Behind Unbending Irish Factionalism

BITING AT THE GRAVE: THE IRISH HUNGER STRIKES AND THE POLITICS OF DESPAIR. By Padraig O'Malley, Boston: Beacon Press, 330 pp., $22.95

REMEMBER the abortive Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985? Remember the enthusiasm in Dublin, London, Washington - and the rage of both Protestant and Roman Catholic die-hards in Belfast? There was hope that the killing would stop at last, that men and women of good will and common sense would triumph over the gunmen on all sides, including those in plain clothes of Her Majesty's Special Air Service.

Those hopes quickly ebbed in a subtle, perplexing way that Padraig O'Malley's brilliant interpretation of the Irish problem in the 1980s will help us understand. The agreement was never broken: It lapsed, almost by default, as muttering began among cynics and skeptics, the fearful and the fatalistic. It won't work, it can't work, they argued: The extremists are too strong, the reasonable folk too few. Some shrewdly placed bombs were cited as evidence, conditioned reactions and traditional slogans took over, and ``the troubles'' continued as before, with an ``acceptable'' level of violence, and no end in sight.

Why? How? Eighteen years after British paratroopers killed 13 Catholics on ``Bloody Sunday'' in 1972; 22 years after Catholic civil rights marchers were clubbed down by Protestant police; 68 years after rampant civil war finally ended with partition in 1922; 192 years after Wolfe Tone's insurrection failed in 1798; and precisely 300 years after the Battle of the Boyne cemented Protestant power in 1690, the Irish troubles continue - though on a relatively small scale, in a few clearly defined corners of the north. Why? How?

Most writers answer with long historical litanies, crammed with facts and dates, with socioeconomic analysis, and with references to inertia, stalemate, and the balance of political forces. Consider, for example, Tom Wilson's recent ``Ulster: Conflict and Consent,'' a calm, academic study in the conventional mode. Useful, no doubt; but does it get to the human heart of the matter?

O'Malley does. He digs beneath the data and beyond the headlines to probe into attitudes, anxieties, assumptions, mutual misperceptions, all the issues that French historians in the 1960s began calling ``the study of mentalities.'' He draws not only from masses of interviews in Belfast and elsewhere, but also from a close textual analysis of statements and speeches by all sides.

So this is political deconstructionism, a fascinating and fair-minded probe into the meaning of words and the behavior of adversaries who share the English language, but little else, who listen selectively, speak polemically, misunderstand constantly, and hate ferociously. The result is a terrible burden of myth, legend, and dogmatism: If Americans know too little history, then the Irish know far too much - and that of a politicalized, grossly simplistic kind from which no wisdom derives, no defeat is forgotten, and no compromise is conceivable.

These conclusions flow inescapably from O'Malley's focus on the hunger strikes of 1981. Bobby Sands, 26 years old, and nine other men of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) all starved themselves to death over a four-month period in the Maze/Long Kesh prison. Having interviewed their families and friends, O'Malley helps demythologize these men, whom he sees neither as hardened terrorists nor as patriotic idealists.

As working-class men from Catholic districts which had experienced both Protestant attacks and British Army harassment, they joined the IRA as a normal action, to remedy their sense of victimization by hitting back.

Their deaths achieved nothing. Everybody lost: the IRA, by ordering - or perhaps accepting - an action whose failure was predictable; British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher by disdaining all compromise, even as British officials manipulated secret negotiations, and as obscure IRA men gained a martyr's crown; and Protestant leaders, whose sneers at the dying, and at the Catholic hierarchy for not labeling them as suicides, revealed a heartless, demagogic streak.

In his calm, ironic way, O'Malley is delivering a crushing verdict of moral and intellectual bankruptcy on all sides, with no way out. When language itself becomes a weapon rather than a means of communication, can a lawyerly document, like the 1985 agreement, be expected to accomplish much? O'Malley's conclusion is clear: The troubles in Belfast, like those in Beirut and Jerusalem, have no forseeable end.

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