“The Fragile Peace” by Paul Anthony (@paulanthonyspen) is a excellent read, and one I highly recommend. It tells a story of the “Troubles,” the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland between those who wanted the six-county Province to be joined with the Republic to the south, and those who wanted to remain a part of the United Kingdom.
Thousands died in this conflict, by bombings and bullets, and thousands more had their lives shattered by the violence. Religion was the key: the “Republicans” were Catholic; the “Loyalists” were Protestant.
But if religion was the dividing line, both sides played by much the same rules: tit-for-tat violence, intimidation, murder. The Provisional Irish Republican Army, the “Provos,” and other splinter groups of the PIRA and IRA faced off against the British Army, the police of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), and Protestant paramilitary groups like the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR).
Before that tentative peace can be found, the Provos take their fight to England in an attempt to turn public opinion sour on the Province. Executions, gunfights and Bombs exploding in London mean the Provos now also have to worry about the Intelligence Service and Special Crime Units on the mainland.
Don’t worry if you don’t know the background going in: “The Fragile Peace” isn’t a history lesson or alphabet soup of group names. There is a very human face put on the “Troubles” in the form of Liam Connelly, a Provo soldier, and Detective Inspector Billy Boyd, two men who find themselves on opposite ends of the battle but connected by their love of someone else.
Beginning in 1970, the early parts of the book, probably to the halfway point, set the stage for the exciting conclusion in 1995 after a tenuous ceasefire — a temporary halt to the violence that factions on both sides distrust — was put in place. I won’t spoil the finale with too many details, but it is gripping and I stayed up into the early hours this very morning to finish it.
Those early glimpses of the development of Liam and Billy are seen in vignette, at critical crossroads on their way to finally meeting. Some may find this jumping around in time a bit confusing, but for me it felt just right; the key players are introduced and the missing pieces of information are provided in a very natural way.
The motivations of players on both sides of the conflict are muddied; while the “soldiers” of Active Service Units believe they are serving a great cause many Provo leaders earn big money running drug and protection rackets. In a similar way, some RUC and British police fight based on strongly held beliefs of right and wrong while others let ambition and ego color their actions.
The authenticity and sure-handedness of the tale are no surprise given Mr. Anthony’s resume: “Working as a detective, he served in the CID, the Regional Crime Squad in Manchester, the Special Branch, and other national agencies in the UK.” (from his Amazon.com author page). By the way, “Paul Anthony” is a pen name, used I believe to allow him to publish “The Fragile Peace” without violating any laws.
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My family and I had the pleasure of visiting Ireland just two short years after the events at the end of this book, and it was without a doubt the most pleasurable vacation I’ve ever had. I was stationed in Naples, Italy, with the U.S. Navy, and the tour we took was organized through the base Morale, Welfare and Recreation department. Our guide was a young man working on his Doctorate in Medieval History; he moonlighted with MWR to make some money by leading tours around Europe.
Much to my surprise, after landing in Dublin and seeing some sights in the Republic including the Boyne Valley and Newgrange, our tour bus headed north into the Province. In addition to seeing the Navan Fort and other parts of the southernmost four of the six counties — perhaps not surprising, the counties containing Londonderry, the scene for much of “The Fragile Peace,” and Belfast were not on the itinerary — we saw British Army patrols and other signs of the “Troubles.”
The people of Northern Ireland were just as friendly and open to our group of American military personnel and their families as those of the Republic, but there was also an undercurrent of tension. We were specifically advised against entering into any discussion with the locals about the political situation, but it crept in anyway.
I will never forget having dinner one night at a hotel near the border and our waitress, and older woman, asked my two girls, who were 10 and 8 at the time, how they liked Ireland. Both replied very enthusiastically and that seemed to please her, but when our youngest added she wanted to stay in Ireland and live there, the woman’s face clouded. “Oh no, no,” she said sadly, “It’s not as wonderful and peaceful as it seems to you visitors.”
Economic times are much tougher now than they were then, but I’d recommend a vacation in Ireland to anyone. It was a wonderful mix of good food, warm and pleasant people and interesting and varied activities.
At the same time, I highly recommend “The Fragile Peace” to anyone interested in an engrossing thriller, but it is absolutely a must-read for anyone wanting to see beyond the headlines and rhetoric of the “Troubles.”