Top critical review
A caveat about a very good book, otherwise worthy of five stars.
Reviewed in the United States on March 4, 2019
This book fulfills the needs of many of us who have relied upon limited accounts in US news media to understand the decades of "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland. Its detail complements what I learned during a visit to Northern Ireland in 2010 which helped me to understand the causes and impacts of the strife there and to anticipate the risks to the stability of the intervening two decades of "peace" which are threatened as decisions about post-Brexit borders loom.
My caveat about the value of the book is that for those who may not closely read and assimilate the information in the relevant pages, for example 274 and 333, the casual reader may reach the conclusion that the paramilitary republican groups were the initial, and the sole, perpetrators of violence. Sifting the books' contents closely, one does find elements which negate that conclusion. On page 274 we learn that loyalist groups, supported by members of the British state, killed "hundreds" of civilians. On page 333, this charge is reiterated and the refrains, "What about Bloody Sunday?" and "What about Bloody Friday?" are charged as if in justifying one action by another. Further there are suggestions that the authorities may have tended to rely more heavily on transcripts that revealed violence by republicans than those of loyalists, perhaps because the latter might reveal the role that those authorities had played in league with the loyalists' causes.
The complex nature of this tragic time should not be reached shallowly by readers' impressions. I call for greater balance in leading to understanding what drove these events. In 2010, I visited the Bloody Sunday museum in Derry not long after British officials finally officially acknowledged that their earlier defense of the actions leading to the death of 14 individuals engaged in a peace march had not been accurate. Finally, after more than three decades, it was admitted that 14 innocent and unarmed peace marchers were mowed down, some killed by a shot in the back while running away, by a military acting without justifiable provocation. The author did well characterize the disproportionate violence by the authorities in his account of the marchers who were met by authorities at Burntollet Bridge but here the outcome was not as mortal even if it fueled the subsequent violence in reprise.
Personalizing the victim who was the widowed mother of 10 and following through with descriptions of the impact on her children might cause many readers to assign all the blame for The Troubles on the IRA. Having heard the story of an adolescent school girl who was killed by a rubber bullet from a military gun, her blood cleaned off the sidewalk by the mothers in the neighborhood, I had acquired a personal acquaintance with this victim of the authorities. By also personalizing the victims of violence that was brought by authorities, among these, the little girl hit by the rubber bullet or the 14 peace marchers who were intentionally killed, the author may have been able to achieve better balance. Surely, too, the author might have personalized a few of the victims among the "hundreds" that were killed by the loyalists? Knowing the innocence of those victims and the impact on their loved ones that followed from their senseless killing would have provided the balance that many readers might benefit from. Personalizing only one victim has rendered imbalance.
A close reader already acquainted with the events may not have needed a balanced rendering but those readers, so informed, may not have needed to read the book. I only "down-star" my rating because of concern that blame needs to be balanced so that cause is understood and change can be embraced. Staying in a B&B in Derry, we met a South African who was there to consult on Truth and Reconciliation. That program involves divulging guilt to achieve reconciliation. What can the perpetrators and victims of violence in Northern Ireland learn when there is balance among the blameful?