BOOK REVIEW / . . . is anyone listening?: May the Lord in his mercy be kind to Belfast - by Tony Parker, Cape pounds 16.99

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The Independent Culture
THE other week the IRA planted a bomb in a shop in the centre of Oxford. The 'device' was discovered and 'made safe', and a cordon of inverted commas placed around the 'incident'. Already it's as though it never happened. If the bomb had exploded, the euphemising process would have been a little harder, and taken a little longer, but the end result would be the same.

Unfortunately, denying the terrorists the oxygen of publicity has had the side-effect of cutting off the supply to our own brains. 'What do they hope to achieve?' is the stock rhetorical response. Any attempt to understand - not condone, but understand - the IRA would involve coming to terms with the realities of the situation in Ireland and with our decisive role in creating and maintaining it. That would not only mean 'giving in to terrorism', it would also be difficult and distressing.

In this climate of smug ignorance masquerading as moral superiority, Tony Parker's book is a brave venture in more ways than one. As usual, he has tackled his subject in the most direct way, by getting the people involved to tell their own stories. The fact that they do so with an unfailing command of narrative sequencing and dramatic effect suggests that some editorial intervention has taken place, but the result is invariably readable, and nothing rings false. The 60 interviews cover a broad cross-section of Belfast society, from priests and university lecturers to terrorists and their victims. Most make clear that any breach of their anonymity would put their lives at risk, and Parker's own safety could never have been guaranteed.

In a land whose slogan is 'Whatever you say, say nothing', Parker has been remarkably successful in getting people to talk. The result is by no means transparent, though. One of the best things in the book is the opening chapter, an analysis of the complex semiotics involved in even the simplest exchange. Parker soon learnt such elementary rules as not to refer to 'Ulster' when addressing a Catholic, or to ask a Protestant if he lived in 'Derry', but he could not disguise his own origins, and this conditioned the responses of the interviewees.

Oddly enough, this process favours the nationalists. Faced with a fellow- Britisher, Protestants trot out the official Loyalist line - in a gloomy, graceless Sunday-best sort of rhetoric, full of references to the Somme and the Queen and the Union flag. Intended to demonstrate that 'we're just as British as you', it is likely to have precisely the opposite effect on most readers. There is another and much more attractive Protestant discourse, caustic, racy and considerably less flattering about 'the English', but this is not spoken in the presence of visitors from 'over the water', who might - God forbid - confuse it with the strikingly similar language of the nationalists.

The latter, as our avowed enemies, have nothing to lose by speaking freely and frankly. Intellectually, too, their analyses are more cogent, flexible and objective, since the Loyalists are committed to a propaganda policy of denying the reality of the problem. By contrast, almost all the nationalist speakers stress the gross abnormality of every aspect of the situation. One of the most chilling parts of the book is an elderly member of the 'Official' IRA talking about the Provisionals: 'They enjoy terrorising for its own sake: the last thing they want is agreement between the opposing factions. If that happened they'd lose their whole reason for existence.'

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