Book review — A Troubled Sleep (James Waller)

Book review — A Troubled Sleep (James Waller)
by Ben Marshall
22 July 2022

In the Irish News, Dr James Waller wrote “Wounds left untended, and unacknowledged, make it even more difficult to ease the tensions of a deeply divided society.” Waller, the author of A Troubled Sleep, is a major proponent of the idea of “memory” being used as a tool for positive change, while it is also prone to being “debilitatingly divisive”. Waller — an American who specialises in the history of genocide and the Holocaust, spent a decade as the Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast — has with this book a comprehensive and expertly written guide on Northern Ireland’s post-Troubles society. Ultimately an analysis of risk and resilience, Waller utilises his background in psychology as a basis for his research and for his writing. 

Waller’s thesis revolves around the understanding of the need for an “honest” analysis of Northern Ireland’s vulnerabilities as it relates to “memory, governance, and social fragmentation” (p. 15).  Divided into three parts, Waller first explores the social identities in Northern Ireland’s divided society, and does so by examining cases of other societies that had, at any point within the last century or so, succumbed to the same extremities of cross-cultural divide that Northern Ireland did. By doing this, Waller is able to give both modern and historical comparisons through the guise of social psychology, citing academic reports on the subject of intergroup conflict and social identity (p. 32). 

Stylistically, despite being an analysis-driven work, Waller is able to convey the sense of dread and mourning that the Troubles ultimately revolve around. Certain passages often resemble lines from Peter Hart’s talismanic book The Great War, when describing what was lost with the dead (p. 81). Other parts are reminiscent of the story/science driven book by Daniel James Brown — The Indifferent Stars Above. In being comparable to works such as that, it cannot be understated the overall high quality of Waller’s work here. 

Structurally, the book is put together respectably. (Occasionally however, annoyances can arise as Waller at a few points leaves the ends of chapters or subheadings on cliff-hangers, rather than answering his own questions (p. 85).)  The second part of A Troubled Sleep focuses on determining whether Northern Ireland has the potential for future violence, using a set of criteria that Waller has used before in previous posts and research positions (p. 96). The third of three parts of the book largely continues the focus of the second, mainly “reviews the internal and external accelerants” that may further threaten Northern Ireland’s period of respite (p. 268). The well-defined aspects of each part of the book adds to its accessibility, and the writing style only adds to the overall quality. 

The conclusion to Waller’s book settles on the idea that Northern Ireland deserves good credit for its peace process (p. 322). Waller suggests that when compared to treaties akin to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, that Northern Ireland has come out better than the likes of Colombia or South Sudan (p. 322). However, Waller still argues that contemporary Northern Ireland cannot be considered a success, nor can it be considered a failed state. Based on his research, and what is written throughout A Troubled Sleep, Waller claims that while optimism is appreciated, the peace process’ “future implementation is tottering and unstable” (p. 323). Waller’s analysis largely echos, and is similar to, the argument made by Feargal Cochrane in his book Northern Ireland: The Fragile Peace, although Waller’s usage of sociological and comparative behavioural analysis adds even more substance to the overall argument. 

Overall, Waller’s work tackles the issue of potentially escalating tensions in Northern Ireland through professional expertise via his background in social psychology. The exploration of issues such as responses to Brexit, paramilitary figures, and historical comparisons perfectly serve as basis for the overarching argument, making A Troubled Sleep well worth the read for anyone interested in post-agreement Northern Ireland. 

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