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  • Laura Harrison McBride

British justice and "the Irish question"

There are two nations that it is probably impossible to write about―or even think or feel about―with any assurance one has anything at all right. One of these is Israel, and the other is Ireland.

I was about to say the Republic of Ireland, to differentiate it from Ulster, Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom. But no; it is impossible to write about any part of Ireland and get it all right.

I still think I got a lot of it right when I wrote In Search of Modern Ireland under my pen name, Bryce Webster. It was published by Dodd, Mead in the early 1980s. I had spent a lot of time in the Republic in the previous decade, and a bit of time in the North. But my bias was clearly, as I freely admitted, in favor of letting sleeping dogs lie (or at least, not rampaging) and letting the status quo―an uneasy peace―remain. I was all for giving the British the benefit of the doubt, although at the time, I did not even begin to comprehend the Irish civil war and the British hand in that.

Still, I was ecstatic later when Gerry Adams managed to broker what seems to be a relatively lasting peace between the two....the two what? Two nations? Two parts of a single nation? Even thinking about it is cause for a certain emotive cogitation, at least for me. Certainly travelling back and forth between them has been easier in recent years, and in England, at least in the southwest of England where I now live, no one seems to make much of it. Well, almost no one. A pub owner we know quite well loathes the Republic mainly, I think, because he was in the British army and stationed in Derry, Northern Ireland, during the worst of the worst during the modern-day troubles.

I maintained my basically laissez faire attitude toward the Irish dilemma until one night in 1996 or 1997 when I had a lot of ironing to do and had rented the film In the Name of the Father to watch while I ironed. I was galvanized. I was horrified. I became, in an instant, horrified at the slack I had cut the British for their conduct in Ireland. In the case of Gerry Conlon and the Guildford Four, convicted wrongly of pipe bombings, the conduct of the British government was infuriating. (It is precisely what, in even greater forms of excess, the US did in Guantanamo under Bush. For all I know, the US is still doing it.)

Lately, however, I’ve been fairly certain that Great Britain is not perpetrating any such excesses anymore. One might say it’s about time, after a mere 800 years of so of excesses, particularly regarding Ireland. Gerry Conlon*, who would know, said I’m wrong. But my stomach is turning often enough these days at what I read about false imprisonment in the US; I must, for the moment, assume England is not behaving quite so badly.

Daniel Day-Lewis was, as always, stunning in his role as Gerry Conlon. The late Pete Postlethwaite played his father, Guiseppe Conlon. Guiseppe was also falsely convicted and thrown in jail, where he died.

While the Irish problem is still vexing both the Irish and the English, it is likely they could agree on one thing: Pete Postlethwaite was probably precisely what Steven Spielberg said he was, the best actor ever. It was, after all, his performance (along with Day-Lewis’) that changed me forever from a British apologist into, if not a flag-waving Irish partisan, at least a person with abundant reason to believe that perhaps the British treatment of Ireland and the Irish was a lot more rife with excesses and miscarriages of justice than I had wanted to believe. Perhaps it is fair to say that my conflict about it arises because I am part Irish and part English, like a great many Americans, and like a great many Irish and English, for that matter. Indeed, on one level, all are Celts.

The mother-in-law I never met because she had died before I married her son thought that all the Irish were worthless. My husband doesn’t know where she got her ideas on that. She was otherwise a kind and humane lady, from all I can gather. She was even horrified when she learned what the British had done in the United States during the Revolution and the War of 1812.

But her compassion stopped well short of encompassing the Irish.

I can’t explain her limited compassion.

Nor can I explain anything at all about the intercourse between the Irish and the English. No one can, I think. Not me, not novelist Leon Uris. (

I hasten to add that I always thought Uris should have stuck to muddying the Israeli issue’s waters, and left the Irish question alone…since, after all, I wouldn’t presume to know about Israel. Uris wrote Exodus: fair enough. It was a great story of the founding of Israel, and I had loved it since I was a teenager. He also wrote Trinity: not fair at all, I always thought. Again, I held that cockamamie thought until recently, when I realized that the Israeli state and the Irish state, how they came to be, and what they have suffered are very similar indeed.

Postlethwaite’s performance in In the Name of the Father encapsulated the entire Irish question for me, though. Family was paramount, but political matters were co-equal. Fairness was desired, but not expected. Anger boiled over at the scapegoating the British were busy doing at the time; persistence in clearing names that needed to be cleared finally…finally…carried the day. The truth lies somewhere in the interstices between what the Irish do-are-want-believe-seem and what the British do-are-want-believe-seem. At any given moment, the balance may be tipping from one aspect of the issues to another, and no one, apparently, can tell precisely where that moment is or which issues are shifting. Except, perhaps, Gerry Adams who grasped one evanescent opportunity and made it stick, bringing some kind of peace to a ravaged land. Thank goodness.

Still, I’d hate to see In the Name of the Father forgotten, on either side. It’s what might possibly keep everyone honest on the eternal teeter-totter that is "the Irish question."


*Gerry Conlon was one of the original Guildford Four, falsely imprisoned for planting bombs in 1974 in the Surrey city of Guildford. Although there was ample evidence that Conlon could not possibly have been involved, it was not presented at the trial. In 1989, however, “the Guildford Four were freed after the Court of Appeal in London ruled that police had fabricated the hand-written interrogation notes used in the conviction.” (Wikipedia)

Thankfully, when the Four were convicted, the UK had abolished the death sentence, a situation that may well be overturned during the dark and potentially deadly days of the Cameron government. Of Conlon and his co-defendants, the Irish Post reported, “At their trial the judge told the defendants, “If hanging were still an option you would have been executed.”

The foregoing column was in response to an article in The Guardian at the time of Gerry Conlon's death in 2014.

Photo and text copyright Laura Harrison McBride 2015.

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