As Marc Mulholland suggests, there are many - even "too many" - good books on Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, he clearly feels that much can be said more pithily on this subject, and goes a long way towards demonstrating this possibility. This book is no piece of seminal research to shatter specialists' preconceptions of a difficult terrain, nor is it among the more heavyweight surveys of the conflict. Even so, it is a welcome and competent introduction to the subject from which large audiences outside Northern Ireland would benefit.
Mulholland's account of the explosive evolution of Northern Ireland is necessarily focused on the past three decades, but the attention that he gives to earlier developments is worthwhile. Certain events and influences outside Northern Ireland, however, deserve greater elaboration, especially in terms of their impact on the ideologies of those within the six counties: the famine and the fate of Protestants in southern Ireland after 1921 are prominent examples.
In his discussion of the more recent period, he identifies details that may well have escaped general or partisan audiences. While many will be used to hearing predictions about the demographic inevitability of a united Ireland, Mulholland demonstrates instead that Northern Irish Catholics have historically been far from unanimous in support of this objective. The minimal influence that Mulholland estimates Sinn Féin played in determining the political structures to emanate from the Good Friday Agreement will surprise some British readers, and Mulholland also partially restores the reputation of the maligned Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, suggesting it made a significant contribution to the "peace process".
This eye for detail is surprisingly marred by some unfortunate factual mistakes. Mulholland errs over the date of Bloody Sunday, and connects two of the Loyalist political parties to the wrong paramilitary organisations, even misclassifying the PUP (the Progressive Unionist Party) as the "Popular Unionist Party" into the bargain. Mulholland's publishers should surely take responsibility for his book's once attributing to the Provisional IRA the aim of a "30-county republic". But it is unfair to dwell on such a blunder when Mulholland is at his best in describing aspects of the Republican mindset, especially the heavy-handed policies of British governments in the early 1970s as powerful agents for Provisional IRA recruitment.
Mulholland's is such a humane book that it is a shame the people of Northern Ireland themselves do not appear in bolder outline in its conclusion. While hopeful, Mulholland warns that "politicians at least see a continuing need to rally and manoeuvre in a never-ending struggle to preserve and favour their respective traditions". In fact, it is not the politicians "rallying" people in Northern Ireland that we need to worry about, so much as their distance from the populace. The politicians have purchased for themselves relative safety, official positions and ever-increasing MLAs' salaries.
Meanwhile, many civilians feel few of the fruits of peace, or even peace itself, and have not been protected from riot, intimidation, punishment beatings, or seeing friends' and family's killers given licensed release from prison. There is a real fear that the coming Northern Ireland Assembly elections will see a strong vote for parties opposed to the agreement, or only very conditionally committed to it. If this comes to pass, the baffled outsider would be better advised to seek an explanation in Mulholland's careful pages than to indulge in the customary recriminations.
G. K. Peatling is a postdoctoral fellow, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada.
The Longest War: Northern Ireland's Troubled History
Author - Marc Mulholland
ISBN - 0 19 280292 5
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £8.99
Pages - 209