Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

2 August 2001 Edition

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Flawed premise belies `even-handed' claim

Making Sense of the Troubles
By David McKittrick and David McVea
The Blackstaff Press
£20 Hardback

For McKittrick and McVea, it seems that the key to Making Sense of The Troubles, as they so optimistically put it, lies more or less in an understanding of the conflict as essential tribal, a simple case of two competing religious and national identities with attendant rival claims on power and territory. For the authors, this is no colonial war and indeed Britain is regarded only as the ``third'' protagonist in the conflict, whose role is presented as comparable to that of the Irish government, rather than the primary cause from which all else springs. This insistence on an elemental Protestant versus Catholic dialectic is probably the book's greatest weakness.

There are others, however, the first being the book's structure. Each chapter deals with an easily-digestible block of time, beginning with 1921 until 1963 and thereafter decreasing to discrete two-, three- or four-year periods up until 2000. Granted, this does make the text more reader-friendly, but by opting for this the authors have imposed an highly artificial order on history which is not matched by reality. History, particularly the history of Ireland, is not the perfectly coherent, patterned narrative that McKittrick and McVea clearly think it is - or would like it to be. This enforced tidiness has a tendency to encourage clunking, laboured analogies bereft of any useful observations or conclusions. For example, writing about Terence O'Neill the authors observe that:

``By 1968 he had been in office for five years, yet his reform proposals still seemed largely confined to the realms of rhetoric. Nationalists debated whether he was a genuine reformer, a cunningly disguised unreconstructed Unionist of the old sort, or perhaps a well-intentioned man who was simply not in control of his own party. Many Catholics saw O'Neillism as a distinctly conditional advance in that at its heart lay an attempt to give the Unionist party a more accommodating aspect without affecting its hold on power.''

Oooh, just like David Trimble, we are no doubt meant to think. And there is much more in a similar vein. But having thrown up the similarities, the authors then leave the reader to wonder what they actually make of a Unionist leader who behaves much like his predecessor did almost half a century ago.

I suspect this lack of expansion is probably a conscious one, since their own view is presented as entirely impartial - ``even-handed'' is the phrase they use themselves - but as a journalist McKittrick in particular really ought to know that no view is ever neutral or ideology-free; as Terry Eagleton once observed, arguing as much only proves that another sort of ideology is in play. And anyway, historiography without ideology is simply chronicle; a list of dates and events which does not inquire into causes or arrive at some kind of conclusion which can be argued over by those of varying viewpoints is of very limited interest. A truly neutral account of history is likely to be extremely dull; we do not want to just know when, we want to know why.

For all its faults, this is not a dull book, but in calling their own view of the conflict neutral the authors are in danger of placing themselves in the company of the ideologues of the British state who, of course, are equally inclined to claim even-handedness. Not pro-union but pro-choice. Yeah, right. McKittrick and McVea do not question Britain s right to be in Ireland and in not doing so they are adopting a specific political agenda whether they care to acknowledge it or not.

The other serious flaw - and major irritation - is their insistence that for those engaged, on all sides, of the conflict, everything was and is a matter of ``perception''; Catholics only ``perceived'' themselves as profoundly disadvantaged; Unionists ``saw'' themselves as in danger of abandonment by Britain. Thus the chapter dealing with 1980-1981 says that the tactic of hunger strike had a ``chequered but revered place in republican history, being regarded as close to the ultimate in self-sacrifice and possible martyrdom''. Regarded? This comment is closely followed by the statement that Margaret Thatcher saw ``the prison confrontation as one between good and evil, democracy and terrorism''. The authors choose not explore these diametrically opposed views. No explanation is offered for why hunger strikes are regarded in the way they are, nor do the authors mount any sort of challenge to Thatcher's perception of herself as ``good''. As it happens republicans also regard the prison struggle as a confrontation between good and evil, democracy and terrorism, but McKittrick and McVea are not interested in that particular perception.

Further, this perception-theory is arrogant; it implies whilst those most directly involved are mired in their own inability to see the woods for the trees, the authors are able to rise effortlessly above the mess and are possessed of some special ability to see an objective truth to which others remain pitifully blind.

Finally - and this may seem like a minor point - but there is the question of academic or editorial laziness. The text does not have accompanying notes on sources and newspaper quotes in particular are almost always unattributed. Given the massively differing political agendas of most of them, knowing which paper says what is extremely important in evaluating what it has to say about a given situation and, again, McKittrick should know this better than most.


Repelling the Yankees

Playa Girón: Bay of Pigs - Washington's first military defeat in the Americas
By Fidel Castro and José Ramón Fernández,
New York: Pathfinder Press, 2001

During Clinton's presidency, many in Ireland found it possible to ignore the murderous nature of US foreign policy, despite its glaring imperialist interventions, whether it be in Palestine, the Balkans, East Timor, Iraq, Colombia or wherever. With George W. Bush now resident in the White House, such duplicity is going to be far more difficult, if only because of the crass nature of his statements and actions.

Of course, there is one aspect of US foreign policy that has been unchanging - its continuing attempt to destroy the Cuban Revolution. Despite what is commonly believed, US aggression towards Cuba intensified during the Clinton presidency, with the 40-year-old economic blockade tightened considerably. And yet, the Cuban Revolution continues to defy all those who have been predicting (hoping for) its downfall for well over three decades. The accepted wisdom is that once Fidel Castro stands down the US will move to exploit the expected political hiatus and the Revolution will fall apart. One option that will already be planned for is military invasion. If so, Bush's lackeys would be well advised to read this book, Playa Girón, about the last time such a move was attempted.

A varied collection of speeches, communiqués and testimonies from the time, by those such as Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara, are presented. These well catch the knife-edged political tension and subsequent triumph of the momentous days in April 1961. Using fascinating military maps, photographs and a full chronology of the time, the book provides previously unpublished details surrounding the CIA-backed invasion and the subsequent defeat of the 1,500 US mercenaries at the Bay of Pigs.

The testimony to the People's Court in Havana two years ago by José Ramón Fernández, who commanded the main column that repelled the invaders and who is now Vice-President of the Cuban Council of Ministers, forms the core of the book. It is here that one gets a real feel for the bravery and conviction of the revolutionary Cuban forces, and their willingness to defend the socialist principles of the Revolution at any cost. As a result, and as Fidel Castro said at the time, ``Yankee imperialism suffered its first defeat in the Americas''. Is the Bush administration stupid enough to let history repeat itself?

In a world of continuing US imperialism, dressed up as free-trade globalisation, the Cuban Revolution is a unique and shining example of socialist development. It needs to be defended by all Irish socialist republicans. This book provides invaluable inspiration.


Nutters at sea

A Voyage for Madmen
By Peter Nichols
Profile Books,
Hb £16.99

My editor dishes out books to be reviewed as he sees fit. There is usually some sense to who gets what book to review. You can usually see what his thought processes were at the time of dishing out the book.

That was until he handed me this book about Nutters at sea. The thing is I've never been at sea..... When I opened the book I KNEW I wouldn't like reviewing this book, but not for the first time, I was wrong.

Nonetheless, I doubt many of ye will want to buy this book, as it's probably got a fairly narrow appeal to the sailing set. It tells the tale of nine men who set out to race around the world under sail as the USA were about to beat the USSR to land a man on the moon. In an age before GPS and mobile phones this was probably the last adventure of navigation on the planet.

In what became known as the Golden Globe Race, there were nine competitors.

John Ridgway, British Army Captain.

Chay Blyth, Ridgway's transatlantic rowing partner-former British Army sergeant.

Robin Knox-Johnston, British Merchant Marine Captain.

Bernard Moitessier, a French sailor-author.

Loick Fougeron, another Frenchman -a friend of Moitessier..

Bill King, a former British Navy submarine commander.

Nigel Tetley, a British navy Lieutenant commander.

Alex Carozzo, an Italian who had previously sailed alone across the Pacific.

The final name on the list was the one that would define this race. He was Donald Crowhurst, a 36-year-old English electronics engineer. He would set out in his 40-foot ketch-rigged plywood trimaran. This vessel would eventually be boarded by crew from the Royal Mail vessel Picardy roughly in the middle of the Atlantic. The craft was deserted. Crowhurst's body was never found. At the time he was winning the race.

Robin Knox-Johnston became the default winner with the best time. He donated his prize to the widow of Crowhurst.

This race couldn't happen today. A wristwatch device can tell you where you are on the planet to within a few metres. These guys - although I have a natural aversion to their British military background - were the real deal. They were the last of a breed.

We won't see their likes again until someone starts a race to Alpha Centauri. When that happens, you'll need people with the mettle of these guys.

Had any of them been born in the Creggan or the Short Strand they might well have embarked on a different type of arduous journey.


An Phoblacht
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Dublin 1