The Blanket

This Troubled Land
This Troubled Land: Voices from Northern Ireland
on the Front Lines of Peace
by Patrick Michael Rucker.

Reviewed by Seaghan O Murchu

 

Anticipating another account of a visiting journalist's tour of duty--hunkered in a West Belfast flat, with a furtive foray or two up the Shankill, before a junket to the Bogside--I began Rucker's account wondering how he would live up or down to my expectations. Apparently lacking the family lore of Kevin Toolis, the upbringing of Jack Holland, the political ties of Jonathan Stevenson, or the media clout of Peter Taylor, American-born Rucker (only in his late twenties) continues reporting from the trenches--only this time digging in where East Belfast pauses just shy of the Short Strand "on that old, jagged fault line near Madrid Street." (9) On this front line, the familiar divide reifies itself, physically and demographically. But, unlike on his student trip there in 1991, he now types his tales while waving at those upon the glass-roofed, double-decker tour bus rumbling past his upper window.

Rucker's itinerary often follows that of the tourists. Shorter chapters on the chance meeting of ex-blanketman Anthony McIntyre and a former prison officer from Long Kesh, the UFF's "Post-Conflict Resettlement Office," Catriona Ruane's encounters with Protestant factions over a Belfast St. Patrick's Day celebration, Breandan MacCionnaith at the Garvaghy Road, Robert Hammill's death at Portadown, and the love of Sharon and Kevin across the sectarian lines drawn in rural Desertmartin all broaden the scope of Rucker's investigation but leave the reader wishing for more depth, or an engaging hook with which to pull the reader closer to the people he interviews. Necessary as recent coverage of such situations remains, the tone of these chapters rarely departs from the feature articles filed by an American media outlet's Belfast correspondent. (Rucker's bylines appear at the Boston Globe, the New York Daily News, National Public Radio, and Newsweek.)

When Rucker uncovers fresh stories energised by post-GFA complications, he updates events sketched by Toolis, Holland, Stevenson, or Taylor, among many others. The Frizzell's fish shop bombing carried out by Thomas Begley killed him and nine customers, among them the parents of Michelle Williamson, and thirteen-year old Leanne Murray. The efforts of the daughter and parents, respectively, of the two victims, to seek justice or the reticent struggle of the Begleys to comprehend how their son could be manipulated into such an act even as the first IRA cease-fire was planned by his superiors: all three families remind the reader of the living casualties of violence who never rest in peace. Following up these vignettes in a tete-a-tete with Johnny Adair and a wry take on Eddie Copeland's feud further underscores the futility of gangland hits carried out behind the guise of community defense. Rucker's alertness to how both men play up to his presence as the American witness to their preening and boasting subtly sharpens his descriptions of their complicity in the post-GFA cycle of retribution.

This leads into chapters on punishment beatings and the disappeared. Again, under Rucker's control, these stories gain more depth than previous accounts, which lacked necessarily the benefit of hindsight. Eddie Copeland reappears. Liam Cairns' assault and especially Andrew Kearney's murder at the hands of purportedly fellow republicans highlight the hypocrisy of the leadership claiming to speak for the republicans of Belfast when these spokesmen are confronted by the relatives of their victims with the truth. Likewise, the long efforts of Jean McConville's family over two decades to clear her name of being an informer and to find her grave reveal the intransigence and doublespeak of the supposed republican leadership. (Her original sin was to cradle a seriously wounded British soldier lying on her doorstep during a Divis Flats firefight.) Again, the IRA and Provisional Sinn Fein leave many of their decisions unwilling to be appealed, even in the changed political climate in which they assert their desire for reconciliation.

A long chapter on Bloody Sunday, focusing upon the testimony of Private 027 and the family of John Young, clearly sets this by now familiar scene, but by keeping its scope narrow, achieves an immediacy of detail often blurred in more comprehensive renderings. Necessarily incomplete due to the ongoing Saville inquiry, Rucker's report nonetheless helpfully sets up the context and aftermath clearly for those readers looking for a current overview of the investigation and its effects on two of its participants. The view from Derry does make the reader wish throughout the book for more detail on the effects of the war over the areas outside Belfast; while brief parts of the book do this (excepting the Drumcree chapter--pro forma for any visiting journalist), the heavy concentration on the urban terrain leaves one wondering exactly how those in Desertmartin or the "Glen Folk" up in Armoy (a tantalising aside) fared over the past decades.

A lengthy chapter on "the last rebels" may prove for The Blanket's audience the most intriguing. Often we resistors from the Provisional diversion of the republican contingent over the past decade have been asked why we don't throw in our lot with those who claim to continue the physical-force tradition. Rucker's substantial treatment of RSF surveys Joe O'Connor's murder and the subsequent denials by the Provisionals of their involvement; Michael ODuibhir's idealism as an RSF Falls Road office volunteer; and Josephine Hayden's incarceration in Limerick. Rucker views Hayden's commitment as more admirable than the momentary enthusiasm of an office staffer, and his visit with Danny Morrison (coupled with a look at his role in the interrogation of IRA intelligence officer Sandy Lynch) serves to contrast the official party line of republicans with the activism pursued by a dwindling cadre. The chapter's concluding glimpse at the fate of one such CIRA volunteer, Maghaberry prison's Tommy Crossan, leaves no doubt that Rucker's opinion of current republican hard-liners finds them as much pawns of the larger republican endgame as their victims. He speaks to one RSF staffer who feels betrayed by the Provisional use of comrades in the early 1990s to carry out actions leading to death or imprisonment even as the leaders prepared to call a cease-fire. While Rucker cannot condone their subsequent devotion to fighting for the betrayed ideals of 1916, he sensibly presents the reader with a quandary.

Both Morrison and Hayden, he ponders, "claimed the same history and venerated the same martyrs." (167) Does this make their difference--in choosing a two-handed hoist of the ballot-box or clinging with both arms to the armalite--"anything more than a capricious personal conceit?"

The lack in this otherwise welcome analysis of the current state of dissident republicanism leaves out the role of such as the former prisoner Anthony McIntyre and those with whom he works to promote a third way forward, one rejecting both the CIRA (or RIRA) armalite and the (PSF-controlled) ballot-box. As well as the surreptitious thuggery carried out by rogues in the shadows of now-legitimised republican party politics. This reviewer still awaits the book that brings forth this role for a twenty-first century republicanism free of the violence of Hayden or the compromise of Morrison. As Rucker asks, where would readers of The Blanket weigh in? Where is your place between or among such republican colleagues as Josephine Hayden or Danny Morrison? Each of them might deny the legacy of Pearse and Connolly to The Blanket's audience. How do proponents of another way forward unite behind causes and not caprice?


This Troubled Land: Voices from Northern Ireland on the Front Lines of Peace. Patrick Michael Rucker.
New York and Toronto: Ballantine Books, 2002. 230 pp. USD $24.95. Can $37.95.
Excerpts from the book may be found at the Amazon.com website

 

 

 

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