The Blanket

Review: Making Sense of the Troubles: The Story of Conflict in Northern Ireland

Buffy Maguire

In “Making Sense of the Troubles: The Story of Conflict in Northern Ireland,” David McKittrick and David McVea embark on a sojourn into the 20th Century politics of Northern Ireland, analyzing the formative historical events that shaped the violent conflict and the ensuing peace process.

McKittrick and McVea write from a framework that while the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement is not yet fully “rooted,” it nevertheless marks a transition away from the more tumultuous “Troubles” of the late 1960’s through to the end of the 1990’s.

Organized chronologically, “Making Sense of the Troubles” guides the reader through the 1920’s to the present day, buoyed through complex periods of time by distilling key concepts and players, such as the naming of the “three most important figures in Northern Ireland” and the “three types of Unionists.”

In their chapter entitled “The Static Society, 1921-1963,” McKittrick and McVea contend that the seeds of the conflict were imbedded in the formation of the Northern Ireland constitution that only exacerbated existing “fault lines” in Northern Ireland society. Their discussion of the absolution of the proportional representation and the arming of the security forces of the Ulster Special Constabulary (the B Specials) and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) is particularly poignant.

“The extraordinary thing is that the system lasted for so long,” the authors ultimately conclude about this systemic consolidation of control:

McKittrick and McVea’s discussion of the relationship between the British government and the Unionist leaders, corroborated with historical documents, is the strongest analysis of the book. They chronicle a century of strife wrought with difficulties, suspicions and distrust.

“What is striking, from a series of comments in various memoirs and elsewhere, is the nervousness and even fear displayed by the British politicians when considering Unionism.”

Consistently McKittrick and McVea’s write as if they are reaching revelations while writing and, consequently, they engage the more casual reader.

“Making Sense of the Trouble’s” most laudable achievements are the comprehensive chronology, sizable statistical tables and impressive glossary of key terms which are invaluable tools for anyone trying to piece the conundrum of events in Northern Ireland more easily.

A book for scholars “Making Sense of the Troubles” is not. In reality, McKittrick and McVea do not provide new, earth shattering analysis, but instead they are at their best when they pinpoint important, complex events simply and palpably.

However, “Making Sense of the Troubles” does occasionally fall into the acrid trap of oversimplifying matters on a few, important accounts.

Some of their over sweeping conclusions are presumptuous, if not, dangerous. For instance, they recount, “One reason for its [the Unionist state’s] durability was the degree of disadvantage suffered by Catholics, which was less severe than that experienced by minorities in other countries. The Unionist state did not organize massacres of Catholics or their expulsion from its frontiers: it cannot be said to have engaged in active persecution or savage repression.”

Indeed, in these instances, McKittrick and McVea draw incredulous conclusions in pursuit of wanting to appear even-handed—an elusive chase in the politics of Northern Ireland.

Nevetheless, “Making Sense of the Troubles” is a find, since it presupposes no base knowledge, as many other books on Irish politics do, but yet still provides a thorough account which reads like a long newspaper article.

The end of “Making Sense of the Troubles” is really the beginning of the future of Northern Ireland, but McKittrick and McVea fill in some of the gaps and give you the resources to better translate the complexity of the notoriously encrypted “Troubles” of Northern Ireland.

(Two well-known writers to Northern Irish Politics, McKittrick and McVea have co-authored books on Northern Ireland and the most recent Lost Lives. McKittrick writes a politics column in the Independent newspaper).




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The man who lets a leader prescribe his course is a wreck being towed to the scrap heap.
- Ayn Rand

Index: Current Articles

3 November 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Addressing Organised Crime
Billy Mitchell


Leading You Back To The Start
Anthony McIntyre



Carrie Twomey


Review: A Secret History of the IRA
Deaglan O Donghaile


Review: Making Sense of the Troubles: The Story of Conflict in Northern Ireland
Buffy Maguire


Yes, Palestine Is Still The Issue
Aine Fox


Support & Solidarity
Davy Carlin


31 October 2002


The Real IRA
Eamonn McCann


A Stick To Be Beaten With
Anthony McIntyre


A Modest Proposal

Tommy Gorman


Minimum Wage or the Abolition of Wage Labour?
Liam O Ruairc




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The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
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