Writing the ‘Troubles’: purpose and practice

By Jack Hepworth

Nearly 30 years have passed since John Whyte established that Northern Ireland is the most intensively studied place on earth. In the three decades since, much has changed in that complex polity, but the scholarly gaze on the region remains intense. Yards of bookshelves are devoted to the conflict in and about the north.

The overwhelming majority of this scholarship has assessed the war’s militants: republicans lead the way, while loyalist paramilitaries have received slightly less attention. Chris Ryder, Gearóid Ó Faoleán, Aaron Edwards, Edward Burke, and Stuart Aveyard have scrutinised the role of state actors, namely the British Army, Royal Ulster Constabulary, and Ulster Defence Regiment. The field has transformed since 1998: through much of the twentieth century, revisionists had studiously avoided discussing armed republicanism, lest scholars lend ‘legitimacy’ to republican grievances.

At several levels, today’s focus on the conflict’s most radical actors is justified. Their organisations accounted for the majority of the approximately 50,000 casualties, including more than 3,500 deaths, which punctuated the war over three decades. If historical research ultimately seeks to understand the human condition and agency, extreme expressions seem to present a greater analytical challenge. Over the past 20 years, the varied roles ex-combatants have played in socio-political initiatives rank among the most enduring transformations of Northern Ireland’s undulating peace process.

Having recently submitted a doctoral thesis on the internal dynamics of Irish republicanism since 1968, I am as culpable as anyone for perpetuating this academic emphasis on armed actors. My fascination with the national question extends back to childhood days around the Donegal-Fermanagh border in the late 1990s. On the Donegal side of those border areas which now feature regularly in Guardian long reads, the conflict occupied a strange place in collective memory: central at times, seemingly marginal at others. On a breeze-block wall at a junction on the Ballyshannon-Donegal road, the faded paint of a ‘Smash H-Block’ graffito always caught my attention. I remember relatives talking of negotiations, brinkmanship, and whether the ceasefires would hold, while I listened, strangely enthralled.

Academics have asked increasingly interesting research questions about armed actors in Ireland’s recent history, probing the internal dynamics of their varied organisations and finding several sub-conflicts within this overarching conflict. Rogelio Alonso, Cynthia L. Irvine, and Kevin Bean all explored pathways to, through, and away from militant politics. This scholarship gave qualitative embellishment to the work of social movement theorists such as Donatella della Porta and Hanspeter Kriesi, who had explored how activists navigated their multi-layered identities and organisations.

Grassroots cross-community movements in Northern Ireland have received remarkably little attention. Although short-lived, the Community of the Peace People indelibly impacted politics in the late 1970s, attracting mass support before leadership wrangles caused its demise. A footnote in Key Stage 2 religious education textbooks aside, the Peace People have been the subject of just a couple of articles and one (unpublished) doctoral thesis. Feminist and leftist groupings have been similarly marginalised, with only cursory attention paid. We still know very little about grassroots cross-community initiatives predating the 1990s.

There is also an ethical dimension to academic focal points. Having been censored by the London and Dublin governments for so long, since 1998 ex-combatants have enjoyed considerable opportunities to put their varied stories on record. These testimonies continue to contribute to a vibrant seam of research. But what about the experiences of bystanders caught in the conflict? The injured, the bereaved? Journalist Susan McKay’s work remains remarkably rare as an account of those (often unaligned) individuals profoundly affected by the conflict.

Writing the ‘Troubles’ navigates what Deborah Britzman calls ‘difficult knowledge’. How can historical research inform critical awareness in Northern Ireland today, around commemorations and symbols, for example? This is partly a question of which stories we tell. Parades controversies and flag disputes are well documented, but we know far less about the remarkable Irish language education programmes in east Belfast, or the vital grassroots work of the South Tyrone Empowerment Programme, or encounters in integrated schools in County Fermanagh.

When we pose the question of why we study the ‘Troubles’, different disciplines give contrasting responses. Scholars of ‘terrorism’ and security studies take a diagnostic approach: understand the past so, in the vogue phrase, ‘it can never happen again’. Social movement theorists harness examples of mobilisation for a wider comparative literature. A middle way between these two positions might be most fruitful. It is a truism of university entrance exams and interviews to say that understanding historical causality, agency, and process renders our understanding of the present. If we are serious about applying this adage in practice, this means producing scholarship which speaks to the present and to diverse publics. The historiographical turn to memory is especially valuable for thinking about how communities contest and mediate their histories, and how these perspectives shape political outlooks today.

The shortcomings of the Good Friday Agreement constitute a strong starting point for historians of Northern Ireland today. In an era of political bankruptcy either side of the Irish Sea, when the Agreement is invoked frequently but assessed rarely, we would do well to approach the last two decades critically. As commentators such as Seán Byers have eloquently articulated, economic and social deprivation continually besets Northern Ireland. Instead of pathologising present-day grievances as some atavistic, inexplicable desire to return ‘to the dark days of the past’ – to quote the stock media phrase of British politicians whenever violence recurs – we should situate socio-political inequalities historically.

Much of the most stimulating work on Northern Ireland today has this future-facing component, and moves beyond tired narratives of stasis. Amanda Hall and Eric Kaufmann have critiqued the peace process to ask why and where zero-sum politics and bigotry endure. Adrian Guelke has helpfully located Ireland among comparable conflict (and ‘post-conflict’) trajectories worldwide to make sense of contemporary political malaise. This scholarship is moving towards problematising the reductive narratives which ‘post-conflict’ categories entail.

Among the healthiest aspects of scholarly engagement with the conflict has been the growing trend among academics of collaborating with community partners in research projects. Trailblazing scholars like Sophie Long, Gareth Mulvenna, and Connal Parr have set a new standard for engaging with, not just within, the communities whose stories they are exploring. Prompting critical reflection in communities contributes to the vitality of these cultures of engagement. The best of this work complicates past legacies, and destabilises static, unhealthy narratives of age-old tribalism. Simultaneously critical, public-facing, and contemporary, these channels of inquiry represent the most propitious ongoing work in this most densely studied corner of the planet.

(Image: Paul Downey Flickr)

Jack Hepworth recently submitted his PhD thesis at Newcastle University. A Research Excellence Academy scholar, Jack’s doctoral work analysed the dynamic heterogeneity of Irish republicanism between 1968 and 1998. He also has research interests in food poverty, Irish migration to the north of England since the early nineteenth century, and the political and cultural dimensions of sport in Ireland. You can contact Jack at j.w.hepworth2@newcastle.ac.uk.

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