Wednesday, 22 October 2014

New BBC Documentary on the Troubles

Colin Reid

A scene of a loyalist gathering from Who Won the War?
Who Won the War? is the provocative title of a documentary about the Northern Ireland Troubles, which recently aired on the BBC. Written by the veteran journalist Peter Taylor, Who Won the War? marked the culmination of a professional life devoted to reporting, documenting and explaining the Troubles. The documentary hinged on conversations with former combatants whom Taylor has known for some time: they were shown footage of their youthful selves and asked to reflect on what they said in the past and the subsequent course of their life. We saw the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, watch his younger self tell a Sinn Féin conference that it will be ‘cutting edge of the IRA’ and not political action that delivers Irish freedom; the leader of the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party, Billy Hutchinson, reflected on an earlier interview he gave to Taylor, in which he asserted he had no regrets for his part in the murder of two Catholics in 1974. It was a chilling reminder of the horrors of Northern Ireland’s recent past, and how far we have travelled.

That journey was not easy, of course; and many people feel they have been left behind. The stability of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing political structures in recent years has been built on an agreement by the ‘extremes’, namely Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party. But Taylor notes that this agreement has created tensions and splits within republicanism and loyalism; there is an alienation of the extremes in today’s Northern Ireland, which manifests itself in the twin challenges of ‘dissident’ republican paramilitaries and loyalist concerns over flags, marches and cultural identity.

Taylor ultimately decides that the unionists won the ‘war’, as all parties now accept the principle of consent. Northern Ireland’s constitutional status can only change if a majority of its population says so; but given the poison unionists have swallowed regarding police reform, prisoner releases and having former IRA members in government, few from the Protestant community see it as victory. Despite Taylor’s conclusion, the stark words of Lord Prior, a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who suggested without hesitation that violence worked for the IRA, carries a terrifying logic with which many unionists would probably agree.

As in all societies, perceptions are as strong as realities in Northern Ireland; that some see peace as a continuance of war by other means is a real barrier to true reconciliation. Twenty years have now passed since the IRA and loyalist ceasefires of 1994; but does Northern Ireland have peace or merely an absence of war?

Colin Reid is a Senior Lecturer in History at Northumbria University. He received his PhD from Queen's University Belfast in 2008. Reid, whose research focuses on the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Anglo-Irish dilemma, is the author of The Lost Ireland of Stephen Gwynn: Irish Constitutional Nationalism and Cultural Politics, 1864-1950 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011).

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