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Fintan O’Toole: All the main actors in the Troubles tell partial, distorted and deceitful story

The British, loyalists and Sinn Féin each have their reasons for distorted storytelling

A while ago, I was writing something about the Troubles. I wanted to check a detail in that great and terrible litany of death, Lost Lives, which was published in 1999 and again in an updated edition in 2004. It is an amazing book, perhaps unique in the world as a record of a conflict in which every death is given its due.

I was away from home and didn’t have the book, so I thought I would buy one online. There is no ebook of Lost Lives. There was a single second-hand copy of the first edition for sale on Amazon for £536.99 (€597.49) and one of the second edition for £525.21 (€584.39).

The disappearance of Lost Lives from general circulation is emblematic of a much wider drift towards amnesia and selective memory

There was a copy on Abebooks for over €1,000. Someone must have bought it, because it’s no longer available. Effectively, no ordinary citizen can buy a copy of Lost Lives now.

This matters because the book, painstakingly, and one might almost say reverently, compiled by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton and David McVea, is not just history.

It acts on the here-and-now. It does something to you as you read it. It brings the dead to life. You start to weep, not just for them, but with them. They cease to be “legitimate targets” or tit-for-tat scores. Their humanity is restored.

Last weekend, the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, Sinn Féin’s Brian Stanley, tweeted, in reference to the Kilmichael Ambush in 1920 and the Narrow Water Massacre in Warrenpoint, Co Down, in 1979, that these were “the 2 IRA operations that taught the elite of d British army and the establishment the cost of occupying Ireland. Pity for everyone they were such slow learners”.

Pity? I opened Lost Lives and read about “scattered limbs and decapitated bodies” of the soldiers. And about one of them, David Blair, who was so close to the second bomb that there were no remains to be found at all. And about Michael Hudson, a coachman for Queen Elizabeth, who just happened to be birdwatching on an island opposite Narrow Water, when he was shot by soldiers.

And then I read about the two Catholics murdered by the UVF just after Narrow Water. John Hardy: shot dead in his home with his 15-year-old daughter standing beside him – the killers later said in court that “we were told not to come back without a result”. Gerry Lennon: shot in the head as he was placing fruit in the window display of the local shop where he worked.

The disappearance of Lost Lives from general circulation is emblematic of a much wider drift towards amnesia and selective memory.

The average age of people in the Republic is 37. In Northern Ireland it is 38. So the average Irish person was 15 or 16 when the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998. Most of his or her life has been lived with the Troubles receding in the rear-view mirror.

That’s a blessing but it’s also a danger. Objects in this rear-view mirror may be much closer to the perilously unsettled reality of a still-divided island than they appear.

If you don’t remember the sheer, hopeless awfulness of the conflict, it now functions as a crazy pop-up book of outrages: a crude one-minute visual summary in an episode of The Crown; a Sinn Féin TD, or a passing drunk, roaring “Up the ’Ra!”

Conflicts, by definition, can never produce a single narrative. One of the reasons Lost Lives – and the newly published The Dead of the Irish Revolution, which follows its template for the original Troubles – are so powerful is precisely that they eschew narrative altogether, except in the most basic form of the chronological list.

But with the Northern Ireland Troubles, there are very specific barriers to the creation of a collective memory. There were three broad forces involved in the violence. Each has its own particular reasons for equivocation.

In ascending order of lethality, they were the British state, loyalist paramilitaries, and the IRA and its splinter groups.

The British state was rewriting history even as it was unfolding, rapidly producing, for example, the Widgery Report into Bloody Sunday that simply lied about almost everything that happened.

Britain has consistently failed in its legal and moral duty to create a system of truth and reconciliation that would give bereaved families a right to know what happened to their loved ones.

And, as shown yet again by this week's refusal of the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, to establish a public inquiry into the murder of the solicitor Pat Finucane in 1989, it has its own dark secrets to conceal. Facing up to the overwhelming evidence of official collusion in the Finucane case would raise uncomfortable questions about how far up the chain of command knowledge of it went.

As for the loyalist paramilitaries, their pose of being “defenders of Ulster” has to evade the reality that most of those they killed were innocent, unarmed Catholics, chosen for murder only because of their religion.

If there is to be reconciliation, there has to be an honest accounting. And there is only one way to achieve it: an official truth recovery process that is centred on the rights of victims and that trades amnesty for honesty

You can't make a coherent story of this evasion. Thus, Billy Hutchinson of the UVF told Freya McClements in the Irish Times last week that its strategy was "pure sectarianism". Good.

But he then claimed that he helped to murder two random Catholics, Edward Morgan and Michael Loughran, because they had been identified as “active republicans”. And, in a third twist, he moved away from this claim: “How accurate the information was, I don’t know.” Might it not be worth knowing, given that you took two lives on the basis of it?

Sinn Féin, as heir to the third and most lethal force, the Provisional IRA (responsible for half the deaths), is wildly revisionist. It wants to embrace two forms of violence – “protecting” Catholics against loyalist murder gangs and “taking on” the British army – while expunging all the rest from the record.

The IRA killed 28 loyalist paramilitaries – 1.57 per cent of its total kills. The IRA actually killed almost six times more republicans (in feuds and as alleged “informers”) than loyalists.

By far the biggest single category of IRA victims is made up of civilians. Gun battles between IRA members and armed troops were extremely rare.

Most Provisional IRA operations involved the placing of bombs in public places or the execution of unarmed, off-duty members of the RUC or the Ulster Defence Regiment. For this reason, relatively few IRA members – just 115 over more than 30 years – were killed by the security forces.

But none of this suits the narrative of a heroic guerrilla war against an imperial army.

Thus, all three of the main actors in the violence of the Troubles have their own reasons for telling a partial, distorted and deceitful story.

If there is to be reconciliation, there has to be an honest accounting. And there is only one way to achieve it: an official truth recovery process that is centred on the rights of victims and that trades amnesty for honesty. The purpose of a shared island has to be underpinned by a project of shared memory.

In the meantime, there is an obvious place to start. The rights to Lost Lives should be purchased by the Government and an electronic version should be made available free to everyone. It is the best vaccine we have against the fever of crass glorification.

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