Reporting the Troubles

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The period in the history of Northern Ireland that has become known as “The Troubles” spanned three decades and saw the loss of over 3,600 lives. More than 2,000 of these were civilians and all this in an area that contained less than 2 million people.

This book is an attempt to tell some of the stories of this time, beginning with the civil rights movement in Derry in October 1968 and concluding with the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998.

More than 60 journalists have written short pieces, each recalling a person or episode that was significant to them. These include the big moments, such as Bloody Sunday or the Enniskillen bombing, but also less well-known events. Some of the most powerful are tributes to people killed while trying to do their job, such as journalist Martin O’Hagan, whose killers have never been brought to justice.

The articles contain some fascinating insights into the way that journalists operated in such a dangerous environment.

Most of this period predated mobile phones and the internet. There was much more emphasis on face-to-face contact and knocking on doors, often seeking to question people who had recently suffered trauma and loss. Many of these journalists are still surprised and touched at the way they were received on these occasions.

There are passing references to reporting restrictions imposed by the authorities, Martin Bell being one of the few contributors to address the question head-on when he admits, “Censorship? Of course there was censorship, although I denied it at the time.”

This is a very interesting and well-written collection. There are certain limitations to the format, however.

Starting with the civil rights movement means that there is no real consideration of what an unpleasant entity Northern Ireland was from its inception, particularly for the catholic minority population. There was routine discrimination and violence, most of it sanctioned by the state. This had already gone on for nearly half a century prior to 1968 and continued throughout the years under consideration here, with the tacit approval of successive UK governments.

There is a danger, which some pieces fall into, of treating resistance to this oppression as though it were the same as the oppression itself. This, in turn, leads some contributors to fall back on the tired “men of violence” tropes as a way of explaining the period.

Many of the stories and accounts are, indeed, harrowing and make for difficult reading. There is, however, a definite shortage of analysis and explanation of how things came to be that way.

I was drawn back to the words of the great Scottish socialist James Connolly. Speaking in 1914, Connolly predicted that any future partition of Ireland would “mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish Labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured.” This book is further evidence, if it were needed, of just how right he was.