Since the current troubles in Northern Ireland began in 1968, there has been an explosion of research on the area. Hundreds of books and an even larger number of articles have been published. … It is quite possible that, in proportion to size, Northern Ireland is the most heavily researched area on earth.
–John Whyte, in the Preface of Interpreting Northern Ireland, January 1990
It’s now two years since the Northern Ireland Assembly collapsed in a feud between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party, an unfortunate anniversary overshadowed by concerns about how the impending Brexit will impact the north’s border with the Republic of Ireland.
By coincidence, two books about Northern Ireland just arrived at my reading chair, both published before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. My wife plucked them from the “Little Free Library” outside the Episcopal church near our apartment building.
Maybe you’ve seen one of these literary kiosks, typically emblazoned with the motto: “Take a book. Leave a book.” We’ve done both.
In addition to Whyte’s 1990 Interpreting Northern Ireland is The Committee: Political Assassination in Northern Ireland by Sean McPhilemy, which was published in February 1998, two months before the historic peace accord.
Both books are among over 18,800 reference materials relevant to the Northern Ireland “Troubles” listed in the CAIN (Conflict Archive on the INternet) Bibliography, last updated in April 2016. Entries mainly refer to books, but also include journal and newspaper articles, pamphlets, and dissertations. (Allow me to link to my own 2001 piece for the Mobile (Ala.) Register, written as part of a German Marshall Fund journalism grant.)
At 21 and nearly 30 years old, the books are dated, thought not rare or antiquarian. As should be the aim of any good journalism (McPhilemy) and scholarship (Whyte), each attempted to provide the fullest picture of reality with the best information available at the time.
Whyte’s bibliography stretches 27 pages. His concluding chapter includes a subtitle: “Has Research on the Northern Ireland Problem Been Worth While?” He notes there was not nearly as much academic attention to revolutionary Ireland in the period 1916-1923.
Yet the people muddled through to some kind of settlement. From Irish experience one might deduce that research actually does harm: that the more work is done on a problem, the longer it takes to solve it. I do not put that forward altogether seriously–there were other reasons besides a mere absence of academics why the last round of troubles proved easier to bring to an end. But it could be argued from Irish experience that research does not seem to do much good.
Whyte died in May 1990, just a few months after his book was published; felled by a heart attack at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York on his way to a conference in Virginia. He was traveling with Garret FitzGerald, the former Fine Gael Taoiseach, who two months later wrote the Forward of Interpreting Northern Ireland:
It is a tribute to the comprehensive and objective character of this work that one can say with assurance that no one is likely to be able to write intelligently about the Northern Ireland conflict in future without having first taken account of John Whyte’s last book.
McPhilemy’s 1998 book is based on his 1991 “sensation documentary” for British television. Both alleged to reveal that Unionist members of the Northern Ireland business community, Protestant clergy, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and British security forces colluded with Loyalist terrorists to murder Irish Republicans and other Irish nationalists.
Irish America magazine publisher Niall O’Dowd and U.S. Congressman Peter King each qualified their promotional blurbs on the dust jacket with “If McPhilemy is right…”, and “If McPhilemy’s allegations are true…” , respectively.
As it turned out, the book has spent more time under the noses of judges and juries than regular readers. Its post-publication history is a long docket of libel cases based on its central allegations and due to complexities that emerged in the then new “age of the Internet and global book publishing,” as The New York Times reported in 1999.
Former Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble, alleged to have assisted the secret loyalist committee, was the most high-profile plaintiff. He won two judgements against online retailer Amazon.com for distributing The Committee via its online platform. The book was published in America by Roberts Rinehart Publishers, which also was sued and settled.
It probably didn’t hurt Trimble’s case(s) that he co-won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the Good Friday Agreement. He also became the first “first minister” of the Northern Ireland Assembly, 1998-2002.
Online sales of The Committee were supposed to have stopped, but the book is still available from Amazon. The full text can be viewed on the Internet Archive. Here in Washington, D.C., the Library of Congress has a copy; as does the Ralph J. Bunche Library at the U.S. Department of State; and most university libraries. Digital and print versions are also available at Queen’s University Belfast, and at the National Library of Ireland, Dublin.
I understand that reputations can be damaged by shoddy or malicious reporting or scholarship. I respect libel laws, but suspect they too often are used as a cudgel to suppress information. I am encouraged that it is difficult to disappear books; whether recently created or a little aged; whether posted online; sold in a store; shelved at a library; or placed in the neighborhood book kiosk.