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Christopher Stanley reviews ‘Anatomy of a Killing: Life and Death on a Divided Island’ by Ian Cobain (London: Granta, 2020)

A valuable contribution to preserving the memory of the Conflict and to the continued out-workings of the fragile peace (in) process in this Northern Ireland, this Narrow Ground. 

In addition to the most recent edition of De Smith’s ‘Principles of Judicial Review’, the other two most used book on my desk are Coroners’ ‘Law and Practice in Northern Ireland’ by Leckey and Greer and ‘Lost Lives: The stories of the men, women and children who died as a result of the Northern Island troubles’. 

But to ‘Lost Lives’ I have recourse at least once a day. As a lawyer working on litigation arising from the Legacy of the Conflict in Northern Ireland I inhabit what Robert Cover described as a world of legal interpretation which takes place in “a field of pain and death”. 

The pall of compassion fatigue is lifted by such a book.

For example, Millar McAllister is Entry 2017 page 754 in ‘Lost Lives’One of those questioned  by the police in relation to his murder is Brian Maguire who is Entry 2019Whenever I draft correspondence to state agencies – the PSNI, OPONI, the Attorney-General – I always name the deceased and reference their entry in ‘Lost Lives’It is, for me, to make the loss real and to remind “Dear Sir/Madam” that this letter, submission, representation concerns someone who died violently and who was a wife, son, daughter, husband.

What Ian Cobain achieves in his recent book ‘Anatomy of a Killing: Life and Death on a Divided Island’is to provide a narrative of “all the surrounding circumstances” (as the inquest process demands) concerning the murder of Millar McAllister on 22 April 1978. An unremarkable day in the history of the Conflict in Northern Ireland but one which Ian Cobain takes; and forensically and compassionately examines with this one tragic violent death at its core. He produces a compelling narrative account of the human cost of the Conflict, weaving many diverse but necessary elements to contribute to our further understanding of that ‘little local difficulty’ on the Narrow Ground. 

I am not sure whether Ian Cobain intended to embark on a loose trilogy when he published his first book ‘Cruel Britannia’ in 2013 and then ‘The History Thieves’ in 2017 but this is what he has produced after many distinguished years as a senior reporter with The Guardian, which included covering events in Northern Ireland. 

I was once had his dictaphone pushed under my nose when we were on the packed steps of Solihull Civic Hall following the ruling of the Senior Coroner for Birmingham to resume the inquest into The Birmingham Pub Bombings 1974.

In ‘Anatomy of a Killing’ Ian Cobain gives life to the stark 200 or so words afforded to Millar McAllister in his ‘Lost Lives’a work of 3712 lost lives spanning 1696 pages. 

Ian Cobain explains why Millar and his family came to live in Lurgan, County Armagh, Millar’s work with the RUC as a photographer (often in plain clothes), his hobby as a pigeon-fancier, why he was identified as a target by an Active Service Unit of the PIRA, how his assassination was planned and executed (literally), who his killers were and why on that day they became responsible for his murder; their motivation and the stark reality of his slaying

Ian Cobain explains why Millar and his family came to live in Lurgan, County Armagh, Millar’s work with the RUC as a photographer (often in plain clothes), his hobby as a pigeon-fancier, why he was identified as a target by an Active Service Unit of the PIRA, how his assassination was planned and executed (literally), who his killers were and why on that day they became responsible for his murder; their motivation and the stark reality of his slaying:

“Harry pulled the gun out and took aim. He looked at Millar’s face. Millar didn’t look frightened. He just looked a little disappointed. Irritated even. Harry could see that he didn’t like being tricked. ‘Aah’, said Millar, quietly” (page 154).

Millar was shot in front of his son Alan. His other son Mark rang for an ambulance.

Without ever detracting from the appalling tragedy of the killing of Millar Mcallister and the effect of his murder on his family, his community and his colleagues, Ian Cobain moves back and forth through time, to events before and after 22 April 1978. He examines what happened before and immediately after the killing. He examines events from the founding of the Irish State and before; and how and why the brutality that occurred in Lurgan on 22 April 1978 happened. He examines events leading to the Belfast Good Friday Peace Agreement 1998 and beyond to the present day. 

The author knows how the past in Northern Ireland determines the present and continues to shape the future – whether Westminster politicians and Whitehall civil servants admit it or not. 

Ian Cobain examines the personalities involved in plotting the course of the Conflict, from within the IRA, the Whitehall-Westminster politicians and civil servants, the RUC and the British Army and Security Services, those within the UDA and the UVF. He develops threads established in ‘Cruel Britannia’ relating to the use of torture against those suspected of terrorist acts of insurgency in dark Orwellian places like the Castlereagh ‘holding centre’ and its significance.

He descibes how torture actually inscribed fear and hatred, and provoked revenge on the young minds and souls of those who eventually became the killers of Millar McAllister. He analyses how the British state reacted in its regimes of imprisonment and how internment (as seen by the IRA) became a political weapon in its own right through the blanket protests and the hunger-strikes, which eventually contributed to the ceasefires and the peace. 

There are a plethora of books covering similar territory from different perspectives: histories with competing narratives, fine journalism, and sensational journalism, sociological analysis, personal accounts, academic treaties, political memoirs.

What places Ian Cobain with the best of those engaged with understanding the Conflict in Northern Ireland is a calm presence, a persistence in trying to understand the importance of place and space (the landscape and geography of the Conflcit), a compassion which drives giving the killing of Millar McAllister value, and a desire to understand why he was killed along with the thousands of other ‘Lost Lives’.

He concludes his account of the context of the killing of Millar McAllister by describing the site of his grave:

“There are no police insignia, there are no crowns or harps – no mention of him having been a police officer, or a victim of the Troubles – and no dark words about enemies or murder of killing. Instead, at the top of the stone is an engraving so small that it would be easy to miss, were you hurrying along the ranks of graves in search of the resting place of a loved one. At the top of Millar’s headstone is an engraving of a racing pigeon”. (page 234)

This book is both a valuable contribution to preserving the memory of the Conflict and to the continued out-workings of the fragile peace (in) process in this Northern Ireland, this Narrow Ground. 

Christopher Stanley is a Litigation Consultant with KRW LAW LLP, Solicitors