Writing the Troubles

By Richard English 

How should we think about Writing the Northern Ireland Troubles?  The post-1960s conflict in the North embodied a localized version of numerous world-historical forces: the tension between nation and state, with associated issues of political legitimacy; the power of religiously-fuelled nationalisms; the mutually shaping intimacy between non-state terrorism and state counter-terrorism; the jagged evolution of peace processes; and the painfully enduring reality involved for people damaged by merciless violence of the kind that occurred in Northern Ireland.

So these are Northern Irish, Irish, and British-Irish Troubles. But they also have resonances far beyond those islands.

In thinking about how we write these bloodstained histories, let me argue that we need to pay attention to important geographical aspects of the process.

Much of what we now need in the emerging literature should focus on the very local: on what happened, and where, and to whom, and why, and with what consequences – at emphatically local level.  In many ways, the Northern Irish Troubles involved numerous local cycles of conflict, and recognizing this is essential for full explanation. If the next generation of scholars were to generate the kind of powerfully researched local studies that are now on the shelves for Ireland’s 1916-23 Revolution, then serious progress would have been accomplished.

At the other end of the geographical scale, however, it seems to me that we still have a rather solipsistic approach to the study of the North’s recent Troubles.

Even some of the better recent books on the era would fail to command interest beyond those who are already intrigued by Northern Ireland, and this is partly because they do not sufficiently engage with those world-historical forces to which their Northern Irish attention has been drawing them.  This is not to argue for neat similarities, or for easy cross-references.  Rather, it is to suggest that the full importance of what we see in the Troubles (especially at local level) will only be realized if those who are writing the experience read deeply and widely and comparatively enough to be able to distinguish the inevitable from the contingent, the unique from the commonplace.  To write authoritatively about Northern Irish nationalism, terrorism, counter-terrorism, state dynamics, religious motivation, and so on necessitates an engagement with those phenomena as such, and elsewhere.

At present, too many bibliographies in studies of the North suggest the absence of such intellectual range.   But the historian’s instinctive attention to the particularity and uniqueness of each setting and context is the basis for rigorous comparison, not its enemy.   And much of the best (and most enduring) work on Northern Ireland has been that which happens to be about Ireland, but whose richness and intellectual range transcend it.

Ultimately, this wider-angled approach relates to intellectual ambition.  As Eric Hobsbawm put it in his 1979 Birkbeck College Inaugural Lecture, ‘the major question of history’ concerns ‘the transformations of human kind’.  The challenge for the best scholarship on the Northern Ireland Troubles, whether by historians or scholars from other disciplines, is simultaneously to attend to the very local dynamics of those shameful years, while keeping a learned eye on what is significant in the Troubles for those whose experience and interests lie mainly beyond them.


Richard English is Professor of Politics at Queen’s University Belfast, where he is also Distinguished Professorial Fellow in the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security, and Justice.  His books include Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA (2003) and Does Terrorism Work? A History (2016).

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