Alex Kane: Malachi O’Doherty’s new book is remarkable insight into Northern Ireland

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The cover of this book – with the black and white photograph of a civil rights march, below the title, The Troubles And The Struggle For Change In Northern Ireland – might put some people off. They might easily mistake it for just another addition to the shelf of new books marking the 50th anniversary of the Troubles and then cast their eye elsewhere. That would be a mistake, for this is more than just another history. It is, in fact, a remarkable insight into Northern Ireland from one of its best writers and most thoughtful observers: one of the few capable of choosing a detached observation point and looking at the problem from different angles. Maybe that’s something to do with his passion for photography and an instinct for knowing that the most tellingly accurate shot is never the most obvious one. Anyway, this is the best book that O’Doherty has written.

I’m not even sure I would describe the book as history. It is a memoir, the personal reflections of someone old enough – he was 18 in 1969 – to remember the start of the conflict and yet curious enough to want to know what was going on around him when so many others were putting their heads down, or just accepting the narratives presented from within their own tribe. He retains that curiosity. He also retains a dislike for one-sided, blinkered interpretations; the sort of interpretations which ignore the flaws on your own side of the fence, while contentedly blaming ‘themuns’ for everything.

In a piece to accompany the publication of the book, he wrote: ‘My book seeks to be a corrective to our history which gives too much significance to people who did harm and ignored those who made such a difference that now even the political offsprings of the paramilitaries have had to adopt the agendas of gay rights and abortion law reform.’ The Troubles isn’t just a stand-alone event. It isn’t just one story, either. It is the story of everyone of us who lived through it (I was just 14 in 1969, but shared and retain Malachi’s curiosity). It is thousands, hundreds-of-thousands of stories, each one from a slightly different perspective and each one as important and valid as all the others.

O’Doherty is right to say that the stories we hear most are those of individuals and organisations who want to present themselves as victors of some sort or, at the very least, as justified in what they did. These are the voices and narratives which have tended to drown out the work of those who never lifted a gun or planted a bomb, yet whose crucially important work can now be seen in what might be described as a post-conflict revolution which actually began years before the Good Friday Agreement.

As he notes: ‘The issues on which people are campaigning are more concerned with human rights than with civil rights, with the right of the individual to identify by orientation or gender or nationality. These issues are less about the relationship between the citizen and the state, as in 1969, and more about the citizen’s sense of self and entitlement to relate to others. The causes are more secular and liberal, though there are counter-causes too, which would put us into a more conservative and religious polity...We still have a divided society that seems to want to divide wider issues between the sectarian factions. So unionists now oppose abortion, same-sex marriage and support Israel while nationalists, broadly speaking, support abortion, same-sex marriage and Palestine.’

Personally, I think he’s wrong on the latter point. Increasing numbers of unionists, particularly younger ones, seem comfortable with same-sex marriage and abortion reform and I think the DUP will shift on those issues fairly soon. Stupidly, though, elements of unionism got it into their heads that those issues were, somehow, Sinn Fein demands; which is why there was/is a reluctance to embrace them as part of a perfectly sensible strategy of equality of citizenship across the entire UK. But I do accept his broader point about the continuing tendency to divide certain issues between the sectarian factions.

I was particularly struck by an observation about Jamie Bryson and Lyra McKee: ‘She was the same age as Jamie but represented something else, a secular liberal trend in society, away from the old division. There are still young people like Jamie, as passionate as their forebears about the old quarrel, and some like Lyra for whom the past is a curiosity, not a commitment.’ There were people like Jamie and Lyra in the summer of 1969, too. There will probably be people like Jamie and Lyra in 2069.

O’Doherty doesn’t opt for a conclusion or firm prediction: he’s canny enough to know that the usual rules of commentary and observation have never applied to Northern Ireland. But running through his book is the oddly optimistic sense that things are never quite what they seem here; meaning that anything, at anytime, is possible. Most people do get on with their lives and always have done, with hundreds of micro organisations and mostly unknown individuals making the sort of differences-for-the-better that only become obvious years later. Maybe that is the best we can hope for. If so, it strikes me as a much better option than the industrial-scale rewriting of history and opening of old sores that fill the pages of far too many us-and-them histories landing on my desk.