Britain is steadily moving towards the anticipated and dreaded exit from the European Union on March 29, 2019. For Ireland, the move comes with a mix of emotions, including fears of the re-ignition of a conflict that resulted in several thousands deaths over the span of several decades. The IRA has long been recognized as the extreme group responsible for dozens of bombs and acts of terrorism across Norther Ireland and London. But the reality is that many groups were involved in one of the world’s deadliest conflicts. I have been following Brexit since the referendum was held on June 23, 2016. The vote to leave the European Union sent shock waves throughout the world and left many wondering what would happen to both England and Ireland in its wake? I wanted to know more about the conflict in Northern Ireland and decided on this book by author Peter Taylor. And what I found inside its pages, has opened my eyes to a feud that would have dire consequences should it commence again.
Taylor explains early in the book that his first challenge was to decide on where to begin. He decides on 1916, when Patrick Pearse and his “Irish Volunteers” laid siege on the General Post Office in Dublin, proclaiming the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic. Their philosophy was modeled after Sinn Fein, created in 1905 by Arthur Griffith, a journalist in Dublin. Six days of fighting ensued before Pearse gave orders to surrender. On May 3, 2016, he was executed at the age of thirty-six. His life and legacy continue to live on after his death but I do not believe even he could have predicted the events that followed in Northern Ireland.
Taylor is beyond reproach in telling the story of the rise of the Catholic movement for Irish independence from British Rule. In 1919, the Irish Volunteers became the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the name it carries to this day and in 2910, the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 officially partitioned the country into Norther Ireland and Southern Ireland, allotting six counties to the north and the remain twenty-six to the south. In the north, Protestants are the majority and live comfortably under British rule. The Catholics are the minority and seek to be free of the control by the Government in London. Discrimination becomes a tool of the trade, relegating the Catholics the lowest level in society. Tensions begin to build and it is not long before both sides engage in violence. Fianna Fail was established in 1927 after breaking away from Sinn Fein and in 1996, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was created in response to the growing threat from the IRA. London soon realizes that Northern Ireland is a powder keg and sends in British troops to restore order. These various groups became entangled in a battle that was nothing short of all out war. And as we see through Taylor’s words, it nearly tore the entire country apart.
I warn the reader that violence is prevalent in the book. However, no story about the IRA, UVF and British Army conflict can be told without discussing it. Here, Taylor does not mince words and the acts of violence might even disturb the most hardened of readers. What I found to be even more shocking aside from the acts alone, were the ages of the young men and women involved, some of whom were no more than twenty years old. But they believed in their causes and were determined to fight to the death in support. As an American, it is with some difficulty that I was able to put myself in their position. I have visited Ireland, seeing the General Post Office in Dublin while embracing all that the Irish have to offer. But this story is not about the Irish breakfast or a pint of Guinness. This is the bloody story of sectarianism in its most violent form.
Many of the fighters on all sides are no longer alive having succumbed to death, old age and in some cases a hunger strike, as was the case in 1981 at Long Kesh, now known as HM Prison Maze. But in this excellent account of the conflict, their stories come back to life allowing the reader to go deep inside the mindset of the IRA and its followers. In hindsight, we have the privilege of examining the actions of all involved. But at the time, all believed that they were acting in good faith. And even in some of the interviews that Taylor conducts, the soldiers and activists stand firm in their convictions. The tense atmosphere, intimidation and fear that engulfed a nation is captured brilliantly by the author.
The British Government plays a huge role in the story for obvious reasons. And although London is slow to react to the building tension, but once it does, the story picks up pace and its intervention adds another layer of tension of the already explosive conflict. The administrations of Harold Wilson (1916-1995), Edward Heath (1916-2005), James Callaghan (1912-2005) and Margaret Thatcher (1923-2013) all tried their hand at moving the conflict towards peace. Thatcher would prove why she had been nicknamed the “Iron Lady” following the hunger strikes at Long Kesh in which Provisional IRA member Bobby Sands (1954-1981) died after being on strike for sixty-six days. The failures of London and the eventual success at achieving peace are covered extensively by Taylor in full detail, putting together all the pieces of a tragic story. One of the highlights of the book is that in his interviews, he was not afraid to ask the difficult questions of the interviewed. His approach and the unfiltered answers, give the book even more authenticity as Taylor takes us back in time, recounting a story that should never be forgotten.
Today, Ireland seems peaceful but beneath the surface, old tensions exist and in Northern Ireland, sharp divisions remain between Protestant and Catholic. Time will tell if the old rivalries will be resurrected and the IRA and UVF re-engage in deadly conflict. The hope is that calm prevails and he world can breathe a sigh of relief in a united Ireland. What is certain, is that a willingness to maintain peace will be needed by all sides. Wisdom and foresight will prove to be invaluable tools along with unwavering patience. The people of Ireland face an uncertain future but I remain confident that peace will prevail in the hope that all involved do not wish to see a return to the past. For anyone who is trying to understand the Northern Ireland conflict, this is a great book to start with.