In our March 10, 2022 issue, Nick Laird reviewed Say what you say, don’t say anything, a book on the Northern Ireland conflict by Magnum photographer Gilles Peress (with text by Chris Klatell). A novelist and poet who now teaches at New York University, Laird grew up in North Tyrone County. A student at Cambridge in the mid-1990s, the last years of the riots, he switched from legal studies to English. After graduating, however, Laird turned to law again, and it was as a lawyer that his career most directly intersected with Peress’s work.
Peress was photographing a civil rights demonstration in Derry in January 1972 that turned deadly when British paratroopers, ostensibly on hand to prevent sectarian violence, fired on unarmed protesters, killing thirteen (a fourteenth died several months later). The affair, most memorably documented in Peress’s footage, became known as Bloody Sunday; it was a turning point in the conflict, helping the Irish Republican Army to justify its armed struggle and, evidently, sealing the sympathies of Peress.
Laird worked on the UK’s main official investigation into the shooting, which began in 1998 under Tony Blair and was eventually published in 2010 as the Saville Report, which found that soldiers were not in danger when they shot civilians and lied to cover up their behavior. It was a shameful episode for the British state, which no effective judicial process has ever remedied. However, as Laird explains in his review, during the three decades of unrest it was the IRA that killed the most, responsible for almost half of all deaths. And Laird is highly critical of what he sees as Peress’s partisan sympathies for the Republican cause, deeming the photographer too “infatuated with casual glorifications of assassination.”
Given Laird’s personal involvement in the story and the stark conclusions he draws from a celebrity photojournalist’s account, we wanted to further explore some of the issues it raises. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our email exchange from this week.
Matt Seaton: The anger in his review is sometimes quite palpable: anger at the hype of murderous terrorists. How is it that Gilles Peress, a French photographer, and Chris Klatell, an American lawyer, are so wrong in the conflict in Northern Ireland? And is this part of a larger syndrome that you’ve seen elsewhere?
Nick Laird: I wouldn’t go so far as to account for Peress’s or Klatell’s attitudes toward the Problems beyond what I have noted in the review, but there is a tendency in general (particularly among men, and perhaps among men who have led fairly secure and advantageous). ) to romanticize certain types of violence, at least until it arrives on your doorstep. And many Americans sentimentalized what happened in Northern Ireland in those years and sponsored, in the form of Noraid. [the Irish republicans’ US fundraising organization]—the murder of many ordinary people. 9/11 was a wake-up call for that lobby in a way, when terrorism suddenly became a dirty word with painful real-world results, rather than something you could sing songs about with teary eyes. from an ocean away.
You mention Patrick Radden Keefe’s 2018 book say nothing– its title too, taken from an IRA poster, made famous in a poem by Seamus Heaney – as a “masterpiece” on the conflict, although his book too, in its own way, concentrated on only part of the story. history: the drama of militant republicanism and the IRA. What makes it so different?
He tried to tell the whole truth, I think, and instead of extolling the indefensible, he just said what happened. The book is an extraordinary feat of research and although it apparently concentrates on one part of the Problems, it actually covers a large part of the story. One thing leads to another, as it should.
That book also helped me understand how there had been, in mainland Britain, a constant low-level awareness of the Problems that was really a kind of ignorance—that the Troubles were just part of British life: one inconvenience, among others. Radden Keefe’s book sharpened the realization that the UK had been waging a dirty war for decades on its own doorstep. Is that so, or how do you see it differently?
I had kind of a heightened version of what you’re describing. The Problems—the militarization, the terrorism—were normalized: for people my age in the North, it was the only thing we knew. I guess for me the military was the one trying to stop terrorists on both sides from bombing or killing, even though they could be an intimidating and terrifying presence. I also knew that the squads, who might stop you on the road at night or find you hiding in your garden, were just kids, not much older than us.
But as I got older and started to learn the history of Ireland and England, and the shoot-to-kill policy came out, I either worked on the Bloody Sunday investigation, or read books like Anne Cadwallader’s. deadly allies (about how British forces collaborated with loyalist terrorists), it became impossible not to see it as a dirty war. Still, most people, and I include the vast majority of police in that designation, just wanted to live a normal existence.
On your previous article For him Check about Brexit and Northern Ireland, you outline your upbringing in the midst of the riots and emphasize the psychic toll taken by so many. How do you think all this has marked you?
That’s a short question with a long answer, but in short, the weirdest things can seem normal when you’re growing up, and only in hindsight do you realize how strange, militarized and segregated existence was. Obviously, there were the bombs and bomb scares and people getting shot, but also small, unmistakable fears: I remember one day loyalists in ski masks and baseball bats denied me the chance to go to school and shut down the town in protest against the Anglo-Saxons. -Irish settlement, or coming back from a cousin’s wedding and having to drive a burning car and worrying about it exploding. Losing people in bombs. The windows shaking, and so on.
I think it got me interested in facts, which is part of the reason I became a lawyer, and this is not a good time for those interested in facts. It’s about feeling. And I think growing up in the North taught me that patriotism and many other forms of “belonging” can be dangerous excuses for hostility.
In Northern Ireland, there are still segregated schools and there has yet to be any serious attempt at integration on a national level, although that would seem like such a simple and obviously beneficial move. In the United States, seeing various types of segregation propagated on the left, as well as the right, has been painful.
Also, I think growing up in the Troubles means I have little patience for the kind of mindset that argues that silence is violence or whatever: violence is violence. Wise, as they say in Tyrone. On earth, indifference is the least we have to fear from man or beast, as Auden says.
You mention in your last review that there has been no truth and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland and yet…peace has held for almost a quarter of a century. How do you explain that?
People much prefer it to what came before, and there are various incentives for things not to go back to the way they were before. The Good Friday Agreement was a hoax in many ways, but a hoax everyone could live with. There is still a lot of organized crime in the North, which is what a lot of the terrorists were involved in all along.
I consider myself Irish, but it would be false not to also consider myself British in some ways. There are many Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland who think like this, that they can survive amphibiously, so to speak. I have two passports, and I happen to be quite agnostic about what’s going on politically, although I think a united Ireland will and should happen, even if the details will require a lot of tinkering.
Our family always saw partition as a disaster: it split my father’s family and saw my mother kicked out of West Cork, from where they headed to Armagh, and partition meant that a pluralistic Ireland became two singular states enslaved by separate religious power. blocs But how can we not sympathize with all the ordinary people, Protestants and Catholics, from the North? They have suffered a lot. As for the sides, I’m on the side of life. Growing up in the midst of riots and losing friends to IRA bombs and relatives being shot, perhaps this leaves you inoculated against certain kinds of idealism and ideology.
The right to rule has been won by force. And that strength remains: as Gerry Adams said, referring to the IRA, “they’re not gone, you know.” Those in Northern Ireland know that there are two forces: the one that kills and the one that hangs like a miasmatic mist over the country, waiting to coalesce into some sort of solid.
There will be no truth commission, and when the truth is hidden or disguised, its place is taken by a kind of deception that paralyzes everything. (In Greek tragedy, the hidden crime invariably gives rise to a new crime that resembles its predecessor.) When the killers are rehabilitated without admission of guilt and history is rewritten, a new and terrible reality is produced.