A joint review of Liam Ó Ruairc, Peace of Pacification? Northern Ireland After the Defeat of the IRA (Winchester, UK/Washington, USA: Zero Books, 2019) and Patrick Magee, Where Grieving Begins (London: Pluto Press, 2021).
I have been following politics in Northern Ireland since the late 1980s and have visited several times. During my first stay in 1991, Belfast was still under military occupation, which left a deep impression on me. During my latest visit in 2018, I did several interviews to report for German newspapers about how Brexit affected the political climate. I also try to keep up with new book releases and have recently read Liam Ó Ruairc’s Peace of Pacification? Northern Ireland After the Defeat of the IRA and the Patrick Magee memoir Where Grieving Begins.
The books couldn’t be more different. Peace of Pacification? is a rational, almost clinical, dissection of the so-called peace process. Where Grieving Begins is a personal account of an IRA volunteer involved in one of the most notorious IRA actions of all time, the so-called Brighton hotel bombing of 1984. The action killed five people who were staying in the Grand Brighton Hotel for the Tory’s party conference. Margaret Thatcher escaped narrowly.
I wondered whether it made sense to review both books at once, but I felt that the apparent contradiction relates, in fact, to a reality characteristic of any highly complex political situation: sober analysis is as much needed as personal contemplation. To capture the complexity, you cannot prioritize one over the other. Rather than as contradictory, I see the books as complementary. Whether their messages can, in some way, be merged is not the point. Both include, in their respective ways, important features in any attempt to understand the trials and tribulations of the communities of Northern Ireland.
One could argue that there is little space for nuance in Peace or Pacification?. Yet, it is not that kind of book. Liam Ó Ruairc explicitly writes “from the standpoint of Irish republicanism.” He has little sympathy for the “pragmatism” of the republican movement, in particular of Sinn Féin, leading to the Good Friday Agreement. Ó Ruairc rather speaks of an “opportunism,” bringing about an agreement in which “the price to be paid for the inclusion of republicans … was the exclusion of republicanism.”
Ó Ruairc’s study is thorough. He has gone through numerous sources on the history and politics of Northern Ireland. Convincingly, he presents the region’s history in the context of colonialism and imperialism and ties the most recent developments to the neoliberal era. The book also includes timely reflections on “truth” in the information age and the impact of identity politics on nationalist movements. Ó Ruairc’s observations on the disillusionment of Northern Ireland’s youth with politics, with a voter turnout that can fall under 40 percent, are disheartening. The answer to the rhetorical question of the book’s title is definite: “It is … more accurate to speak of a ‘pacification process’ in Northern Ireland than a ‘peace process.’”
In the introduction to Where Grieving Begins, Patrick Magee is clear on what the book is not about: “Anyone expecting to glean substantial hitherto-unrevealed detail about the planning, logistics and execution of the Brighton Bomb may be disappointed. (…) This memoir is … less an account of events … than a reflection on key influences, experiences, motivations and intent, and of the circumstances in which these have shaped the course of my life.”
The way in which Magee tells his story can roughly be divided into three parts: One, his childhood and youth, eventually joining the IRA. Two, his life as an IRA volunteer, his involvement in the Brighton bombing, and the years he spent in prison. Three, his work for reconciliation upon his release in 1999, most notably with Jo Berry, the daughter of Anthony Berry, a Tory MP who was killed in Brighton.
For people versed in republican literature, the descriptions of Belfast in the 1960s and 70s and the experiences with the British justice system might sound familiar. Yet, like every good memoir, Where Grieving Begins has its own voice and adds perspective, no matter how many republican memoirs you have read. There are also unique parts to Magee’s story, whether they concern his relationship to England, where he spent most of his youth, or the time spent as an IRA volunteer in a Dutch prison. Magee also points to often overlooked aspects of the conflict, for example the lack of support networks for the victims of IRA attacks in England, who often found themselves isolated in their grief.
As noted above, Magee dedicates the third part of his book to the reconciliation efforts he has been involved in for the past twenty years. He has made numerous public appearances together with Jo Berry, who also wrote the preface to Where Grieving Begins. The part opens with a powerful account of Magee’s first meeting with Berry – a highlight of the book for me, and, I would suspect, for most readers. Quite abruptly, a different dimension is introduced when already their second meeting is recorded by a documentary film crew. Several chapters follow that chronicle a very public way of coming to terms with personal tragedy and responsibility, including public talks, panel discussions, and television interviews.
I feel very uneasy commenting on any of it. There are two reasons. One, no matter how much factual knowledge you might have about the conflict in Northern Ireland, the process of reconciliation concerns those who have been involved. I lack insight into what other IRA volunteers, victims of republican attacks, or the people of Northern Ireland overall think about Patrick Magee’s work, and it is their opinions that count, not mine. Two, a strong sense of shielding the personal makes it difficult for me to process open forms of healing. I found myself skipping pages in Where Grieving Begins because I felt intrusive, even if obviously invited to witness the extraordinary moral and existential challenges implied in the exchange between Patrick Magee and Jo Berry. Needless to say, this is an issue I myself have to deal with. I am not questioning the way in which Magee and Berry conduct their exchange. It is their choice alone. And it would be very difficult to see it as anything but a tremendous contribution to the monumental task of reconciliation in the face of a conflict that has caused as much suffering as the one in Northern Ireland.
Patrick Magee does not denounce the armed struggle or his involvement in the IRA. “Violence,” he writes, “was a regrettable but necessary response to the greater violence inflicted on us.” It is rare to see military operatives of resistance movements opening up to their victims without denouncing their political past. Public repentance is usually part of the plot. It is certainly what would have been expected of Patrick Magee. This makes his stance a courageous and instrumental one. It shows that there is no necessary contradiction between acknowledging and facing the consequences of your actions and standing by the political convictions and strategic choices that have caused them. It is a difficult stance to take, but a big step toward constructive dialogue.
How much Magee would agree with Ó Ruairc’s assessment of the peace process, I don’t know. Magee doesn’t elaborate on contemporary politics. He would not have been released from prison in 1999 without the Good Friday Agreement, which he himself leaves no doubt about: “Were it not for the peace process, my projected date for consideration would, under the fifty-year tariff, have occurred in 2035.” Magee states in connection with his release that “I … was known to be a supporter of the current peace strategy” and that “my core political beliefs had not changed.” He later writes that “to this day I feel part of the broader republican movement” and that “I never fail to vote Sinn Féin.”
There are many republicans who show much more understanding for the “pragmatism” of Sinn Féin than Liam Ó Ruairc. There are also radicals in Northern Ireland who are as critical of republicanism as they are of British rule. As an outsider, it is not my place to comment on these positions.
What both Peace or Pacification? and Where Grieving Begins confirm is Ó Ruairc’s contention that the Irish conflict touches on universal questions. Ireland is indeed, in the words of the historian Roy Foster whom Ó Ruairc quotes, “an interesting country with a fascinating history that reflects all sorts of enormous issues about colonialism, postcolonialism, violence.” It is therefore correct that, as Foster continues, “Ireland and the study of Irish history can illuminate these in a very interesting and sometimes anticipatory way.” Reason alone to get hold of two books with this history at their very heart.
(February 5, 2021)