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Written in July 1996, this paper was published in The Irish Times as a special article. What I was attempting to do was to describe Northern Ireland as a sick family. Since I wrote this paper, of course, the Peace Process has intervened. It feels strangely prophetic that, at the end of this article, I described as a possibility what has actually happened since then. ‘THE NORTH of Ireland? What’s to talk about? Honestly I am sick of it. One side is as bad as the other, stuck in their tribalism, none of them willing to compromise. We’d be best to forget about it altogether!’ As a psychiatrist, one knows that a dysfunctional person has to want to change to become healthy. It’s like a disturbed family I saw recently. Let’s call them the Bulls. I met them because of the younger son, who has been very disturbed and uncooperative for a long time but, the usual thing, you know – he’s acting out of a dysfunctional family. When the parents in this family first met, the young woman – we’ll call her Kathleen – didn’t want to get involved, but the man, John, wouldn’t take no for an answer. He was arrogant and always convinced that he was right about everything. From the beginning he dominated the relationship, trying to convince her that she needed him. She tried to resist marrying him but eventually gave in to his domination and the wedding took place. It was a disaster from the beginning, with constant discord. Nevertheless, they had two children – two boys. Because it was a mixed marriage, Ian, the older boy, was brought up a Protestant like his father and Gerry, the younger son, a Catholic following his mother. John, the father, favoured the older boy, pampered and spoilt him, giving in to his every whim. Ian made great protestations 422 30. Northern Ireland – A Dysfunctional Family? of love and loyalty to his father as long as he got his own way. By contrast the father rejected his younger son and was constantly nasty and brutal to him, ignoring the feelings of the mother. Kathleen loved her younger son but wasn’t able to do much to protect him. As time went on, the marriage relationship deteriorated further until Kathleen finally rebelled and demanded that the father get out. Eventually Bull agreed to a separation. He left the house and agreed to let the mother have custody of the two children. However, the older boy, who was used to getting his own way, threatened to burn down the house if he was left with his mother. Although the father was about to sign the legal agreement giving custody of the children to their mother, he quickly gave in under the threats and blackmail of the older boy and used his wealthy and powerful legal friends to get custody of both children. The younger child very much wanted to stay with his mother but he had no say in the matter. At the time the family split up it was as if the younger son had left part of his personality with his mother and could never really separate from her, which weakened him further. He became even less able to stand up to his older brother, who always claimed that, because he was older and stronger, he had the democratic right to make all decisions for both of them. As soon as Ian got his way, he immediately became very sweet and loving to the father, making great protestations of affection and loyalty and blaming the younger son for all that had happened, thus gaining more favour and pampering than ever. The unsatisfactory agreement that was arrived at then was that the house would be divided into two, the two sons living in a flat upstairs and the mother taking the main part of the house below. As a gesture to the mother, about a third of the space which should have gone to make up the apartment for the boys was left to her. This meant less room for the boys but, because the older boy was bigger and stronger, he took the major share of the space, claiming it as his right because he was older and stronger. Although she was living in the house with them, Kathleen was to have no say over their welfare and management whatsoever, and they were to be completely under Bull’s control financially and otherwise...


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