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BOOK REVIEW / Helicopters, bin-lids, myths and memories: Briege Duffaud on a new study of Northern Irish Catholics, who are struggling to get off their knees: In search of a state - Fionnuala O Connor - Blackstaff Press pounds 8.95

For a few years, when we were children, Fionnuala O Connor and I lived in the same very Catholic, very conservative South Armagh village where national identity was largely a matter of myths, selective memories and a vague grudge at having been unjustly torn out of a state to which we felt we rightly belonged. Both of us left that particular place in our teens and never met again. Soon afterwards, I left the larger, but equally conservative and memory-ridden village that was Catholic Ulster in the years before the Troubles.

Fionnuala O Connor stayed. She was present when, as she puts it, 'Suddenly in a clatter of bin-lids and helicopters, myths and memories came crashing into the Seventies.' From then on, Northern Catholics' sense of their own identity could never be quite the same again, either in their own eyes or in those of bewildered outsiders.

It is as an outsider that I read this book and found in it a coherent and very readable guide to the mentality of this social group which, in spite of my links to it, has become foreign to me. As foreign as it has presumably always been to the majority of English readers, who see its members almost invariably reduced by the media to the one-dimensional status of victims, or perpetrators, of violent acts.

In Search of a State does much to supply the missing dimensions. Who are the Northern Irish Catholics? How do they see themselves? What do they feel? Think? What do they actually do, apart from . . . ? What, besides the Troubles, has shaped them? What, above all, do they want, what are their intentions, where are they going? These questions are answered, variously, in lengthy interviews with 50 Northern Catholics ranging from John Hume to businessmen, lawyers, single mothers in West Belfast, articulate schoolteachers, pensioners, civil servants, glue-sniffers, IRA men, bishops, intellectuals, joy-riders, Gerry Adams. . . . A reasonable cross-section.

A few say exactly what one would expect, in seamless pronouncements that can sound like election speeches. Others, and not the most obvious, have taken the trouble to explore themselves more deeply and give honest, and often moving, accounts of their experiences, reactions, and prejudices. They reveal the evolution of their own psyches as they, and their community, struggle towards a new identity that owes little to the received ideas of an earlier generation.

Still others, mainly the young, seem to be working out their own evolution as they speak; one is aware of the stumblings and flounderings of people unused to self-examination, but attempting to travel beyond tribal preconceptions towards some form of understanding: 'You feel deep down the Brits shouldn't be here, it's not their country. That's what you're brought up to think. Nobody'd say anything else. But I still don't feel that much about the army or the police. I don't feel strongly about getting the British out. I wouldn't say that of course I wouldn't' (West Belfast teenager.)

The interviews are not presented straight from the tape. They are skilfully woven together and given coherence by being intermingled with discreetly helpful historical notes, comment and analysis. O Connor writes about the community as a knowledgable and unbiased insider. She has lived through the inevitable transformation of her society since the Seventies and observed it closely both as a journalist and in the context of her personal experience, and has deftly and clearsightedly reported on it and analysed it in articles and broadcasts.

In her book O Connor charts the hesitant search for a new identity that's been imposed as much by membership of the global village as by decades of violence. And she explores the need to re-examine old myths and cliches, and to jettison the emotional ambivalence that allowed even the most Christian of Catholics - in an era when killing for Ireland was acceptably distant from the daily realities - to glorify the gun, if only in song and legend, and to see the gunmen as 'purer in heart than the politicians'.

In addition, she unravels the equivocal feelings that have grown up towards the past, towards interpretations of history, towards ancestral memories of 'pure distilled Catholic victimhood,' and towards violence. Even towards notions of Irishness. For most Northern Catholics, the Irish Republic once existed as a spiritual homeland. While never actually formulating a ritual 'next year in Dublin', generations of nationalists saw amalgamation with the Republic as the only legitimate aim. Not any more. 'The South was always a sore place,' says O Connor, 'and for many it's now a strange and hostile place.' Even for Brian Feeney of the SDLP: 'He thinks of Dublin as his capital city, is interested in Southern society and politics, has no doubts about his own Irishness. He is also sharply conscious that the interest is not mutual.'

Thus, while a united Ireland is still strongly on the Nationalist agenda, few of the people interviewed seemed to have a clear idea of what they meant by either 'united' or 'Ireland': 'There are new layers of identity overlaying the old - Europe principally - that offer possibilities for extending the sense of self beyond Ireland / Britain, Catholic / Protestant. But this is still in the very early stages. Identity is mutating,' says Mary McAleese, Director of Professional Legal Studies at Queen's University.

Mutating towards what? Some seemed to see the state they're searching for as an abstract state, more a statement of the length they've come since the bad old days of second-class citizenship, Church domination, and Unionist privilege. Margaret, from rural Tyrone, recalls growing up among 'resigned and cowed people'. She is struck by the assertiveness of Catholics today: 'They've got up off their knees, and they're not going back.'

In Search of a State is an important guide to a society that has, effectively, got off its knees: that is young, articulate, more prosperous than before, socially and intellectually mobile, aware of its potential, less ready to be cowed by hierarchies, either religious or political.

But, in the end, the book is mainly important for the author's clearheaded awareness that all the progress, all the optimism, is bounded by the reality of a 'ghastly meandering war' and the uncertainty of a satisfactory outcome. ' 'The IRA 50 years ago used Webleys,' laughs a Belfast IRA man, 'now it's Kalashnikovs. My kids'll probably use lasers.' ' Laughs? As O Connor comments, in a chilly final paragraph: 'At the heart of all discussion about identity and how it can be accommodated is a cold and intensely practical consideration: of the number of guns in Northern Ireland, and who holds them.'

(Photograph omitted)