I punched the air and shouted good girl, good girl! I was surprised and slightly embarrassed by my reaction. It is not often that I get so emotional as I close the last page of a book. To be honest it is not often that I read books that are 600 pages long. I had seen the book in the shops a few weeks ago and had thought that it looked like a heavy tome and at £25 there was no chance I was going to buy it. A few days later I was sent a free copy and asked to review it. It is called The Catholics of Ulster, A History.
It is the most comprehensive, interesting, informative and important book that has ever been written about the north.
Reading it is like standing beside a turf bank and seeing all the layers, the centuries of history stacked on top of each other, from the very bottom up to the present day. It is all about Catholics of Ulster but you cant write about the Catholics without writing about the Protestants. There is lots in the book that people already know or will have seen in other writings but the accumulative effect, the layer upon layer of century upon century, I found particularly strong, disturbing, emotive and in a peculiar way liberating. Marianne Elliott who wrote this book is a Belfast Catholic who is now professor of modern history at the University of Liverpool.
I dont agree with everything that is in the book and some of the analysis and interpretations will be questioned by many. I was annoyed that she appeared to sideline the impact, responsibility and political selfishness of the British government in dealing with the Catholics of Ulster through the centuries, but as I came to the end I could see that greater clarity was achieved by underplaying the British government role. But anyone who picks and analyses this book for its accuracy or its balance will have missed the point. Its strength is in its weight and its impact.
As it built the layers of political, religious, cultural and social history I was reminded how tragic, pathetic, painful and repetitive our history has been. The chapter on the establishment of Northern Ireland after partition reminded me and, once again, enraged me as to how narrow, bigoted and hateful were many of its leaders and much of its policy. But I was also forced to remember just how much of my own short history I had forgotten. I blushed as I remembered some of the things I once believed, or gave credence to. I didnt attend the funerals of some of my neighbours because we Catholics couldnt go into Protestant churches. I had always known that Catholic churchmen had put some strange interpretations on the Christian imperative to be one but I was not aware that Cardinal MacRory, archbishop of Armagh from 1928-45 declared the Protestant churches to be no part of the Church of Christ. Cardinal Ratzinger from the Vatican said much the same thing just a few short weeks ago.
When you reach the top layer of this book, the present day politics of the Good Friday agreement, you realise two things; firstly that Marianne Elliott retains a great love for the people she calls Ulster Catholics and a deep fondness for Ulster Protestants and that she is challenging all of us to examine the roots of mistrust and a more honest acceptance of responsibility. I think the reason I punched the air with delight at the final page was that after her long and detailed examination of the roots of mistrust she came to the conclusion that the Good Friday agreement provided us with a door out of our tortured history.
Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson should take the time to read this book and when they have done so they should remember what has been achieved in the Good Friday agreement and then they should fully implement that agreement. They have two final tasks to do. They have to turn the Mandelson Bill on policing into the Patten Bill and allow Nationalists, for the first time, to take ownership and responsibility for Ulster. They must also insist that nationalism persuade, cajole, pressure Republicans into bringing the war to an end. It is nationalists who must take responsibility in helping the IRA to put out the light and lock the door and walk into a political future. It is nationalists who must insist that from now on it is a ballot box in one hand and a ballot box in the other hand. The threat of violence must now be lifted from both the Protestant and the Catholic people of Ulster.