AFTER 12 YEARS of bombings and assassinations which have taken nearly 2,100 lives and maimed 20,000 more, after failed governments, feckless peace movements, false truces and falser hopes, the troubles in Northern Ireland have reached what Jack Holland calls "an equilibrium": "The guerrillas can't break through to a victory over the security forces; the security forces can't eradicate the guerrillas. The deadlock offers no hope of a solution in the near future." The generation that will inherit this legacy has "never known politics as such -- only violence." The troubles are a wound in its memory which only a miracle will heal.
This book is as comprehensive as any account of a still-molten situation can be. It surveys the whole course of the troubles from their origin in the peaceful Catholic civil rights movement of the '60s to the Protestant backlash of the early '70s, and on to the effects which the violence -- between Protestant and Catholic mobs, between sectarian terrorist groups, between these and the security forces, between all of the above and the innocent bystander -- has had on Ulster society and on the psyches of its one and a half million people. Holland includes informative chapters on the IRA and its Protestant opposite numbers as well as an extensive account of the human rights offenses committed by the British military and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. In a final chapter, "Letters From a Belfast Ghetto," Jack Holland shares with us some letters from his mother, who remains in Belfast where he grew up, which give human meaning to all that we have read before.
Holland's title comes from Yeats: "Too long a sacrifice/ Can make a stone of the heart./ O when may it suffice?" And for most of the book he shows that his heart has not been hardened by political zeal or sectarian hatred. For the violence of the terrorists on both sides he has equal scorn, as if his moral sense were shaped by Tolstoy's profound vulgarism that the difference between the violence of the left and that of the right, ethically, is the same as the difference between the excrement of cats and dogs. Holland's will to be fair falters only when, in a postscript, he touches on the cardinal issue of Irish politics, Ulster's tie with England. Thus on the one hand he cites polls which show that the English public wants its 12,000 troops withdrawn, while on the other he fails to mention the samples of Ulster opinion which show that even many Catholics join with the overwhelming majority of Protestants in wanting the opposite. And surely Holland would not have been drummed out of the St. Patrick's Day parade if among the reasons he gives for Britian's continued presence in Ulster -- NATO bases, fear of a Protestant backlash -- he had included her respect for democratic procedure. The fact is the British can't abandon their Ulster province so long as a majority of its people want to remain in the United Kingdom. It is not self-interest that makes Britain hold on, as a look at its subsidy of the ailing Ulster economy will convince you. It is an inconvenient attachment to principle.
But I mustn't end on a critical note; I am too grateful to Holland for letting me read his mother's mail. Decent, concerned, resilient, this fine Catholic woman gives the book its one chord of hope. Her example shows that miracles are still possible among the Irish, for adversity has deepened her heart, not made it a thing of stone. She has the last word here:
"I suppose you've heard about the La Mon House Hotel? Them poor people were just out for a night's entertainment and look how they died. People here are disgusted by it. Even the Provisional supporters said it was awful. It has turned an awful lot of people against them, Jack. Is any cause worth such loss of life? They said they were sorry! But they shouldn't be planting bombs where people are eating and drinking having a wee night out. What kind of war is that, will you tell me?"