The continuing impact of Northern Ireland’s torturous recent history on Britain is the focus of an academic work which is at its best when it gives voice to grassroots activists, says BERNADETTE HYLAND
The Northern Ireland Troubles in Britain: Impacts, Engagements, Legacies and Memories
Edited by Graham Dawson, Jo Dover and Stephen Hopkins
(Manchester University Press, £29.95)
GETTING the right balance between academic analysis and grassroots viewpoints is an important aspect of any book that aims to tell the story of historical movements, particularly when treating controversial subjects such as Northern Ireland and its torturous history.
In this book, the editors and contributors aim to address how the Northern Ireland conflict has shaped the lives of people, communities and culture in Britain and, in its 24 chapters, there are some unique real-life stories of people and organisations that deserve whole books devoted to them.
While its introduction is overly academic and its dense terminology is somewhat off-putting, that’s not the case with Maude Casey’s meditative and insightful chapter Writing as Survival.
In weaving together the experiences of a young Irish working-class second-generation girl against the backdrop of 1980s Britain, it’s by far one of the most relevant to the book’s aims.
Unlike many of the contributors to this book, academics who merely interpret second-hand testimonies, it is grassroots activists like Casey who remind us of the links between the lives of the Irish in Britain and present-day migrants.
Aly Renwick’s chapter on his journey from being a boy soldier at 16 to being an activist in the Troops Out movement shows how some people did join the dots of liberation movements from Vietnam to Northern Ireland.
And Ann Rossiter’s writings on Irish and British feminist encounters reminds us of the groundbreaking work undertaken by feminists in their solidarity with working-class women in republican communities in Northern Ireland.
In Policing the Irish Community in Britain, Nadine Finch shows how the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) tried to choke the life out of activists in the Irish community as well as solidarity groups.
Her account is a credible overview, yet it ignores organisations such as the Birmingham-based PTA Research and Welfare Association, which not only lobbied inside and outside the Irish community but also mounted successful campaigns such as the one supporting Kate Magee.
There are other serious omissions, one of the most startling being the absence of the Connolly Association from the history of the politics of Ireland in Britain.
In the 1950s and 1960s, it raised the issues about the sectarian Northern Ireland state and also gave a voice to a highly political, although largely male, Irish trade union and labour movement that existed in Britain at that time.
The role of the Irish national newspaper The Irish Post, founded and edited by Breandan MacLua, is also ignored. From 1970 onwards, he produced a paper that gave a voice to the Irish community in Britain which was not afraid of debating what was happening in Northern Ireland and cases such as the Birmingham Six.
And also absent, except for references to it, is any analysis of the role of the Irish in Britain Representation Group (IBRG), of which I was a member and which existed from 1982-2000.
With branches across the country, from Haringey in London to Blackburn in east Lancashire, it had a membership of women as well as men, ranging from factory workers to teachers.
IBRG really made an impact nationally.This is an important book academically but one that challenges all activists involved in Irish politics to get together and produce their own history.
Let’s hope we can do that.
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