Liam Kennedy’s latest book, Who was Responsible for the Troubles?, examines the part played by around a dozen participants in the conflict.
Dr Kennedy, emeritus professor of Irish History at Queen’s University Belfast, said that the idea for the book began at a play at the West Belfast Festival in 1999, the year after the Belfast Agreement.
He thought that it was “an incredibly dreary, stereotypical” depiction of the Troubles, about “the oppression of Catholics within the Orange State”.
Dr Kennedy, who is originally from Tipperary and whose previous books include Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish? says of the 1999 production that “dramatically to me it didn’t work at all”.
Yet he was struck by the rapturous applause for it, and wondered if there was “a sense of suppressed guilt in this almost frantic need to believe in the cruelty of the other, Ulster unionists, loyalists and so on?”
That led to another question, he says, who was primarily responsible for the Troubles?
“So you have the British state, the Irish state, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, UDR, British Army, Official Sinn Fein and IRA, Provisional Sinn Fein and IRA, People’s Democracy and so on,” Dr Kennedy says.
“So it’s kind of whodunnit, and I do go through each of these systematically, many people will disagree obviously with my handling of them therein.”
He concluded that the group primarily responsible was “the Provisional IRA and their associates”.
Christmas week 1969 is a crucial moment, Dr Kennedy believes, when a breakaway republican faction constitutes itself the provisional IRA.
In the first issue of An Phoblacht in February 1970, “there is no doubt [PIRA] wasn’t just a defensive organisation”, but rather was arguing that the British could only be got out of Ireland by force of arms.
Dr Kennedy describes the start to the violence as hesitant and chaotic with “loyalists rampaging on the streets, the British army initially did not seem to know what it was doing and then engaged in some appalling things”.
He says: “But if you want to explain why the Troubles went on year after bloody year, decade after decade, then I think the indicator of responsibilities swings back heavily towards the Provisional IRA.”
At the virtual launch to his book yesterday Prof Fearghal McGarry, who introduced the author, asked Dr Kennedy if he was simplifying a complicated conflict, and overlooking the long power imbalance in the NI state due to the long British history here, and the fact that very few nationalists regarded the British state as having legitimacy.
Dr Kennedy agreed that there was “a major power imbalance” which excluded nationalists from power and that Catholics suffered discrimination but it was “more complex” and “not as widespread” than “in popular renditions of the Orange State”.
He said the setting up of the Northern Ireland state was a mistake, as was the 1913 formation of the UVF and the 1919-21 Irish War of Independence.
But “it does not follow that armed insurgency was the necessary concomitant” of the situation that nationalists faced. Reforms were in place by the start of the 1970s.
Dr Kennedy says he has friends who pinpoint the DUP founder Ian Paisley as the “key figure in all of this”, but that while he is “hugely critical” of Dr Paisley, who he thinks was a “sectarian bigot”, he “just don’t see his role as that significant in the larger picture”.
• Who was responsible for The Troubles? The Northern Ireland Conflict is available from McGill-Queen’s University Press and in book shops. £19.95/ €22.95 /$34.95 CAD
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