Book Review: Who was Responsible for the Troubles?: The Northern Ireland Conflict

Liam Kennedy. Who was Responsible for the Troubles?: The Northern Ireland Conflict. McGill-Queen University Press, 2020.

Over the fifty years since the Troubles erupted on the streets in Belfast there has been a deluge of books by victims, observers and even combatants trying to grapple with what happened. Northern Ireland represents a problematic transitional justice case study in that much has been written about it, but little achieved. The past few months alone have seen the slow trickling out of some truth through ordinary civil and criminal proceedings, such the inquest into the 1971 Ballymurphy massacre, the collapse of the trial of an 80-year-old British soldier over the shooting of John Pat Cunningham in 1974, and the Police Ombudsman’s report on the security services collusion in the murder of civilians.  At the same time, efforts to provide an overarching approach to comprehensively dealing with the past in a transitional justice framework have been frustrated by the British government’s proposals to introduce a statute of limitations to end all civil and criminal proceedings in favour of an oral history archive, memorialisation and an ‘official’ history to be written by historians.[1]

            Historical analyses of a country’s troubled past have often been advocated to allow such controversies to be broached in an objective manner that can better unearth the truth and capture a plurality of voices, in particular those of victims.[2] Indeed transitional justice has been suggested as a means to ‘construct societal histories’. [3]  Historians have long been involved as expert witnesses in atrocity trials, where their role has been both experts and adversaries, advocates and protagonists in dealing with the past.[4] Yet transitional justice has also been criticised for its failure to better engage with historians by instead taking a more ‘short term’ view to phenomena ‘deeply enmeshed with political problems that were legal-institutional’.[5] However, as Bevernage warns the seductive turn to historiography to unravel an objective discourse on the past, can create a temporal distance and dissonance between the past and the present in terms of morality, where the search for finality in an ‘official’ history of the past can been viewed as hubristic.[6] In the midst of these issues Queen’s University Belfast Emeritus professor of history Liam Kennedy enters this fray with his book that aims to provoke and upset the personal and pluralistic accounting of the past to suggest that things were not all that bad, really the IRA were the most responsible and the nationalist community are to blame for not doing enough to chastise them. According to its back cover, the book aims to simplify the Northern Ireland context to export such an understanding to conflict resolution around the world.

            The book begins with a prologue with Kennedy’s own journey of over a decade to write this book. He sets this out on the backdrop of a play on the Troubles and his own gravitational moral pull of being an academic in Northern Ireland, especially during the Troubles, but also an ‘outsider’ from the south. He aims to use this positionality to colour the rest of the book as objective and neutral. The following introduction sets out the rest of the book with its frame of responsibility. For lawyers the use of responsibility would bring to mind notions of accountability, liability and guilt. There is an appeal to finding some certainty with responsibility over the Troubles. Kennedy frames responsibility as ‘those held to be responsible must have been committed to using violence to advance a political agenda; they must have been responsible for a significant share of the killings and wounding. They must have been prepared to use violence in the long term, irrespective of popular opinion; they must have had command of the resources – people, armaments, budgets – to engage in such protracted conflict.’[7] In hindsight it is clear that some groups fit this frame better than others, but it would be hard to suggest that anyone who picked up a rock, baton or gun in 1969 had the foresight of what was to come. The violence of the Troubles was not individual or communal, but also societal and of its time. Paramilitary groups continue to exist and exert coercive control in Northern Ireland because of their ability to reflect continuing marginalisation, grievances and the challenge of accommodating two communities in the face of scarce resources and shared governance. The book promises to tackle these complexities, yet often goes by personal opinion rather than evidence, and at times is detached from history and memory of the place.

Chapter one parades the usual suspects as responsible ‘candidates’ including the security forces, unionists, the ‘Orange State’, Protestant preachers, the main churches, Loyalists, Protestant paramilitaries, the civil rights movement, the British and Irish States and Republicans. His first candidate ‘history’ is dealt with in quite a cursory manner. The reader would have benefited from an interrogation of Northern Irish history that was ‘deep in time’, both in terms of context and mythology. This absence resonates the foreboding inevitability from the outset of the book that for the author the Provisional IRA is responsible for the conflict, the historical context being of little relevance to his analysis. This is understandable given the scale of violence the Provisionals carried out, but other actors are let off too lightly in ways that at times oversimplify the conflict.

This is the case for the violence by the state and Loyalist paramilitaries. For instance, Kennedy finds that after Bloody Sunday and the use of torture on civilian internees, ‘the British Army and the police learned over time. There were many Bloody Fridays … but there were no further Bloody Sundays.’[8] Yet this glazes over the role of the British Army in the Ballymurphy massacre, and the security forces responsible for shooting 188 unarmed civilians (more than the 18 Loyalists and 146 Republicans they killed). This is markedly less than the Republicans, who killed 722 civilians, and the Loyalists, who killed 878. Yet paramilitaries were not legal authorities nor were they mandated to protect the people of Northern Ireland. From a legal perspective in other contexts, we would define these as gross violations of human rights or crimes against humanity, and hold the State to a higher standard. All these violations and crimes were exacerbated by the culture of impunity fomented by the British government in covering up such crimes and paying off victims, thereby for decades denying their vindication that the harm caused to them was wrong and unjustified. As such Northern Ireland is in a situation where the burden of the past is left on the shoulders of victims to struggle to uncover the truth, obtain some form of justice or acknowledgment.

A purely quantified approach of who killed the most people during the Troubles narrowly frames responsibility. Fundamentally it is a search for someone to blame, to reduce so much bloodshed to pointing the finger. Conflicts are messy, relying simply on numbers leads the author down an epistemological cul-de-sac by suggesting that the origin of such violence of discrimination in housing and jobs for Catholics was ‘spun’ by civil right activists. [9] Yet this overlooks overcrowding in housing unfit for human habitation and socio-economic immobility through a lack of jobs. Later on he places blame for violence on the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, which is myopically reduced to a breeding ground for the Provisional IRA. Again this decontextualised and selective fact-finding ignores Loyalist and police violence against peaceful protestors at Burntollet Bridge and finally British soldiers opening fire on civilians in what became Bloody Sunday. This reactive violence to those wishing to peacefully change the status quo, stifled peaceful protest and validated those willing to use violence that the end of the gun was the best way to achieve their political ambitions.

The issue of paramilitary groups colluding with the state security forces is clumsily handled, with Kennedy finding that if Loyalist collusion was widespread ‘it was a remarkably inefficient practice.’[10] More problematically the author suggests that the use of informers to gather information saved lives, which is dangerous revisionism and legitimises the culture of impunity for state violence. While collusion can be used as an ‘ideology’ to counter the state narrative on the Troubles, calling it a ‘myth’ as Kennedy does, it overlooks statements by David Cameron around Pat Finucane’s murder, Justice Corey’s inquiry reports, the findings of the Police Ombudsman in the Loughinisland massacre, and more recently by the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers over the UK’s failure to carry out effective and independent investigations that would rebuke the ‘suspicion of collusion’ with the security forces in a number of deaths.[11] At the same time the Troubles were not some Catch-22 situation where the British security apparatus was a puppet-master of both Loyalists and Republicans. Informers did exist and blurred the rule of law. Those who informed often had different reasons for doing so out of financial gain, duress, shame, petty rivalries or jealously, and disillusionment; some were just gossipers.[12] In cases of collusion the state was not a neutral party, but acted like God in prioritising information and crime prevention over protecting life. Thus the problem with collusion is that it taints the state, which impacts public trust and fuels perceptions that the British government does not ensure and respect the rights of all within its jurisdiction.

Chapter two explores some of the justifications for violence during the Troubles or some explanation as to why those responsible kept on fighting for thirty years. Some good questions are raised, but the discussion does not follow through, using false equivalents and decontextualised analogies.[13] It highlights the absence of gender from analysis of the violence in Northern Ireland, but it reduces women to passive roles or binary identities of women being ‘“green” (less frequently orange) before they were feminist’.[14] This obliterates women from the history of the Troubles as peacemakers, fighters, politicians, journalists, victims and survivors, and community leaders. These include a range of leaders such as trade unionists like May Blood; politicians like Bernadette Devlin McAliskey and Monica McWilliams; and peace activists such as Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams. This tunnel vision of the past gives a revisionist analysis of violence in Northern Ireland, with chapter 2 concluding that the nationalist community was an ‘oppressive minority’ from the early 1970s, that Kennedy compares to the Alawites in Syria (Assad Bashar’s community), Sunni control of Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Tutsi control of Burundi and white apartheid in South Africa. Apart from being completely decontextualised, what all of these examples have in common with each other and not Northern Ireland, is that these minorities captured the state and used violence including genocide to maintain it. This assumes that Republican paramilitaries were manifestations of the nationalist community, which is dangerously disingenuous and overlooks political views manifested in political and social organisations, and the coercive control that armed groups had in communities.

It is somewhat refreshing to arrive at chapters three and four of the book, which represent a more objective, research-informed analysis of paramilitary punishment attacks. It is here that the book makes an important contribution in highlighting the brutal and sadistic use of attacks and shootings by armed groups on unarmed civilians and children. Kennedy spends the next two chapters (five and six) unpacking some of the practice, statistics and experiences of victims and their families subjected to maiming and at times murderous punishment attacks. He teases out the impact on victims, families and communities, referring to them as ‘silenced victims’.[15] Ultimately the Troubles created the conditions for low-level community violence to continue even after the peace process, as there was distrust in the police, or investigations could not be carried out due to security risks or lack of cooperation. There is a strong sense that Northern Irish society is ouroboric, wherein contested identity, communal violence and sectarianism are self-consuming and necessary to living in a place imbued with such polemic history and spilt blood engenders a ‘zombie’ mind-set for the inevitability of violence. This as Kennedy points out was not abated by victims of such attacks carrying them out as perpetrators on new victims.

The final chapter of the book on guilt, shame, ideological evasion and atonement, points to other places dealing with their pasts, such as Germany, Bosnia and Serbia. Kennedy suggests that each community needs to confront the violence of their affiliated paramilitary groups, with apologies to follow. There have been numerous apologies by paramilitaries during the ceasefire process and in subsequent years. Beyond this, the book falters, in particular it does not really have a strong vision of what we can do with responsibility, once it is established. It demonstrates the problem of leaving the difficult work of settling accounts of the Troubles in the hands of historians alone to sift through the past. Through reading the book the author’s opinion is given more weight than the evidence warrants, leaving the reader dissatisfied with the arguments made and explanations given. There are glaring gaps that obliviate the role of civil society, women activists and in particular the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). As a result, the book is a fine example of why we should rebut the sentiment by some in unionist quarters that we should leave it to historians to deal with the past. There is a clear place for an objective historical enquiry, but it is insufficient in providing all the answers that victims and society needs. The task of good historical analysis is to sift through the facts and evidence, including those that they may not personally agree with, and to identify patterns, perceptions and trends.[16] This is undermined when history is just used to confirm personal biases, to mask facts and obscure the truth. At the same time transitional justice cannot be solely left to lawyers, with their fixation on investigations which are compliant with European Convention’s Article 2 on the right to life, rather than a broader analysis of the conflict, in particular those were left seriously injured, suffered torture, sexual violence, and displacement.

The failure to deal with the past is comprehensively stressing the fragility of peace in Northern Ireland. In this space it allows what Ignatieff calls ‘permissible lies’ to continue to fester animosity in Northern Irish society, some of which are echoed in Kennedy’s book.[17] While Kennedy may place responsibility on Republicans and the Nationalist community more generally, the rules in Northern Irish society were rigged from the start. Self-determination was always stymied, whether is it Brexit or a border poll, as a vestige of a long lost colonial empire. More problematic is the question what (or who) blaming one side for the past really benefits when the Troubles were messy and most people were not supportive of violence. The spectre of violence in Northern Irish society is not one community’s responsibility. It is responsibility of everyone in the six counties of Northern Ireland, the rest of this island, and islands, to challenge those who would denigrate their neighbours, incite violence and maintain divisions.

Luke Moffett
Senior Law Lecturer, Queen’s University Belfast

[1] See Northern Ireland Office, Addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past, July 2021; and Christopher Leebody, British Government to commission official history of Troubles under legacy plans, Belfast Telegraph, 14 November 2021.
2 Anna Bryson, Victims, Violence, and Voice: Transitional Justice, Oral History, and Dealing with the Past, Hastings International and Comparative Law Review 39(2) (2016), 299-354, p332.
3 Christine Bell, Dealing with the past in Northern Ireland, Fordham International Law Journal, 26(4) (2003), 1095-1147, p1145.
4 See Vladimir Petrović, Swinging the Pendulum: Fin-de-Siècle Historians in the Courts, in N. Alder (ed.), Understanding the Age of Transitional Justice, Rutgers University Press (2018), 21-36.
5 Paige Arthur, How Transitions Reshaped Human Rights: A Conceptual History of Transitional Justice, Human Rights Quarterly 31(2) (2009), 321-367, p333.
6 Berber Bevernage, Transitional Justice and Historiography: Challenges, Dilemmas and Possibilities, Macquarie Law Journal 13(1) (2014) 7-24.
7 Ibid. p3-4.
8 Kennedy p14.
9 Kennedy p20.
[10] Kennedy p17.
[11] Execution of the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights McKerr and other seven cases against the United Kingdom, CM/ResDH(2020)367, 3 December 2020.
[12] Mark Drumbl and Barbora Hola, Collaboration(s): Vapid, Convenient, Conventional, paper presented at Law and Society Conference 2020.
[13] Kennedy p70.
[14] Kennedy p73. Vi
[15] Kennedy p126.
[16] Cheryl Lawther and Kieran McEvoy, The Trouble with Truth: Dealing with the Past in Northern Ireland, (forthcoming – on file with the author).
[17] Michael Ignatieff, Articles of Faith, Index on Censorship 25(5) (1996) 110-122, p113.