It was that passage that reminded me so forcibly of two recent and outstanding non-fiction books on Northern Ireland. In Bloody Sunday (longlisted for the Orwell Prize), Douglas Murray (another close friend), who attended much of the Saville Inquiry and has read all its findings, lays bare how sceptical we must be about memory, how prevalent is myth and how many questions are still unanswered even after Saville. In a book distinguished as much by unflinching honesty as well as empathy, his most disconcerting and yet touching story concerns Barney McGuigan, an innocent victim of a Para murderer, whose eyelid, it was claimed by many, was unstuck from a wall and placed in a matchbox. "Some claimed to have taken the eyelid down themselves. Others claimed that they were with the person who did but name different people . . . No two stories match and if you named all the number of people who claimed to have been the person to have been with the person who did this small act, the list would run to more than twenty.
"Were any of these people wrong? Certainly. Possibly all of them. But were they lying? Almost certainly not. They were saying what they remembered."
Equally startling is how — in Belfast and Derry in Revolt — Simon Prince and Geoffrey Warner overturn the myth that the Troubles have been over-researched by showing how little we really know about their origins. They draw upon previously unexamined primary sources including police reports, army files, intelligence summaries, parish chronicles and local newspapers to demonstrate the importance of accident and malcommunication as well as design in bringing into being decades of bloodshed almost no one wanted. I was surprised to find that the Trotskyite street agitator and proponent of global revolt Eamonn McCann, a popular pundit these days, and Ian Paisley, now garlanded with laurels as a peacemaker, emerge from this book as even more morally culpable of encouraging the descent into violence than their enemies could have imagined.
Here, courtesy of a court report from the Londonderry Sentinel in December 1968, comes this simple example of what Price and Warner classify as "false memory": "A policeman gave evidence that at the beginning of the [October] march he had heard Ivan Cooper [anti-violence, anti-sectarian, civil rights campaigner] shout ‘For God's sake stewards, come to the front.' When Cooper took to the stand, however, he said that the marshals had been called to the head of the march by someone else . . . that the protest had been ‘non-violent' and that there had ‘not been physical contact with the police'. McCann, though, told the court that ‘there was physical contact between the marchers at the front and the police.' The Troubles was being misremembered almost from the moment it had begun."
Like the Northern Irish, Shriver's Barbars "fall in love with the idea of themselves as dangerous" and enjoy the rewards. "Each of the government's denunciatory rhetorical salvos at O Crème . . . heralded another package of ‘confidence-building' measures — known in the Barban vernacular as ‘Creamie-pleasers'."
They prosper from the visitors: "Journos, EU functionaries, grovelling governmental delegations from Lisbon, academics on conflict-resolution junkets, kibbitzing Congressmen on fact-finding missions, Amnesty International busybodies" and so on. Shriver's central characters are unappealing, but her Barba is a fine creation. Like all good satirists, she performs a vital function in complementing the journalists and historians by nailing central, uncomfortable truths.