Newton Emerson says something out loud I’ve been saying quietly to academic friends for a few years now…
Most of the effort, study and coverage of the past half century in Northern Ireland has focused on protagonists and their circumstances.
The perspective that has really been overlooked is how the vast bulk of the population got through the Troubles by simply ignoring them.
Occasionally, it seems that someone is about to allude to this, but then they just make a familiar point about how such and such a person grew up in the same streets as McGuinness without joining the IRA.
What never seems to be mentioned are all the people who neither grew up in those streets nor joined the IRA, or its counterparts, although theirs was by far the commonest experience of what is now grandly called “the conflict”.
Their experience does not necessarily negate the protagonist’s tale but in numerical terms it completely swamps it.
And this needs saying too:
Losing sight of this may be understandable – there will always be more interest in the active than the passive – but in doing so we are distorting the past and disregarding the resilience of a society even as divided as Northern Ireland’s.
The extent to which people can ignore violence on their doorstep is bizarre to recall. Southern readers who spent the Troubles watching footage of riots and bombs thinking “thank God I don’t live there” should note that people living one street away from the riot or bomb were almost certainly thinking the same thing.
The keyword here is resilience. The peace was never just built on those who changed their minds, but those who kept a thousand unspoken contracts not to turn on their neighbours however strong their own personal political passions.
You should try to read the whole thing, but I’ll just share this typically phlegmatic ending:
Given the fashion for telling history through ordinary lives, it is noticeable that there is so little interest in ordinary life during the Troubles. Presumably its bourgeois conservatism makes it an intellectual abomination.
But as Northern Ireland enters another, perhaps terminal period of political instability, there is value in knowing how stable it still was through an infinitely more difficult time.