18 May 2006 Edition
Blaming the oppressed for their oppression
Book Review by Mícheál MacDonncha: Analysis of the causes of conflict "deeply flawed"
The Origins of the Troubles
By Thomas Hennessy. Published by Gill and Macmillan
The blurb for this book claims that it is "the most complete account we will have of the sleepwalk to disaster". Government archives in Dublin and London, opened after 30 years form the basis of Hennessy's tome, supplemented with an extensive trawl through newspapers of the time- mainly the Belfast Telegraph and the Irish News. Despite the depth of research this is a deeply flawed piece of work.
From the beginning the author has difficulty accepting the sectarian nature of Unionism. He operates from the premise that a non-sectarian Unionism was possible in the Six Counties in the 1960s. Even the arch-bigot Bill Craig is exonerated. In 1966 he said that every effort Unionists could command should be summoned up to "combat and defeat Nationalism and if possible to eradicate it from our society. It is a poison in our community..." Yet Hennessy says this was "not a call to deny Catholics their political rights". Again and again the author admits bigotry on the Unionist side but repeatedly claims that this was not as bad as nationalists made it out to be and not enough to justify their claim to be oppressed.
It is not surprising then, that the author does not include the most notorious statement from Unionist Prime Minister Terence O'Neill who, after his resignation in 1969, said: "If you treat Roman Catholics with due consideration and kindness, they will live like Protestants in spite of the authoritative nature of their Church." He pointed out that if Catholics were treated right "they would refuse to have 18 children".
Hennessy simply cannot bring himself to admit that there was systematic discrimination in the Northern state. He cites plenty of examples of bigotry and discrimination but he cannot draw the conclusion staring everyone in the face then and now. Instead he resorts to nonsense such as this: "So it was the collective perception of Catholics that Catholics were discriminated against rather than their individual, actual experience that convinced them that the Unionist state discriminated against them."
In preparing the ground for his conclusion the author includes extensive quotations from a 1966 Garda analysis of the IRA based on captured documents. The purpose is to present the Civil Rights Movement as the brainchild of the IRA. While the IRA leadership was involved, there were other diverse forces that came together to create that movement. But the author provides no such detail or analysis of the Civil Rights Movement.
Through all the, at times, tedious reporting of minutes, memos, speeches and statements, we discern the author's view that the oppressed are to blame for their oppression because they choose to resist. Thus it was the Civil Rights movement that "unleashed the demons of sectarianism". The 1916 commemoration in 1966 "led to a dangerous deterioration in community relations, leading to Protestant extremists taking up arms". And "a reasonable case could be made for Craig's actions" in banning the Republican Clubs. These were established after Sinn Féin was banned by the Stormont regime in the '50s. But this was not oppression!
Dealing with 1969 the author plays down the impact of events such as Burntollet, the murder of Sammy Devenney and the jailing of Bernadette Devlin on the nationalist community. Thus when it comes to the Battle of the Bogside and the B-Special/loyalist attacks on nationalist areas in Belfast in August, he is at pains to exonerate the forces of the State. He describes as a 'myth' the charge that Catholics were the victims of a pogrom conducted with the systematic compliance of the state. Yet the figures he quotes on the same page support the charge - 83% of the premises damaged were occupied by Catholics; 1,500 of the 1,800 families forced from their homes were Catholics.
In his conclusion the author has this gem: "So Catholics were discriminated against. But this did not mean that they were oppressed. To claim they were devalues the term and the experience of the oppressed the world over. Core political and socio-economic rights were not denied them." Comment would be superfluous.
At the start of the book Hennessy rules out looking back to Partition in 1920 in considering the origins of the Troubles. But in his conclusion, in order to support his two tribes/two nations argument, Hennessy states that "it would be unnatural not to have a border within the island. It was just drawn in the wrong place"(!)
At the very end we are told to forget the injustices that followed 1970- including internment and Bloody Sunday. This is so the author can argue that it was the IRA's decision to engage in armed struggle in 1970 that was responsible for "the next two decades of killing". Hennessy has set the scene for the villains of the piece- the IRA leadership of 1970. Thus we are to ignore the violent establishment of the Orange state, play down systematic discrimination over five decades, deny state violence against the Civil Rights movement and pogroms in 1969, and rule out the role of Stormont and London, the RUC, UDR and regular British Army in escalating armed conflict through 1970 and 1971. The author's route to his conclusion is tortuous, confused and contradictory as perhaps befits a former advisor to David Trimble. With advice like this who needs discouragement?