Review Essay

The Price of Peace in Northern Ireland

“Say Nothing” Shows How Slow Reconciliation Can Be

In This Review

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland
By Patrick Radden Keefe
Doubleday, 2019, 453 pp. Purchase

The Northern Irish Troubles, relative to their scale, are the most studied conflict in modern history. They took place in a province the size of Connecticut with a population of around 1.6 million people, and they claimed fewer than 4,000 dead over the course of 25 years of continuous low-intensity warfare. The satirist P. J. O’Rourke called Northern Ireland “heck’s half-acre.” Early in the conflagration, the British government’s cynical policy was to maintain “an acceptable level of violence,” at least until one minister was indiscreet enough to admit it.

Yet the Troubles have enthralled generations of writers and scholars. And no wonder: preceded by centuries of injustices against the Irish perpetrated or supported by the British, a quarter century of simmering conflict and ritual murder engendered intense resentment and distrust between the mainly Protestant unionist majority in Northern Ireland, which wants the province to remain part of the United Kingdom, and the primarily Catholic nationalist minority, which believes it should unite with the Republic of Ireland. Although the 1998 Good Friday Agreement ended the fighting, the question of Northern Ireland’s sovereignty still hovers forebodingly over the island.

The situation remains combustible, all the more so thanks to Brexit, which 56 percent of Northern Irish voters opposed. The United Kingdom’s departure from the EU promises to hurt the Northern Irish economy by restricting trade with the rest of Europe and ending the European Union’s subsidies to Northern Ireland. It might also force the British and Irish governments to reimpose a militarized border with the republic, which could antagonize nationalists and reopen old wounds that the EU’s leavening of sovereign boundaries had helped to heal.

If Northern Ireland’s unresolved sovereignty and the aggravation of Brexit aren’t enough to explain writers’ perpetual fascination with the Troubles, add to those reasons the conflict’s location in a developed and Anglophone great power, the military success of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (the organization reigned supreme among militant groups in Europe, easily

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