Book review — Don’t Mention the War (Vicky Cosstick)
by Allan LEONARD
5 March 2019
Don’t Mention the War is an e-book by Vicky Cosstick, published by ChangeAware in association with Northern Slant, that aims to explore aspects of legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in a set of five chapters covering the peace process, women’s perspectives, trauma, the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and the role of media during and post-conflict. Her research and writing took place between spring 2017 and autumn 2018, with regular references to the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the confidence-and-supply arrangement between the DUP and Conservatives in the current British Government.
Vicky Cosstick is British and “lives in East Sussex and Donegal”, researching and writing about Northern Ireland since 2012. She is the author of Belfast: Towards a City Without Walls, which resulted from her investigation into interface “peace walls” in the city and was well reviewed by Gladys Ganiel.
“Legacy” in Northern Ireland for many people means the 1,188 unresolved killings during the Troubles (530 attributed to Irish republicans, 271 to British loyalists, and 354 to security forces). For Cosstick, this is a narrow definition. She is interested in a broader interpretation, which is the main theme of the book.
Cosstick sets out her main argument that until each group of protagonists, which she names as Republicans, Loyalists, and British state forces, appreciates the damage done to the others and takes responsibility for its own part, the peace process will not progress. She also argues that there is a “master-narrative” about the conflict (“war and peace”) — propagated and nurtured by a system of politicians, media, academics, and other institutions — which doesn’t add up to her as an outsider.
In the chapter on the impact of the Troubles on women’s experience and equality, Cosstick does well to highlight the predominantly male lens of conflict reporting and academic writing, with the domination of men as protagonists and then peacemakers. She states that there is no overview book on the subject of women and the Troubles, including the 1,088 women imprisoned during the conflict. Cosstick’s lengthy description of the work by the Unheard Voices programme is a good illustration of how some women are dealing with the trauma that they’ve experienced. Yet a legacy of male “gatekeepers” can have undue influence on how much these types of programmes go forward.
Cosstick’s review of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition and wider gender politics is interesting, but delves into familiar demands for redress. She neglects the positive work by female politicians across all parties. Also, such struggles feature in many democracies. How much is due to the legacy of this particular ethno-national societal conflict versus traditional patriarchal structures is debatable.
The next chapter on the “cultural trauma” in Northern Ireland, Cosstick estimates that there could be 305,200 untreated cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She cites some statistics that she acknowledges may or may not be directly related to effects of intergenerational trauma, but qualifies this by stating that there has been no study or analysis of the total overall impact of violence, self-harm, addition, and mental health issues in this regard. Studies by Mike Tomlinson (Queen’s University Belfast), Siobhan O’Neill (Ulster University), and Marie Breen-Smyth (University of Surrey) are highlighted, as is the work of the WAVE Trauma Centre.
Cosstick then faults the failure of politics by the Northern Ireland Executive and British Government, and makes several international comparisons with Colombia and South Africa. There is an underappreciation of the finality of the peace negotiation process in the latter, where a peace deal represented a settlement that enabled the beginning of a resolution process; for the people of Northern Ireland, the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement has been likened to an agreement in how to merely manage its conflict, foregoing any resort to violence. This is our “cold peace”, as Cosstick quotes John Brewer (Queen’s University Belfast). Evoking artist Rita Duffy’s metaphors of icebergs, how shall the ice be melted without a peace settlement?
Cosstick names two “fundamental structural flaws” in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement: (1) codifying “two communities” and (2) the lack of acknowledgement of the role of the UK as a protagonist in the conflict.
As for the first flaw, she makes the astute observation that power sharing has never been interpreted as partnership in the government of Northern Ireland, and uses the word for the type of power sharing that is laid out in the Agreement, namely, consociationalism, which purposely omits collective responsibility by the Northern Ireland Executive. One could argue that this has been made worse by the change in the rules in appointing a First and deputy First Minister (no longer presented to the entire Assembly for vote approval). On the other hand, as Cosstick notes herself in her “in-conclusion”, the most recent Executive presented a Programme of Government that is “outcomes based” and is designed to foster cross-Departmental working.
In regards to the role of the British state, Cosstick again references the Ballymurphy massacre and lists further indictments. She includes testimony from a former British soldier and his traumatic experience of his service in Northern Ireland. Belatedly, there is a positive reference to the formal apology made by former Prime Minister, David Cameron, on behalf of the British Government for the Bloody Sunday killings. This deserves a fuller description, because it was a culmination of a long campaign and even the announcement of the related Saville Report took careful negotiation among political and community leaders in Derry-Londonderry, as shown in a documentary aired on RTE:
Indeed, what is the role of the media in conflict transformation? Cosstick addresses this in the final thematic chapter, challenging the notion that its role does not change according to circumstances, which she considers “very naive”. Cosstick quotes Brewer, who says that the “master narrative” of the Troubles is socially constructed in a process that includes the media. That is, pure objectivity and neutrality is impossible, particularly when you consider the editorial policies, choices, and decisions made daily on what to cover. The attraction to conflict is pervasive throughout global media, which amplifies it. There is an ongoing debate on how much media should, or even can, present more constructive journalism.
It would be refreshing for broadcast media in Northern Ireland to present regularly more dimensions of social, cultural, and political life. There are excellent reflective pieces, such as one highlighted by Cosstick — My Dad, the Peace Deal and Me — narrated by comedian Patrick Kielty and broadcast on BBC. Yet a lack of editorial courage remains.
Cosstick concludes with her recipe for progressing peace: bring 100 people together across various geographical and social sectors, on a professionally facilitated residential week, and ask what is working well and what needs to be done. This reminded me of the excellent programmes that I was fortunate to participate in at Glencree, which still continues to be supported by the Irish Government (and received financial support from the former Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister). Perhaps a suitable venue?
The strength of Don’t Mention the War is the trumpeting of what we are collectively deaf, or at least hard of hearing: the relative anaemic research on the female dimension of the Troubles; the ignorance of the extent of PTSD and intergenerational trauma, with adequate policies to address Northern Ireland’s high suicide rate; and calling out the media’s inherent role in amplifying conflict.
Cosstick’s arguments are weakened by her polemic statements against the DUP and the Conservatives, as well as emphasising the role of the UK in the conflict, past, present, and future. If peace is to progress, as she and so many others want, then some of the 100 invited participants to a world cafe-style residential programme will need to be such party supporters.
Image source: Arachne’s Web by Stanislav NIKOLOV