Making Sense of the Troubles by David McKittrick and David McVea

Part I of an American’s Library for Making Sense of the Palestine Israel Mess: This section is five books from outside the conflict that explain the conflict: This is Book 3:

*Update for St Patrick’s Day, 2023: This article speaks to similarities and differences between the violent  Catholic/Protestant struggle in Ireland from the 1969 to 1999 (The Troubles), and the ongoing violent struggle between Palestinians/Israel.  In the original review I neglected a good Irish Catholic boy, former Congressman Peter T. King (NY).  Oversight on my part. No one drives home the point I want to make better than this guy.

    A generation ago Peter King, as an American public official, went out in front of God and everybody trumpeting support for the Irish Republican Army’s bloody struggle against oppression by Northern Ireland Protestant regime and the British Government that protected, armed, and bankrolled the Protestants.  King’s family had emigrated from Ireland. His mother’s side was Irish Republicans going back to the Easter Rebellion of 1916. Peter supported Noraid (most prominent Irish Republican fund-raising support group in America during the Troubles), made incendiary remarks including support of terrorist attacks that killed civilians, had gratuitous photos taken of himself with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams…

  Here’s the kicker,

      In 2019 this same Peter King, a  Congressman by then, was first signatory of a thinly veiled threat by the American government, delivered to the Irish Parliament, that America would crush Ireland’s economy if the Irish passed a popular law banning imports from Israeli colonies in the occupied territories. You may not have heard about this but you can be sure the Irish population did.

        To his credit, during the Troubles King acted as liaison between primary parties including President Clinton, Gerry Adams and many others. He played a significant role in peace talks that eventually resulted in the ‘Good Friday Agreements” in 1999, which brought relief to people in that long suffering country. To his shame, twenty years later King moved to usurp Ireland’s  right to promote the same relief to Palestinian people that the Irish had fought, and bled, and won for themselves.

So, on St. Patrick’s Day, here’s a toast to Pete King and his legacy in the Emerald Isle, “Slainte, boyo. A golden shamrock and a turd.”

Making Sense of the Troubles by David McKittrick and David McVea. 2002 New Amsterdam Books, Chicago. 356 pp

Good Irish writing by an award winning journalist and a political science scholar. Book is nicely set up with a useful 80 page chronology of events following the main text. A violent chapter in Northern Ireland’s long, tumultuous history, ‘The Troubles’ lasted from 1969 to 1999. During these years Catholics fought Protestant and English military troops in a bloody civil rights campaign where both sides engaged in bombing and killing each other and innocent civilians as well. Authors provide thumbnail history of modern Northern Ireland from its founding in 1920 in context of events leading to beginning of The Troubles. Does a fine job explaining centuries-old provocations that manifested throughout these tumultuous years.

Followers of the troubles between Israel and Palestine sometimes point a hopeful finger towards peaceful resolution of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland as an example of religiously divided people locked in long-term deadly fighting who found their way out of it. To read Making Sense of the Troubles is to be struck by how similar the incitements to violence are and, at the same time, how entirely absent are the incentives that led to peace in Northern Ireland.

Similarities: All the same factors that led to violence in Northern Ireland are in place in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

*Institutionalized prejudice. The Protestants, aka the Unionists or the Loyalists, were in power and hell-bent to keep it. They controlled the police, courts, government, educational system, the good jobs, and the greater share of wealth and land.

Irishmen on the prowl. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

*On the other side were the Catholics, aka Nationalists or Republicans, who were discriminated against in acquiring jobs, education, voting, public office, housing, justice, land etc. With nothing much to lose they took up armed resistance.

*Siege mentality of Unionists: Like the Israelis, the Protestants were terrified that support was eroding and their hold on things was slipping away. This caused over reaction, adamant resistance to the peace process including violent attempts to sabotage it, accelerating violence from factions who moved to the fringes of the Protestant cause.

*After supporting NI Protestants with so much for so long England was appalled to see Protestants behaving as badly or worse than Catholic groups; including attacking English troops. They realized that 1) NI Protestants didn’t really like or care about England except when England gave them money and arms then stepped back to let them do as they pleased. 2) A number of Protestant paramilitary groups operated out of the control of anybody outside their groups. 3) NI governments grew afraid of the power of Protestant paramilitary groups and, at the same time, were afraid to reign them in because that was likely to increase paramilitary violence and demonstrate impotence of the government.

*The Protestants were supported financially, politically and militarily by a great world power (England.)

*Unequal enforcement of the law. Catholics lived with regular humiliation, intimidation, threats, beatings and occasional killings but did not have equal protection from police and courts.

*NI and British Government officials met and worked with Protestant paramilitary leaders but called their Catholic counterparts terrorists and refused to meet with them.

*Religious leaders inciting fear and hatred: One of the Troubles most incendiary figures was Protestant Reverend Ian Paisley. The unChristian Paisley ran for office, blurred the line between church and state and did his best to demonize the other religion.

*Occupation: British troops occupied NI to support the Protestants. Their brutal tactics, esp. the Parachute Regiment shooting killing 14 unarmed Catholics and wounding 12 others on ‘Bloody Sunday’, and extrajudicial killings of suspects in NI and other European countries inflamed the population, increased violence and British soldiers increasingly became targets themselves.

*Mass incarceration: This tactic of house raids arresting large numbers of mostly innocent Catholic men led to radicalization, increased IRA recruitment, and was a primary cause of the bloodiest years of The Troubles.

*Occupation/Unionist demands that the Catholics disarm: Disarmament was a fundamental obstacle to peace. England and the Protestants demanded it of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) but the IRA said, ‘No. We haven’t surrendered. You haven’t made substantive changes. You aren’t giving up your weapons. Why should we?’ Likewise, Israel demands Palestinians disarm before peace but refuses to disarm itself or its colonists.

*Annual celebrations, parades, speeches lionizing events that deliberately inflamed the other side: The Orange Order Marching Season has caused riots for more than a hundred years. In 1969, with tensions high, the Apprentice Boys of Derry staged their large parade to commemorate Protestants winning the Siege of Derry in 1689. The Derry Parade, marching along the walls of Catholic majority Bogside neighborhoods, were met with rocks, Molotov cocktails and other resistance from Catholics. This upheval spilled over into other parts of the country, turning into one of the first large conflicts of The Troubles. Protestant marches on the 12th of July commemorating the Crossing of the Boyne by King William of Orange in 1690 met with similar results. Compares with ‘Jerusalem Day’ when flag waving Israeli fanatics march through Muslim neighborhoods attacking doors, windows, chanting ‘Death to Arabs’ and beating up Arabs if they catch them.

*Sinn Fein and SDP (Catholic political entities ) worked to internationalize their struggle where the Unionists—supported by the British government—compressed themselves inward, circled the wagons and moaned the world was against them despite all the support they got. The same is happening with Palestinian political entities internationalizing their struggle while Israel—supported by the United States government—keeps compressing inwards moaning everyone is against them. In both cases, despite far more money and slick advertising campaigns by the British and Americans respectively, world opinion turned in favor of the oppressed.

* * *

Differences: None of the components that led to peace in Northern Ireland are in place in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

*English people and England’s government were sick of Northern Ireland. Sick of bankrolling bad policy, sick of violence, sick of Protestant militias and the Protestant leadership blocking the peace process. British PM Harold Wilson made his ‘sponge speech’ to Parliament, called NI Protestants “… people who spend their lives sponging off Westminster and British democracy and then systematically assault democratic methods. Who to they think they are?” Protestants didn’t like it but they heard it. There has never been anything close to that from an American President in Washington to Congress about Israel. Taxpayers are increasingly questioning the endless support for Israel’s occupation but Congress still falls all over itself to provide unlimited arms and money to Israel.

*While the U.S. government supported England in supporting the Protestants, millions of Americans who were direct descendants of Ireland, including members of the US Catholic Church and congress people, openly supported the Catholic cause in NI. Americans gave financial support and weapons to the IRA. Americans have only recently started to support Palestinians politically at a grassroots level. Israelis are terrified at changes in the status quo and are going all out to stop congress people such as Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib (first Palestinian congress woman), and Alexandria Occasio-Cortez, who want an open debate on funding Israel.

*Northern Ireland during The Troubles had 1.5 million people spread over 5,345 square miles. Compared to Gaza today with about 2 million people on 139 square miles. The West Bank has 2,178 square miles and 2.6 million people.

*As trouble heated up in Ireland, police and the army at first supported the Protestants but eventually tried to keep people apart during Protestant parade/marching season. Unlike Israel that encourages Israelis to march on ‘Jerusalem Day’ when occupation troops close Arab shops and streets, force Arabs to stay indoors and provide armed escorts for marchers who chant ‘Death to Arabs,’ kick doors, break windows, etc.

*Scale of violence not comparable at all: During one 54-day massacre in 2014 (Israel called it ‘Protective Edge’) Israel killed more Palestinians in Gaza than were killed on all sides during the bloodiest decade of the Troubles (1971 through 1980). Add that massacre to the 22-day Gaza massacre in 2008 (Israel called it ‘Cast Lead’) and you’ll count more Palestinians killed in those 76-days than all the people killed on all sides of the Irish Troubles in all 30 years combined. Northern Ireland never saw jet planes attacking neighborhoods with 4,000 pound bombs, whole neighborhoods destroyed by missiles, etc. In 30 years no journalist was killed in the Troubles. (Though journalist Martin O’Hagan was assassinated 2 years after the Good Friday Agreement by a Protestant splinter paramilitary group because he was reporting on their drug running and criminal activities.)  Compare that with Israel killing 17 journalists in 2014 alone.

In Palestine, Israeli occupation troops would kill this kid.

*Northern Ireland had a porous border with the Republic of Ireland and England. It was comparatively easy for IRA types to get weapons into NI and to make attacks in NI and England. Catholics, Protestants and the English all suffered severe casualties. Injuries, material damage in the millions and even hundreds of millions from IRA bombings in England together with large scale social trauma had the public shouting for a solution. In the case of Palestine/Israel, the Palestinians suffer massive damage while Israel suffers next to none. (as mentioned, Israel’s Protective Edge massacre killed 2,220 mostly civilian Palestinians, 551 of them children, over 10,000 wounded and 100,000 homeless a year later. Israel lost 72 people all but 6 of them soldiers. A few hundred wounded, no one homeless a year later.

*During the Troubles, all parties understood hardships for the civilian population made them look bad. General Sir Frank King in charge of the NI army during a massive worker’s strike of 1974 in Ulster refused to get the army involved because he felt it would make things worse. The army wouldn’t be able to keep the power plants running and there was risk of ‘sewage bubbling up in the streets, perhaps cholera, no bread, no milk, no power for the hospitals.” By contrast, Israel destroys Gaza’s sole power plant and sewage treatment facilities as a first thing during massive Gaza attacks like Cast Lead and Protective Edge. Deliberately, methodically, Israel destroys schools, hospitals and neighborhoods. No bread, no milk, no power for the hospital and yes, there have been cholera outbreaks in Palestine because of the occupation.

*With Northern Ireland, most foreign people supporting one side or the other knew the land and understood history of the place. With Israel/Palestine we don’t have that. We’re stuck with what we learned in Sunday school and Israel-centric American media.

*Catholics, Protestants, the English, and American President Bill Clinton (who became a key player in the process, made several trips to NI, and when the peace talks came down to the wire made himself available for phone consultations at all hours of the day and night), all wanted peace and were willing to sit down and hammer out compromises to get it. Compare that with President Donald Trump’s so-called ‘Deal of the Century’ which was written in secret by a small group of Orthodox Jews (no Palestinians) who are open supporters of Israel colonies that are taking over the West Bank.

*Protestants in Northern Ireland always had enough water so they didn’t have to steal if from the Catholics. In Palestine water disparity is a major barrier to peace.Israelis have the highest water consumption in the region. Palestinians have the lowest. For all its claims of being a ‘water super power’, Israel gets a third of its water from the occupied West Bank. They take Palestinian water from under the Palestinian’s feet and sell it back to them for top dollar. That’s why Israelis want to annex the West Bank and why every Israeli Prime Minister has declared Israel will never give that land up.

And so,
A read of, ‘Making Sense of the Troubles’ sheds light on comparisons between the troubles in Palestine/Israel with ‘The Troubles’ between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. People who make the comparison are 100% right about half of the analogy and 100% off on the rest. Until that other 50% comes around a Northern Ireland type of peace settlement is unlikely as Leprechauns in the Occupied Territories.


Some extra reading on Peter King