Belfast Diary Summary

John Conroy

Belfast Diary

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Belfast Diary Summary

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American author and journalist John Conroy’s non-fiction book Belfast Diary: War as a Way of Life (1987) seeks to explain and synthesize the details of the Northern Ireland conflict—known internally as “The Troubles”—to English-speaking Western audiences unfamiliar with the conflict. To write the book, Conroy lived in poverty for a year in Belfast, observing the people there and learning the history of the conflict.

Although the conflict is often framed in popular culture as a religious war between Protestants and Catholics, the religious component of the Troubles was secondary—albeit not insignificant—to a larger political and nationalist conflict. On one side, were the Unionists/Loyalists who wished Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom. These citizens were predominantly Protestant. On the other side, were the Nationalists/Republicans who wanted to leave the United Kingdom to join the independent nation of Ireland. They were predominantly Catholic. Although these tensions had been building for centuries, the conflict is generally said to have lasted from the late 1960s until 1998.

Although Conroy’s visit begins in the early 1980s, the author starts the book by referencing a quote from 1971:
“The possibility that this war could become a normal way of life was foreseen back in 1971. Reginald Maudling, the British Home Secretary and the Cabinet minister responsible for Northern Ireland’s affairs, told the press on December 15 of that year that he could see the day when the IRA would ‘not be defeated, not completely eliminated, but have their violence reduced to an acceptable level.’ The term ‘acceptable level of violence’ became a standard refrain in the North after Maulding’s statement. Today, many think that level has been reached.”

Conroy asserts the violence was considered “acceptable” because the vast majority of the violence took place in highly impoverished areas of the city. Middle- and upper-class suburbanites were largely isolated from the worst of the violence. This prompted Conroy to live among lower- and working-class Belfast residents while researching the book, particularly in the neighborhood of Clonard. There, he met with many poor individuals on both sides of the conflict who voiced various stereotypes about the other faction which Conroy works to debunk. For example, many Protestant loyalists believed that the Catholic separatists were all lazy layabouts who just wanted to watch TV and collect welfare checks for the rest of their lives. This dehumanization of the other side also encouraged a feeling, even in poor areas, that violence was “acceptable,” as long as it was not directed at a person’s own faction.

Conroy sums up the dire situation like this:
“The sense of morality in the flats has crumbled. For some people, ‘Catholic’ means it’s okay to kill somebody so long as you go to mass. For the kids, stealing has become a habit. Kids steal to finance their drinking and their clothes. I stopped running trips for a while because the kids were stealing the money to come.”

After painting a general picture of life for modern Belfast residents, Conroy outlines the centuries of history that inform this conflict. Tensions began as far back as 1609 when Protestant English and Scottish settlers were allowed to farm land formerly reserved for Irish natives, who were mostly Catholic. This led to two major armed conflicts between the two groups during the latter half of the century, both of which were considered Protestant victories by historians. Shortly thereafter, new penal laws were passed, resulting in religious prosecution against Catholics, Protestant dissidents such as Presbyterians, and anyone else who didn’t conform to the laws of the Church of England. It wasn’t until the late 1700s that Irish Catholics were allowed to rent or buy land in their own names.

Violence between Unionists and Nationalists continued throughout all of Ireland until 1920, when the land was divided into two parts: Ireland, which would become an independent sovereign nation, and Northern Ireland, which would remain under British rule. Critics of the deal cited the fact that native Irish-Catholics only made up 35 percent of the newly created region of Northern Ireland. As a result, Catholics suffered a great deal of violence and discrimination at the hands of the Protestant loyalist majority, which lasted for decades. The period of Irish unrest covered by Conroy, known as The Troubles began in the late 1960s when Irish Republicans launched an initially peaceful Civil Rights Movement on behalf of native Catholics that eventually led to sectarian violence and riots.

In the 1980s, Conroy observes a number of grim details about life in the Belfast slums. School attendance is abysmal. Crimes are committed not for profit but out of boredom. Domestic violence is rampant.

After about a year of research, Conroy leaves Clonard because, frankly, he fears for his own safety. However, with his book, Conroy offers a number of instructive anecdotes and tales that reflect how the Troubles affected Belfast’s most vulnerable citizens.