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Malcolm Gladwell is wrong about the Irish

The author's handling of the Troubles is far too simplistic

12 October 2013

9:00 AM

12 October 2013

9:00 AM

Malcolm Gladwell, the curly-haired, counter-intuitive guru of modern thought who wrote The Tipping Point and Blink, certainly has a readable style, and often a striking way of turning received notions on their head. His latest book, David and Goliath — about the inspiring advantages of perceived disadvantage — is accompanied by a much-hyped speaking tour, the blurb for which describes him as a ‘global phenomenon’. In it, among other topics, he plunges into the origin of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but the location wasn’t his first choice. He recently told the Telegraph’s literary editor, Gaby Wood, that he had wanted to write about Israel but chose Northern Ireland instead because it was ‘safer’, as the English had ‘a greater willingness to be self-critical’ (in other words, were less liable to launch an aggressive counter-attack upon Gladwell’s reputation). The sense of safety might be part of the problem: fairly quickly, the Ireland foray slips into terrible complacency.

His account thereafter, as it hits its stride, might lightly embarrass even a diehard Belfast republican in mixed company. In Gladwell’s view, Britain was Goliath — big and strong but poorly sighted — whose failure to win Catholic hearts and minds alone triggered resistance in the shape of David, the Catholics of West Belfast. He makes a simple, oft-repeated equation: that when Britain had a military ‘crackdown’, violence soared. Although heavy on the detail of British actions, he is singularly light on particularising IRA violence (statistics for deaths, shootings and bombings are given in the most coyly generalised terms).

There were indeed many ways in which the British government made an early hash of things. The heavy-handed Lower Falls Curfew in July 1970 — part of a hunt for republican weapons amid a fire-fight with the Official IRA — and the destructive behaviour of some soldiers in working-class Catholic homes lost the Army much support. The sweeping use of internment in 1971 for IRA ‘suspects’ radicalised ordinary Catholic youths. And then, in 1972, came Bloody Sunday, in which British paratroopers shot dead 13 unarmed Catholics on a protest march, an event which effectively served as a recruiting sergeant for the IRA.

Yet Gladwell’s dogged David/Goliath narrative also takes him sailing blithely past the complex reality of the early 1970s: he’s intent on tugging a single straight line out of a cat’s cradle. In so doing, he ignores a key element in the conflagration: the hungrily proactive ambitions of the newly formed Provisional IRA, inexorably wedded to the ‘physical force’ tradition of republicanism. For the author, it all went decisively wrong in 1970, when the British General Freeland threatened that anyone throwing petrol bombs might be shot. But the IRA split between the more class-conscious Officials and the fanatical, violent Provisionals had already come in late 1969. From the inception of the Provisional IRA, its Chief of Staff Sean MacStiofain’s declared military strategy was ‘escalate, escalate, escalate’: deaths fuelled rage.

For the Provisionals, the alienation of the Catholic community from the British army was not a matter of reaction or regret: it was a strategic imperative. The IRA worked hard to intensify division, torturing or murdering Catholic so-called ‘collaborators’, stoking confrontation. If Gladwell thought the British were contemptuous of human rights in 1970, which to some extent they were, the activities of the Provos rapidly made the Brits look like Judy Garland. Soon quite a few foreign Goliaths — not least the misty-eyed, deep-pocketed Irish-Americans — were chipping in to help the IRA David, who in this instance had developed pronounced psychopathic tendencies.

The resurgent IRA didn’t just want the British troops out, it wanted a 32-county Republic of Ireland.That was beyond the British government’s gift, since the Unionist majority in Northern Ireland opposed it. Although Gladwell argues that the British lacked ‘legitimacy’ to be in West Belfast, one wonders what exactly he would have had them do. The loyalist paramilitaries, with their grotesque appetite for sectarian warfare, were intact; the IRA was expanding its murderous operations daily. Should the Brits simply have said, ‘Right, boys, we’re off’?

Everyone was frightened: Catholics, Protestants, and young British soldiers, many of whom were being steadily murdered by the IRA. They were on foot patrol in unknown areas filled with high-rise blocks, vulnerable to IRA snipers. Among my earliest memories from 1970s Belfast are of watching the soldiers perched in the back of armoured vehicles, or in perpetual wheeling motion on street corners: whey-faced, short-haired, with eyes full of apprehension, they looked young even to a child. When we speak of Goliath, we might reflect that this wasn’t a conflict — like the current, largely unreported US operation in Northern Pakistan — that was conducted by unmanned drones and directed by remote control. Everything was personal, including risk.

Yet Gladwell’s unifying theory requires an unwavering concentration on British brutishness and Catholic grievance. His chief interviewee — who provides, on the surface, his most compelling story of casual injustice — is a woman called Rosemary Lawlor, whose younger brother Eamon died, aged 17, on 16 January 1972, after being shot by a British soldier on Hallowe’en night the previous year. Eamon, she said, had confided to her that ‘he was getting harassed by the British army… everywhere he went they were stopping him’ in West Belfast’s Ballymurphy area.

Gladwell writes: ‘Was he actually working with the IRA? She didn’t know, and she said it didn’t matter. “We were all suspects in their eyes,” she went on, “That’s the way it was. And Eamon was shot, shot by a British soldier. Him and another fellow were having a smoke, and one shot rang out, and Eamon got it.”’ Satisfied with having banked a clear-cut narrative of state oppression, the author passes on incuriously.

Yet I’m afraid it does, and did, matter whether Eamon was in the IRA, if one wants an honest portrait, and it appears that he was. I say so not to negate the sadness of his death. Much as I loathed the IRA — whose handiwork was long evident to me at close quarters — I can see that the lingering death of a 17-year-old caught up in this unholy mess was a human tragedy.

The superb book Lost Lives (authored collectively by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton and David McVea) is widely regarded as the authoritative, unbiased source for the dead of the Troubles. It documents the death of Eamonn McCormick (his first name spelt slightly differently from Gladwell’s version) on 16 January 1972 and describes him as ‘from the Ballymurphy estate and a member of the IRA’s junior wing, the Fianna’. It goes on to cite another publication, Ciaran De Baroid’s Ballymurphy and the Irish War, as saying that in this case ‘The Fianna had been “mobilised” after soldiers surrounded a dance at the school which was being attended by a large number of IRA members.’

In a YouTube video put up in 2009 by Ogra Shinn Fein (the youth movement of Sinn Fein), a speaker eulogises ‘Fian’ Eamonn McCormick. The words below say that he ‘died of injuries he received in a gun battle with British forces in October 1971 while attempting to defend the people of Ballymurphy from loyalist attack. He was 17 years old.’

De Baroid’s account says the Fianna was ‘mobilised’ on the night that McCormick was shot, and the Ogra Shinn Fein memorial speaks of a ‘gun battle’, which suggests mutual engagement. Still, the latter wishes to see McCormick as a heroic volunteer, and might be overstating his activity, just as Mrs Lawlor, who saw him chiefly as a younger brother, naturally emphasised his passivity. I do not pretend to know what exactly happened on the night that McCormick was killed: like so many events from that era, circumstances have grown cloudy.

But if he was indeed a member of the IRA, which most republican or nationalist sources seem confident about, would it have been so deeply unreasonable for British troops repeatedly to question him? Gladwell’s narrative suggests that this was yet another glaring example of the Brits pointlessly hounding a young Catholic man, but a brief glance at the events of 1971 indicates otherwise.

In February that year, the IRA killed its first serving soldier, a 20-year-old called Robert Curtis, whose unit was under attack from around 100 rioters when an IRA sniper shot him. A month later, the IRA abducted three Scottish soldiers, aged 17, 18 and 23, lined them up by the roadside and shot them all in the back of the head. IRA bombs exploded at random: in pubs, the Electricity Board, and furniture showrooms, indiscriminately killing Catholic and Protestant civilians, adults and children alike. Soon, for the IRA’s mounting toll of civilian victims, there were Bloody Sundays available every day of the week.

If Gladwell had been interested in digging a little, as any ordinary reporter surely would have, he might have been able to say something worth hearing about the conflicting nature of historical interpretation. He might even have questioned precisely who or what, beyond hatred of the Brits, beckoned McCormick into this airless, coffin-laden conflict.

But the author isn’t a reporter: he’s a theorist, an elegant teller of determinedly illustrative tales. It worries me a little. I have started to wonder what other stories have been firmly sculpted into sleek Gladwellian shapes. I’m beginning to think that I would like to see his pile of offcuts. In this book, Eamonn McCormick was destined for a particular narrative, and his history was kept artificially tidy along the way. It’s a pity, since real understanding often lies in the messiness of lives.

Instead, in the service of his overarching theory, Gladwell has sent some toxic simplicities on Northern Ireland ricocheting around the world. Easy reading, I guess, but poor history. Eleven days before Eamonn McCormick finally died, an 18-year-old soldier called Keith Bryan from Bristol was shot dead by the IRA while on foot patrol in the Lower Falls area of Belfast. He had joined the army as a boy soldier, and his Gloucester regiment had sustained one of the highest casualty rates at the time.

I wonder if Gladwell could tell us which one of those two lads was Goliath.

Jenny McCartney is a film critic and columnist for the Sunday Telegraph. Malcolm Gladwell begins a UK tour in London on 28 October.

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