Book review – Making Sense of the Troubles (David McKITTRICK)

20020202 Making Sense

Good for accuracy, not so good for background

Making Sense stays true to its objective, to tell ‘a straightforward and gripping story … in an accessible way’. It is a straightforward read.

But is it a good read? Yes, if you don’t want to be bogged down with pre-Troubles history (too simplistically outlined in the book) or don’t need to understand the ideologies of unionism and nationalism per se. In this way, Making Sense feels written for a general English/benign foreign audience.

However, if you know some Irish history and/or can appreciate the ethno-nationalist competition in Northern Ireland, then you may very well be let down.

The factual reportage in Making Sense is flawless, but the story told is not neutral. Of course, no account of the Troubles can be. Yet after reading Making Sense, one leaves with a sense that: a) Northern Protestants really don’t like Catholics; b) republican violence stems from a ideological struggle while loyalist violence is just sectarian hatred; c) the British government could have done more from 1921 forward, but were frustrated by intransigent unionists. All entirely acceptable to believe if one wishes, but by no means a neutral or fair position.

Thus, I was disappointed that Making Sense didn’t try harder to place the Troubles in an all-Ireland context. This would require more history, but would help explain some unionist perspective as well as the sometimes variable relationship between the Irish Republican government and Northern nationalists.

For the general reader, I would recommend A Pocket History of Ulster, by Brian Bardon (ISBN 086278428x). For more detail, try A History of Northern Ireland 1920-1996, by Thomas Hennessey (ISBN 0717124002), who has also written a book on the Northern Ireland peace process (ISBN 0717129462).


Book review – Party Elites in Divided Societies (Kris DESCHOWER)

19990927 Party Elites

A tour des forces study of consociational democracy

This is quite a comprehensive comparative study of those countries acclaimed to be practising consociational democracies. The prose is highly academic (in tradition of Routledge), and is not recommended for those without a sound understanding of the consociational model. For this, Lijphart’s Democracy in Plural Societies (1977) is a genuine starting point.

Party Elites is a strong book. The theoretical framework and case studies are solid. My study topic is Northern Ireland politics, and the chapters on Belgium and Israel particularly interest me. Deschouwer makes an important point that the development of working federalism is no mean feat. ‘Classic consociationalism’ argues for federal structures, but achieving them can be quite a challenge with the claims of segmental autonomy. I argue that ‘classic consociationalism’ is more consistent with *con*federalism, and federalism is more representative of what is termed ‘integrative power-sharing’, as defined by Timothy Sisk, Power Sharing and International Mediation in Ethnic Conflicts (1996), informed by Donald Horowitz, Ethnic Groups in Conflict (1985). The integrative model does not juxtapose opposing models of power-sharing, only different emphasises, strengths, and weaknesses.

Overall, however, Party Elites is a tour des forces on consociational democracy; just consider other possible models of power-sharing!