Northern Ireland is at war, said a Belfast Presbyterian minister recently in the Times of London. Nonsense, replied an Ulster colonel later that week: the province “is in fairly normal state but at the peak of one of its frequent periods of open inter-sectarian hostility.”

As I was marveling at the military mind, my eye serendipitously caught a different item on the same page. A correspondent quoted an IBM programmers’ reference manual, which, he pointed out, contained the entry: “Normal: see Abnormal.” That might sum up the Northern Ireland tragedy. Try to come to grips with it, or even to describe the dramatis personae, and you feel like Hercules confronting the monstrous Hydra with all its daunting, inexhaustible complexity. And not least of the baffling features is official reiteration that the vast majority of the population, while acutely conscious of the violence, are not “involved” in it.

Since my 1969 essays in this journal (“John Bull’s Other Island,” September 12, and “Not Defending the Indefensible,” October 24) there have been significant developments in the situation, and some account of them might help in understanding the background. Most notable of these was the report of the Cameron Commission, which under a Scottish judge investigated the disturbances in the province. The document’s apportionment of blame was comprehensive: just grievances long officially ignored, left-wing infiltration of the civil-rights movement, police misbehavior, Roman Catholic immovability on certain issues, the unhelpful stance of the Dublin government, and the rabble-rousing proclivities of Ian Paisley, whose attitude toward the Armagh police was described as “aggressive and threatening.”

Regarding this Armagh incident, when the ...

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