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What A Bloody Awful Country: Ex-Labour adviser Kevin Meagher's book on 100 years of Northern Ireland

David Roy speaks to author Kevin Meagher about his new book What A Bloody Awful Country: Northern Ireland's Century of Division

January 1972: Father Edward Daly and others try to get medical aid for one of those shot by British soldiers on Bloody Sunday. Picture by Stanley Matchett

"PEOPLE in Britain don't know any of this – it's a completely sealed off secret history that they don't know about." That's author Kevin Meagher's stark assessment of the 'average Brit's' understanding of Northern Ireland, the Troubles and why the British border in Ireland has suddenly become a red button issue again 23 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

They would do well to educate themselves with a copy of the Bolton-born, Sheffield-based writer's new book, What A Bloody Awful Country: Northern Ireland's Century of Division, in which the former special advisor to Labour Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Shaun Woodward provides a highly readable and hugely depressing overview of the north from the time of partition to the present day.

Indeed, given the lack of basic knowledge about the north that's been displayed by some of Westminster's more recent governmental 'envoys', this book should probably be thrust into the clammy hands of every future Northern Ireland secretary before they are allowed to board the plane to Belfast.

"It is hard to argue that Northern Ireland has been anything other than a bad idea to begin with that got steadily worse," writes Meagher, a lifelong Labour man who previously shared his views on the north's future prospects in the 2016 book A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable & How It Will Come About.

"[It] resulted in a century that can be separated into distinct periods of 50, 30 and 20 years," he continues, before outlining how this '50-30-20' split breaks down into 50 years of Unionist misrule ["there's no other way of describing it – for me, that's just an entirely neutral term," comments Meagher], followed by 30 years of violent carnage during which it was forbidden for MPs to discuss the north in the House of Commons and 20 years of stop-start political progress, most of which might as well have taken place on Mars as far as the majority of those living on the other side of the Irish Sea are concerned.

"[To the British public] Northern Ireland is a far-away place of which we know and often care very little," explains the author, whose grandparents hailed from Kilkenny and Galway.

"Even people who are politically active in British politics don't really understand the issues in Northern Ireland at all. Those of a certain age might have kind of receding memories of the Troubles, but nobody under 40 really has a feel for it, and it generally just doesn't enter the centre of British political debate – which was what was interesting about the period in 2017 when the DUP did their deal with the Tories.

"Suddenly, there was a genuine wave of commentary and coverage on 'who are these guys?' – even though they'd been the fourth largest party in the House of Commons for quite some time."

Indeed, the Brexit debacle has thrust the north back into public conciousness 'across the water' thanks to unionist outrage surrounding the imposition of the Northern Ireland Protocol and Irish Sea Border, with the attendant outbreaks of loyalist violence offering a disturbing reminder of our still all too recent turbulent past.

Even for readers here in Ireland, What A Bloody Awful Country – its title taken from the infamous quote by former Home Secretary Reginald Maudling in the wake of his first visit to the north in 1970 (Maudling was sent back two years later to close down the Northern Ireland Parliament following the imposition of direct rule) – makes for a sobering read as Meagher diligently catalogues the kind of horrors which used to be casually referred to as 'normal for Northern Ireland'.

The author, a political and communications consultant who also edits political blog Labour Uncut, runs through 50 years of unionist misgovernment followed by the countless missed opportunities at Westminster by both Labour and Tory regimes in terms of potentially averting the outbreak of the Troubles in the first place and then to possibly curtail its violence, along with an examination of how key atrocities such as Bloody Sunday accelerated and exacerbated a cycle of destruction which ended up costing over 3,500 lives.

"I've written this book as a bit of a corrective," Meagher tells me. "The centenary is a moment for reflection anyway, and we need to understand the context of where we've come from – because Northern Ireland is going to take up a lot more time in Westminster again.

"I'm trying to say 'this is what we've done in our name, this is part of the United Kindgom, part of the British state, a place that we don't understand desperately well but which has cost enormous amounts in terms of lives and public finance – and which has an undiminished capacity, even right now, to cause enormous problems for the British state.

"The Northern Ireland Protocol might be comparatively more benign, but nevertheless it's put Northern Ireland right at the centre [in Westminster] again. In their view, it's the proverbial pebble in the shoe – it just seem to make us hobble."

He adds: "When I talk about some of these issues with [English] people, like the fact Northern Ireland had its own prime minister, cabinet and parliament that was effectively run 'off the books' for 50 years, they're like 'what?!'

"When you start to tell people who are not Irish about what went on – gerrymandering, discrimination etc – even if they are pretty knowledgeable about British politics and British history, you can see their eyes going wide. They're like, 'why do I not know any of this, this is extraordinary!'

"So this book tries to fill in lots of gaps [in their knowledge] that they might have, from 'how did the Troubles start?' and what they were about, what 'this Good Friday Agreement thing' was about and all the rest of it."

On the subject of the agreement, shifting demographics within the north in the era of a potentially economically destructive Brexit endorsed and precipitated by a now fragmented DUP against the will of the majority here, plus the ongoing rise of Sinn Féin as a political entity in the Republic mean that the prospect of border polls on the reunification of Ireland have never seemed more likely.

Thus Northern Ireland's 100th birthday has coincided with the onset of a political endgame which may see it cease to exist in the near future – and there will be no tears shed at Westminster over that prospect.

"The current centenary is a bitter-sweet occasion for unionism," comments Meagher.

"I think the DUP's thought process over Brexit was nothing more than 'if Brexit makes us less European, it makes us less Irish as well'. But the truth of the matter is that political unionism has always been expendable to the Conservative Party.

He continues: "Every opinion poll in the last 12 months suggests that Sinn Féin may plausibly be in government down south soon, while in the north the unionist vote is splintering and the the DUP may find themselves losing votes to the UUP, Alliance and TUV at the same time – and I don't think Edwin Poots is the man to salvage that situation.

"If Sinn Féin potentially top the poll in the north at the next assembly election, that gives you a Sinn Féin first minister and a Sinn Féin taoiseach. In terms of the optics of 'is there demand for a border poll?', I think at that point you start to say 'if that isn't evidence of it, then what is?'"

:: What A Bloody Awful Country: Northern Ireland's Century of Division by Kevin Meagher is available now, published by Biteback, RRP £20. Buy online at Bitebackpublishing.com

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