Fifty Years On: The Troubles And The Struggle For Change In Northern Ireland

Malachi O’Doherty

Atlantic Books, £18.99

Malachi O’Doherty remembers where he was the night the guns came out in Belfast.

“I had turned the corner on to the Falls when I heard the first string of blurts from a machine gun,” he writes in his timely and hugely absorbing new book, Fifty Years On: The Troubles And The Struggle For Change In Northern Ireland. “At first I had no idea where it had come from. There was another... I ran.”

O’Doherty was 18 years old in August 1969 when the armed conflict in Northern Ireland erupted into life following a series of clashes, first in Derry and then, later, in the province’s capital, between nationalist protesters, loyalist gangs and the RUC.

In the coming decades he would go on to cover the conflict as a journalist, writing extensively for the Belfast Telegraph, the Irish Times and The Scotsman, among other publications. But as a teenager, he couldn’t grasp the significance of what he’d just seen. These were the opening moments of a civil war – the first shots in a cycle of violence that would persist, in various mitigated forms, well into the next century.

Fifty Years On is a personal memoir of Belfast during the Troubles. O’Doherty describes the bars he worked in before he became a reporter, the girls he dated and the people he went to school with – more than a few of which ended up carrying weapons, disappearing in not so mysterious circumstances, or being interned as the hostilities intensified.

More than that, though, the book is a detailed political account of the conflict: what sustained it, and why, in some key respects, it hasn’t yet reached a conclusive denouement.

O’Doherty’s core claim is that the Troubles fundamentally undermined social progress in Northern Ireland; that longstanding religious and sectarian loyalties subsumed other important cultural shifts – notably, the sexual liberation of women and gay people – that were also beginning to take root in the late 1960s. He attributes blame for this fairly evenly between the rival sectarian factions.

“For decades, militant ideologues stalled all political growth and reform with their determined focus on a phantasm,” he writes at one point, of the provisional republican movement, “the idea that Britain was an oppressor who could be ejected by force.”

It’s an interesting thesis and, given the current state of politics at Stormont, not an easy one to refute. Under the existing power-sharing agreement, the two major parties – Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionists (DUP) – can exercise a veto over any legislation they think might be “detrimental” to their communities. The hardline unionist DUP has consistently used this mechanism – the “petition of concern” – to delay the legalisation of abortion and same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, even as these rights have been rolled out across the rest of the UK and in the traditionally conservative Irish Republic.

O’Doherty is convinced that the DUP’s obstructionism is out of step with modern, mainstream Northern Irish opinion – and he’s right. Surveys show that at least 60 per cent of people in Northern Ireland support gay marriage, including 50 per cent of Protestants, while an even larger majority – 70 per cent – back more liberal abortion laws.

It’s not difficult to identify the source of O’Doherty’s antipathy towards doctrinal politics. As a teenager, he found the atmosphere on his predominately Catholic estate – Riverdale, on the southern outskirts of Belfast – unbearably oppressive.

“I was a boy who in any other city would have followed his impulses rather than behaved because I wanted to be free,” he says. “What I wanted to be free from and free of was local and particular: the shadow of a tight religious and disciplinarian culture.”

It comes as a bitter to irony to O’Doherty that the distorting influence of sectarianism is now at the centre of another pressing political controversy: Brexit. Alongside Scotland and London, Northern Ireland supported Britain’s continued membership of the EU in 2016. But the DUP backed Leave and is currently, as part of a de-facto coalition with the Tories at Westminster, trying to drag the entire country out of the European trading bloc. The party even seems determined to push through a no-deal Brexit at the expense of a hard border on the island of Ireland.

O’Doherty sees the Brexit crisis as a tipping point in the debate over Irish unity. Although he has always reflexively identified as Irish, he admits to feeling, on some level, profoundly British.

“How can I not,” he writes, “when I have watched British television all my life, read mostly British literature, paid my taxes into the British exchequer and been treated by the British NHS?”

As a result, he was never an enthusiastic advocate of the all-Ireland project. And yet Brexit, he says, hasn’t just forced him to choose between his nominal British and European allegiances, it has revealed how utterly marginal Northern Ireland is to the Westminster political class.

“Brexit is all that really tempts me to play my part in breaking [up the Union],” he writes, “to vote my way back into Europe through a united Ireland, perhaps more to punish Britain than to find a safe haven.”

He is, of course, far from the only reluctant or late-blooming nationalist in Ireland. Polls are beginning to register significant levels of support for reunification on both sides of the border; Sinn Féin, meanwhile, is ramping up its demands for a border poll in the event the UK leaves Europe without a deal. But O’Doherty remains anxious about how Brexit might affect the 1998 peace deal and worries that it could provide an opening for the province’s dissident paramilitary groups – groups, he warns, “that are going nowhere, if they can help it, but back to war.”

One recurring character in O’Doherty’s narrative is Lyra McKee, the 29 year-old journalist shot dead by members of the New IRA, a republican splinter group, during a riot in Derry earlier this year. McKee was a lesbian woman who grew up after the war had officially come to an end but wrestled, in her journalism, with its legacy of trauma.

It’s not clear if O’Doherty knew McKee personally, but her death seems to symbolise, in his eyes, the false promise of armed conflict and the tragic pointlessness of the North’s enduring tribal divides.

“She had been part of the real revolution, young, gay and anti-sectarian,” he writes. “Many saw her as the first martyr of that revolution. She was cut down by a gunman clinging to the possibility of a defunct revolution reshaping Ireland.”

Somewhat against the guiding tone of the book, O’Doherty insists that he is optimistic about Northern Ireland’s future, whether it remains part of the United Kingdom or decides, ultimately, to join the Irish Republic. The lynchpin of this optimism is his conviction that a new generation of Northern Irish people – McKee’s generation – is starting to abandon the old ritual obsessions with nationality and religion, and focus instead on their distinctive sexual orientations and secular identities.

“[Half a century] on from the civil rights campaign and the deflection of its energies into violence, Northern Ireland is discussing rights again,” he concludes, “and freeing itself from political and religious chauvinism, reforming itself as it might have done in the 1960s and 1970s.”

With Brexit looming and the devolved political system still in gridlock, he may or may not be right about this.

But in Fifty Years On, O’Doherty has nonetheless drawn a beautifully layered and engaging profile of Northern Ireland as it reels into the 21st century. Hopefully, the next fifty years will be better than the last.