To coincide with this month’s Free Read Friday, we are pleased to introduce a special Q&A with author Stephen Hopkins.
As a book regarded as the most comprehensive memoir account of recent Northern Irish history, Hopkins expands on the nature and utilisation of the memoir in the context of the conflict within Northern Ireland. Read on to hear our author’s insights…
Stephen Hopkins: The Politics of Memoir and the Conflict in Northern Ireland
- What prompted the writing of the book?
Although many political scientists and historians had made use of the memoirs of key figures in the Northern Ireland conflict over the years, none had attempted a comprehensive study of the subject. The objective was to explore the complex inter-mingling of individual life-stories and memories with the social legacies of the violent conflict, in order to better understand the lived experiences of the era from 1968-1998. The project would investigate these sources in the context of ongoing disputes over how to interpret Northern Ireland’s recent past. A careful reading of these memoirs could provide insights into the retrospective judgments of some of the main protagonists of the conflict.
- What is the main argument of the book?
Memoir-writing is only one dimension of the current ad hoc approach to ‘dealing with the past’ in Northern Ireland, but in the absence of any consensus regarding an overarching ‘truth and reconciliation’ process, this is likely to be the pattern for the foreseeable future. This study provides the first comprehensive analysis of a major resource for understanding the conflict.
- How did the findings of the research differ from expectations?
It was expected that the majority of the memoirs studied would show that many people in Northern Ireland continue to inhabit contested ideological territories, and in their strategies for shaping the ‘telling’ of the conflict, these individuals from both Protestant unionist and Catholic Irish nationalist backgrounds would promote self-justifying discourses. Whilst it was the case that many memoirists did appear to be engaged in an ongoing ‘war of position’, justifying the stances they adopted during the conflict, nevertheless a significant number of others exhibited a more complex approach. These memoirists looked back at their own careers in a self-critical fashion, and cast a more sceptical eye on the traditions, ideologies and organisations to which they had belonged or once embraced.
- What makes the book stand out from others about the N. Ireland conflict?
According to one of the reviewers of the book, ‘given that the history of Northern Ireland is often told as myth or propaganda, a writer who can avoid the influence of both is rare.’ (Malachi O’Doherty, Irish Times, 27 September 2014) The author has attempted to write not for polemical effect, but with an empathy for the memoirists discussed, and with a real desire to both understand what motivated the conflict, and what the experience of living through it was like. The book covers a very broad range of the key protagonists, including British Secretaries of State, unionist and nationalist politicians, republican and loyalist paramilitaries, as well as journalists and victims/survivors of the conflict. As well as being an accessible guide to a wide range of memoirs from across the political divide, ‘this author’s great skill is to make us think in new ways about books which have, in many cases, been around for decades.’ (Connal Parr, Irish Political Studies, 2014) Although many works exist which study aspects of the conflict, or the post-Good Friday Agreement era of ‘peace’, ‘in his journey through this material Hopkins has provided a short yet comprehensive account of Troubles-related memoir that can benefit anyone who wants to read about Northern Ireland’s recent history.’ (O’Doherty).
- How clear a picture of the reality of conflict can we get from memoir literature?
The politics of how we should interpret this memoir-writing resides in the blurring of boundaries, whether between biography and autobiography, or between history and memory. Ultimately, the potential for the blurring of fact and fiction is yet another critical aspect of this field of enquiry. Much of what we now recognise as the accepted wisdom regarding the conflict has been gleaned from personal and biographical sources. In such circumstances, the careful reading and sensitive interpretation of life-writing and the memoir literature (alongside related techniques such as oral history) are crucial potential resources for painting a fuller picture of the complexity of the conflict. The argument of this book is that such sources have not been utilised in a systematic fashion previously. Of course, no single approach can furnish us with a complete picture of reality, but this book enables both insiders and outsiders to understand what Northern Ireland as a society went through. It may also serve to outline some potential approaches to ‘dealing with the past’ which can help genuine political progress to take root and flourish.
You can download a free ebook copy of The Politics of Memoir and the Northern Ireland Conflict this Free Read Friday (7th August 2015) for a limited period of 24 hours.
See here for hardback info and purchase: http://liverpooluniversitypress.com/products/60738