy behind the IRA’s challenge to British rule. While British army atrocities are ‘stupid, misguided and mistaken but never murder, Republicans are bullies, bigots and murderers’. While Myers asserts that young men joined the Provisional IRA for financial gain, a slice of the rackets or because they were simpletons, British soldiers were honest, decent, young men.
The book’s long list of bombings and shootings reminds us of the scale of death and suffering experienced during this intense and brutal war – all the more so given the small population of the six counties of Northern Ireland. As a comparison, if the same proportion of the population of the UK had died in such a conflict, the death toll would have been approximately 150,000. In a sense, this past tragedy is made even worse by Myers’ desperation to paint a picture of sectarian and criminal violence devoid of any political cause. The effect is to reduce the dozens of daily incidents into a bloody and hopeless blur, in which there can be no rational understanding or debate. An image is created of Northern Ireland as a black hole, in which violent, atavistic anarchy reigned supreme. There was nothing political about it, believes Myers; it was pure, sectarian wickedness.
As someone who grew up in Belfast throughout the 1970s, I’m well aware of all the tragedies recounted by Myers. I am also acutely aware that in my community there was an alternative interpretation of the conflict to the one provided by Myers and others. For us, this was a war against foreign military occupation, discrimination and abuses of basic civil rights. It also had a more positive ideal – the goal of a united Ireland in which differences and divisions would be overcome, and justice and equality won. For many young people growing up during the war, our inspiration came from the national liberation struggles taking place in South Africa, Latin America and Palestine. For many, many ordinary people in Belfast, those resisting British rule were not ‘simpletons’ or criminals, but brave individuals who represented heroic ideals and who were even widely respected and revered.
It may seem trite to complain that an anti-Republican reporter has now produced an anti-Republican book – but Myers’ is only one of many new books that are rewriting the history of the conflict in Northern Ireland. There is a new wave of post-conflict revisionism, which amounts to a collective attempt to erase from the history books the real reasons for the violence in the Six Counties.
Leading academic Paul Bew’s latest book, The Politics of Emnity, fits this theme. Recent essays by Times journalist George Brock, articles by respected journalist John Lloyd, and the space afforded by Prospect magazine to revisionist articles by former Unionist leader David Trimble and former Downing Street chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, are part of a trend to rewrite the history of what really happened in the Six Counties.
Myers’ revisionist tirade may embarrass some of these more moderate revisionists. After all, he thinks the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin and the Irish War of Independence were also atavistic carnivals of sectarianism and reaction; he cannot resist taking a swipe at some of the Republican heroes from the 1918-1921 period. When not writing books, Myers has been engaged in a campaign to persuade the Irish government to commemorate and pay homage to the Irish men who died for Britain during the First World War. Now, the timing of his book contributes to an overwhelming consensus that there was nothing idealistic or political about the most recent conflict between the Irish and Britain – that between 1969 and 1994.
Such revisionism has gone largely unchallenged. In the past, there was always a counterpoint to the sectarian narrative of the conflict – from the Republican movement itself and from left-wing commentators like Eamonn McCann and Peter Beresford Ellis. However, these challenges to revisionism have been weakened by the Republican movement’s own revision of its goals, as necessitated by the historical compromises it had had to make when it was effectively defeated in the early 1990s.
When Sinn Fein now retrospectively claims that its political fight was all about celebrating difference, respecting all traditions and winning parity of esteem, then it becomes a great deal easier for Myers to describe the war as fundamentally ‘tribal’. The Republican movement’s abandonment of universalism, and its embrace of identity politics and acceptance of the ‘two traditions’ theory, makes it easier for those who have always viewed the conflict as tribal to prevail.
As the Troubles fade from memory into history, a new battle is emerging, fought not with guns and bombs but with pens and laptops. In much the same way that the Russian and French Revolutions have been mocked for producing Stalin and the Terror respectively, now Irish Republicanism is accused of fuelling sectarianism rather than attempting to overcome it (through its ideal of uniting ‘Catholic, Protestant and dissenter’). The revisionist project wants to emphasise the dangers of hubris and arrogance. In effect, the revisionists are saying: ‘Just look what happens when people take to the streets, be it Leningrad, Paris or Derry – they end up making things worse.’ Their aim is to destroy Republicanism in theory (it’s already dead politically) and to provide the partition of Ireland with some fresh historical legitimacy.
Historical revisionism is nothing new in relation to Ireland. Several waves of revisionism, originating in both the media and academia, have unsuccessfully attempted to erase Britain’s colonial record in Ireland in recent decades. The revisionists are desperate to create an alternative pattern of history which downgrades the Anglo-Irish conflict – and the argument that everything in Ireland is a result of simply ‘sectarian hatred’ serves that purpose. Once Britain is taken out of the historical picture, except as a dignified, benign force that has tried to keep the peace between the ‘two traditions’, then the revisionists will have achieved their aim.
One of the reasons this matters is that stealing any legitimacy from the Republican struggle also robs the supporters of that struggle of respect. Given his views, it is perhaps not surprising that Myers’ real bile is reserved for those who live in Republican areas of Belfast. Derision and contempt leaps from every sentence. The spirit of resistance emanating from these communities against the British military presence on their streets is, for Myers, a cause of scorn and insult. Young rioters throwing bricks and bottles at British soldiers in Andersonstown are described as feral teenage males seething like primates. Using phrases that would probably be deemed racist if they were used against an ethnic minority, Myers’ rule of thumb becomes clear – the fiercer the resistance offered by Republican communities, the more they must feel the wrath of the author’s pen.
Ballymurphy is one of Myers’ targets. An area that suffered many dead at the hands of Loyalist gangs and British soldiers, it was famed for its spirit of resistance. But Myers clearly didn’t find much to admire there. Reporting on his first visit, he writes: ‘Intended to be a slum from its first day, it had instantly realised this heroic ambition.’ Like Gerry Adams and many prominent Republicans, I grew up in the area, was educated there and knew more about world politics before the age of 10 than most international relations graduates know today. But according to Myers, there was ‘a slovenly improvidence about many of the residents and some epically dysfunctional family histories’. The following is a description of one home he visited and typical of Myers’ reactions to this particular community:
‘I went to the home of a relative of one of the missing. A vast, overweight and toothless slattern in a short, filthy shift opened the door and showed me in. She could have been 30 or 70. There were two items of furniture in the sitting room: a sofa of quite terrifyingly squalid demeanour and a vast colour television set, which of course was on… She turned and bent down next to the fire, and her short shift rode up over her naked buttocks. The world is not yet ready for, nor am I quite up to giving, a description of the sight that suddenly unfolded before me.’
That such demonisation should go unnoticed, or unremarked upon, in the reviews of Myers’ book only shows the extent to which the conflict in Northern Ireland has successfully been de-politicised, and criminalised. Myers routinely describes the people of Belfast as immune to reason and intellect: ‘That vital sense of the ludicrous, which provides an intellectual and aesthetic censor in other societies, had been genetically excised in the creation of Northern Ireland society.’
For those of us interested in the truth and the future of political ideas in Ireland, it is time to take stock. I am not arguing for any return to the struggles of the past – as former MP and Socialist Republican Bernadette McAliskey put it, ‘the war is over and the good guys lost’. There is, however, a new battle of ideas to be fought.
Amidst the bile, a few questions are worth asking. Why did young people join the IRA? Why, in the midst of much British media reminiscing about the tumultuous year of 1968, are the civil rights marches in Derry so roundly ignored – despite the fact that they had a far greater impact on subsequent British history than the protests in London or Paris? Answering these questions will, I suspect, help to nail a few revisionist myths. Addressing these questions before a young British audience would be a worthwhile and exciting prospect; better still, let’s invite a ‘feral youth’ or ‘toothless slattern’ from Belfast to share a platform with Kevin Myers and have a heated debate – now that would be priceless.
Kevin Rooney teaches government and politics at a London school, and is co-producing the debate ‘The Troubles, 1968-2008: Revising Irish History?’ at the Battle of Ideas festival in November.
Watching the Door, by Kevin Myers is published by Atlantic Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)