stories for boys
July 6, 2012 10:47 PM   Subscribe

All I know about Northern Ireland is from films from1990 to the present.

I'm trying to get a grasp on the conflict in Northern Ireland. No matter how much Wikipedia I read or films I watch, I still can't get t. I need to know how it started, which factions are on what side and how this led to violence and also how it played out in everyday life and pop culture at the time. Outside of that area, what countries were on what side? Book recs and film recs appreciated. What is the status now?
posted by asockpuppet to Law & Government (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I have only a layperson's understanding, but your questions are fairly basic, so in the absence so far of real experts answering, I'll give it a go. It would be useful to find out exactly what you found lacking in Wikipedia. Although its articles on this subject have the scars of long edit wars and, like pretty much everything on Wikipedia, could do with some serious copy editing, they answer all your questions above. For example:
how it started - Background of the Troubles
which factions are on what side - see under Belligerents here
how this led to violence - The beginnings of the Troubles in the late 60s
how it played out in everyday life - Social Repercussions

If you don't get on with Wikipedia, there are plenty of other resources. The BBC has a decent section, covering your 'how did it start' and 'who is on which side' questions well. The Guardian has an interactive history you might find useful. Insight on Conflict have a brief overview with the key parties and a timeline.
Here's an article about how popular culture has attempted to talk about the Troubles.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 2:40 AM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

In terms of books, I would recommend Making Sense of the Troubles: A History of the Northern Ireland Conflict by David McKittrick. I would also recommend making notes. Literally, you make two columns starting with the very basics:

Catholic: Republican/Nationalist, Irish identity, minority, Irish Republican Army (IRA), green, Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin

Protestant: Unionist/Loyalist, British identity, majority, Ulster Volunteer Forces (UVF), orange, Ian Paisley, Democratic Unionist Party

...and adding items from there. There are a huge number of names, factions, events, groups, etc. so eventually you may end up with a largescale chart but building from a simple list is genuinely helpful to keeping everything organised. Once you get the basics down, the nuances become more evident and interesting.

I am not clear on your question about countries as the Troubles were not an international conflict. Northern Ireland was and remains a part of the United Kingdom; not a lot of countries are going to tell the UK to give up a large piece of its sovereign territory. However, the IRA was funded and armed in part by Libya (because Gaddafi enjoyed pissing off the British government) and by fundraising groups in the US.

As to what the status is now, there is peace in Northern Ireland with a power sharing agreement in place for government. There is still a lot of segregation in key areas like education and housing, and the occasional bout of sectarian violence. There is, since the end of the Troubles, now an additional element in which a lot of this conflict is no longer about religion or constitutions or even history, but about control over drugs trade and sex trafficking.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:11 AM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ed Moloney is a respected commentator on it, and his Secret History of the IRA book is excellent.

Very, very broadly: England conquered Ireland roughly 800 years ago and took it as part of the Empire, where it remained until an unusually successful attempt at rebellion in the early 1900s. Negotiations followed, the outcome of which was partition and the state of Northern Ireland. That situation was unpopular enough to lead to civil war within the new southern state between those who thought partition an acceptable compromise, and those who did not.

The north of Ireland had always had the deepest ties to England and was most deeply colonised, and within the new state Catholics were discriminated against heavily. The modern IRA (there was a previous version) came into being in the 1970s and started the campaign we now think of as the Troubles, which was a reaction to the discrimination, and on the Protestant side there were multiple groups formed to fight them/protect their own population.

Almost 30 years of miserable bloodshed, torture and death followed; I have had to stop reading some of the books that go into detail on it because of the nightmares I was getting. There were no heroes. The Good Friday agreement in 1998 led to a peace that is still, thankfully, holding.

Everything around that is the detail, of which there is more than enough to take a lifetime of study. There are multiple splinter groups within the post-1970s period, and multiple rebellions (most famously in 1798) before the Easter Rising in 1916. During the 1998 negotiations we had amusing tales of Unionists and Republicans refusing to talk to each other at the negotiating table but chatting away in the bathroom. The hatred and bitterness of the civil war is still an important factor in present-day Irish politics. But fundamentally, the conflict is pretty simple - control of land and power. I'm not sure there's every any other reason.
posted by StephenF at 6:56 AM on July 7, 2012

Very, very broadly: England conquered Ireland roughly 800 years ago and took it as part of the Empire,...
Please note that England never conquered Ireland at this time. Rather, the same people who conquered England in 1066 conquered Ireland in 1169. They were Norman, not English.
posted by Jehan at 10:42 AM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

A fair point, and one among many glossed over or left out of my summary.
posted by StephenF at 12:37 PM on July 7, 2012

And remember, as if it is not sufficiently complicated, more Irish Nationalists were killed by the Irish Republicans during the Irish Civil war (June 1922 – May 1923) than were killed by the British during Irish War for Independence (1919-1921). After living in Ireland on and off for the last 8 years the history of the US, since it founding as a country, is much much simpler than that of Ireland,the UK or for that matter any of Europe.
posted by rmhsinc at 1:42 PM on July 7, 2012

I am from NI; I grew up in Belfast in the 80s and 90s, so I'm going to tackle the 'how it played out in everyday life' part of your question.

The 1970s and 80s were the worst of the Troubles; by the time serious peace negotiations started in the 1990s, the absolute worst excesses of violence started to subside. I don't have first-hand memories of the 1970s, and I was a child at school for most of the 80s, but the Troubles were the background against which everyday life was carried on.

Here are some things I remember:

- The Troubles were a kind of drip-drip-drip of violence on the news. Our local (Northern Ireland) news bulletins would headline most nights with something related to the Troubles: bombings and murders.

- Police stations were built like fortresses, with massive walls topped with barbed wire and observation turrets. (This was particularly jarring in tiny villages near the border with the Republic of Ireland; you'd drive through a very small village with a post office and a pub and a MASSIVE FUCK OFF POLICE STATION). This was in stark contrast to the rest of the UK where police stations were quite accessible places. I went to university in England, and I remember my mother remarking, when she came to visit me, on how strange it was that you could just walk in to the main city police station. Some time after the ceasefire, a friend saw a policeman riding a bicycle and not wearing a flak jacket. You have to appreciate just how astonishingly weird and incongruous that was after 30-odd years of the Troubles.

- The British Army was very visible on the streets; you'd see soldiers in camouflage gear toting guns patrolling a lot, and army checkpoints were a regular feature of car journeys.

- There were a lot of bombs, but there at least ten times as many bomb scares. Bomb scares generally involved someone from one of the terrorist groups phoning the local news organisations and giving a recognised code word. The disruption to normal daily life, especially in and around Belfast, was considerable. Office buildings were evacuated, traffic would get snarled up for hours as a result of main roads being closed. TV broadcasts would regularly be interrupted by police messages requesting keyholders in such-and-such a place to check their premises, generally late at night.

- At one point in the early 1990s, some of the larger towns, including where I lived, installed bright yellow metal barriers across the main routes of access to the town centres. These could be closed at any time, barring access by vehicles to the centres of towns, which was supposed to help deter car bombs. I remember having to regularly make long detours to get home when the barriers were lowered, and I still remember very clearly what it felt like when, after the ceasefire, the barriers were taken away. It was a tangible sign of things changing.

- In Belfast and a lot of the larger towns, you would regularly have your bag searched when going into shops. After the Good Friday Agreement, and the ceasefire, it was actually pretty weird to get used to this NOT happening. For a while I found myself pausing at the entrance to shops, expecting to be searched.

- If you flew between Belfast and London, you were channelled through an entirely separate area of Heathrow and subjected to much tighter security.

- As a direct result of the Troubles and the acknowledged anti-Roman Catholic discrimination, NI has fair employment legislation which makes it compulsory for employers to monitor the religious affiliation of job applicants and employees.

- Northern Ireland was -- and still is -- a VERY segregated place. There are whole towns which are predominantly Protestant (Ballymena; Lisburn) or predominantly Catholic (Newry). Education up to the age of 18 is also mostly segregated - there are few truly mixed schools.

- Northern Ireland in the 1980s had virtually no immigration. No one wanted to come and live here. It was about 99.9% white and English-speaking.
posted by meronym at 4:07 PM on July 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

Seconding Making Sense of the Troubles as recommended above, which is a good, even-handed explanation (as far as I can judge from this geographical and historical distance).
posted by andraste at 5:18 AM on July 8, 2012

On one aspect of your post, how other countries saw the Troubles I' m Irish (Cork City)lived in Germany and Spain and travelled widely and while not as dramatic as the support for the IRA in the US most people I spoke to were anti-British. The vast majority (of those who even knew where Ireland was, Islandia? Brrr Que frio!!) thought the whole island was a war zone and dangerous and some people even now still will not visit NI as tourists. (if anyone is still reading this, NI is an amazing place to tour and people are incredibly friendly) I've been called a traitor by one Breton friend when I voted in favour of the Agreement. My sense is that people outside these islands have a much more polarised view of the Troubles than people here.

what I found fascinating visiting NI during the Troubles was the routine stop & searches while we were touring beauty spots. Meronym's examples are awesome, I was totally gob-smacked when we crossed into NI at the huge concrete structures with gun emplacements that seemed bigger to me than the Berlin wall crossing I'd seen the year before. The Boa valley drive was spectacular but after the 4th stop & search it jarred and I wondered how the hell the locals got anything done. I noticed a huge difference in how the British army patrols dealt with us as opposed to the UDR, (polite versus quite rough, I got really shitty when one guy dangled my 6 month old baby by her babygro while he searched her car seat)

The sense of two communities who see each other as "Other" took centuries to develop and won't disappear in a short timeframe. My daughter went to Uni in Dublin and last year her group met some lads from Belfast on a night out who said that they thought they'd have difficulty socially in Dublin once people heard their accents. I was gobsmacked by this and those of us born in the Republic really don't get how segregated NI still is.

I would imagine the majority (?all?) Northern Unionists thought people in the ROI hated/feared them but growing up in the 70s and 80s to be honest we didn't have a clue. The education system changed in Ireland during my lifetime thankfully and our History and Irish lessons transitioned from "what the awful British did to us poor saintly Irish" to more nuanced "This is how feudalism and colonialism worked in Ireland, India etc.," and included information on how clan violence pre Norman invasion didn't exactly work in our favour when faced with more advanced organisation & technology. The sense however that Unionists were not really Irish, that they by their beliefs rejected a sense of Irishness was quite profound and probably has a lot to do with how strongly the catholic religion was woven into the Irish identity.

There were a few local pubs on the northside of Cork city where at the end of Friday night drinking the hat was passed to raise money for the IRA and a neighbour was shot in an internal IRA fight but other than those things the Troubles never impinged on my life in the South. Oh, but when family visited from the USA they were all "Rah, rah the awful British" and I know from relatives in Boston that there was a hell of a lot more support for the IRA financially and in every other sense than there was in the Ireland I grew up in.

I remember once meeting the Rev Ian Paisley in Strasbourg and expressing my surprise that he had sought out the visiting Cork group to chat to. He said "Ah sure we're all Irish over here" and that was the first time (19 years old and embarrassed as hell to admit it) that I fully realised that all Unionists didn't necessarily hate all Irish people, that they too were profoundly Irish. When you're not exposed to the "Other" you can't learn about them easily and that what was going on with those lads from Belfast in the clubs of Dublin. Everything they internalised growing up leads them to expect that people in the ROI hate them and might do them harm when the reality is that stupid drunks on a Saturday night don't need any excuse to start a fight but if one had started, those lads would assume it was their identity that caused it.

I'm now living in the UK and before coming here I assumed many British people were anti-Irish ('cos hell "we" even bombed their horses!) for similar reasons and it has been an eye-opener the extent to which the opposite is the case.

And finally I wonder if what you're struggling with is the same I did when I was reading about what went on in Sarajevo and Bosnia?
posted by Wilder at 6:19 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

and about how it plays out now, one small anecdote. The Irish tourist board worked with the NI tourist Board even before the Good Friday agreement on marketing the Island of Ireland as a tourist destination. The more outward looking the more there is a sense of common ground IMO. There are more mixed schools and less religiosity and to me Education is crucial in understanding what has happened.
I recently saw one of the murals was painted over with a golfer. The first link has some interesting insights.
posted by Wilder at 6:28 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Robert Kee's The Green Flag is (or was, for a time) the standard reference work for understanding the origins of the Troubles. I'm not sure if you're looking for that level of detail, but all of your questions about the past can be answered there. For a look at the more recent history of the conflict, PBS's Frontline did a typically strong job with Behind the Mask: The IRA and Sinn Fein - not sure how hard it is to track down a copy now; an Irish friend of mine had it on VHS back in the day.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 8:06 AM on July 8, 2012

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