Terry O'Brien, Deputy Librarian, Waterford Institute of Technology, Waterford, Ireland
Historical Dictionary of the Northern Ireland Conflict
Lanham, MD and Plymouth
978 0 8108 5583 0
Dictionaries, History, Northern Ireland
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
The Historical Dictionaries of War, Revolution, and Civil Unrest series has been running now for some ten years. The Historical Dictionary of the Northern Ireland Conflict is number 35 in the run of this impressive list edited by Jon Woronoff. Published under the Scarecrow Press imprint, “the unchallenged champions” of the historical dictionary (Reference Reviews, Vol. 22 No. 6, p. 3), this edition is both a timely and useful addition to the subject.
Dr Gordon Gillespie, from the Institute for Irish Studies of Queens University Belfast, has a strong pedigree and track record of research and writing about Northern Ireland and “The Troubles”, and is experienced and well-qualified in putting this work together. The dictionary has all the features we have come to expect from a good historical dictionary – a chronology of events, lists of acronyms and abbreviations, an introductory essay, a bibliography and the detailed dictionary part itself. Cross-referencing is wide-ranging and is highlighted by bold text. At 250 short pages, this is not a comprehensive or all-embracing work, but it is concise and compact, offering an extremely informative starting point particularly for those with little prior knowledge of the conflict. For those with some understanding and familiarity of the subject, it is equally a handy ready reference offering a practical introduction and covering all the major events, personalities, incidents and organisations.
The author acknowledges that for those interested in more serious detailed research, other “essential works of reference” such as the CAIN website (CAIN, 2008), Elliott et al. (1999) and Bew and Gillespie (1999), should be consulted. The bibliography warrants particular mention. Over 20 pages, it offers a broad representation of the wide scope of materials and essential works produced on Northern Ireland. Not confined to books, the bibliography is presented in themes including historical background, women, religion, security forces, symbols, imagery and cinema. Also included are separate lists on feature films, television documentaries, poetry, drama, fiction and useful websites. The bibliography though can only touch on the “enormous amount of material produced on the subject over a relatively short period of time”. The Northern Ireland Political Collection of the Linen Hall Library alone holds 15,000 books (and growing) on the conflict, “possibly the most researched area in the world”.
The introductory essay is particularly instructive as Gillespie traces the background of the modern-day Troubles and tries to reason why there is such an “inordinate interest” in the North. He places socio-economic underdevelopment in context, highlighting Northern Ireland as traditionally the poorest part of the UK with the highest rates of unemployment. Following partition in 1921, it was “relatively peaceful” until the late 1960s when a combination of events including the advent of the Campaign for Social Justice and the Civil Rights movement, socio-economic inequities, sectarian conflict, the growth of paramilitarism, the Battle of the Bogside and the deployment of British soldiers on to the streets of Ulster (which was to last for another 30 years) culminated in the first death of the modern Troubles – Francis McCloskey. The author sketches the various failed political initiatives, highlighting the Downing Street Declaration (1993) as the “key political document” of the era. Gillespie cites the IRA ceasefire of 1994 as the beginnings of increased communications between the British government, Sinn Fein and the IRA, through what has since been known as the “back channel”. Various attempts at talks, direct talks, talks about talks highlight the importance of perception and semantics in Northern Irish politics. The fallout over decommissioning of weapons and the putting of weapons “beyond use” is another example of such subtle sensitivities. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement was a defining watershed in the history of the conflict and best signifies the transition from “Troubles” phase to that of the “peace process” phase.
Gillespie does not fall into the trap of presenting the facts and events of the last 30 or so years in terms of simple dichotomies. It is an unbiased treatment, a “fair and balanced guide” (editor Woronoff). His account does not of course represent the end of the Northern Ireland narrative. The IRA declared the end of their armed struggle in July 2005; March 2007 saw Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) agree to participate in a devolved executive, and the British Army officially left Ulster in July 2007. However, the political process remains dogged by policing issues, ambiguity, and at time of writing the Executive remains at stalemate over the transfer of police and justice powers. Although a political settlement is edging closer, social normalcy may unfortunately be some way away yet as sectarianism and segregation remain endemic. There is a degree of stability and conventional governance – nobody could have predicted that Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness would form a First and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland partnership, but uncertainty remains following the retirement of the former. The recent tenth anniversary of the Omagh bomb atrocity and the controversy around Steve McQueen's recent Bobby Sands film Hunger have served to highlight how sensitive and raw the legacy of the Northern conflict remains.
It is difficult to add value to such a well-researched area. Gillespie has, though, produced a reference book of good quality and excellent clarity. This historical dictionary is recommended and will most likely find a home in academic libraries, amongst undergraduates and those with an interest in but little knowledge of the conflict. I suspect that the publishers have a firm eye on the North American market. Students of Irish and British politics and history, researchers, government libraries, and public libraries will also find it worthwhile.
Bew, P. and Gillespie, G. (1999), Northern Ireland: A Chronology of the Troubles, 1968-1999, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, MD.
CAIN (2008), “CAIN web service: conflict and politics in Northern Ireland (1968 to the present)”, University of Ulster, Derry/Londonderry, available at: http:cain.ulst.ac.uk/index.html (accessed September 2008).
Elliott, S., Flackes, W.D. and Coulter, J. (1999), Northern Ireland: A Political Directory 1968-1999, updated edition, Blackstaff Press, Belfast.