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Are the Troubles Over?

Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children Who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles Square

by David McKittrick, by Seamus Kelters, by Brian Feeney, by Chris Thornton
Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing (distributed in the US by Trafalgar, 1,630 pp., $60.00

Those Are Real Bullets, Aren’t They? Bloody Sunday, Derry, 30 January 1972

by Peter Pringle, by Philip Jacobson
London: Fourth Estate, 310 pp., £12.99 (paper)

Northern Ireland’s Troubles: The Human Costs

by Marie-Therese Fay, by Mike Morrissey, by Marie Smyth
London: Pluto Press, 229 pp., $22.50 (paper)


The scene is so stark and grief-stricken, so full of pity and terror, that it might have been created by Sophocles or Aeschylus. From time to time, the grown-up children of Jean McConville gather on the beautiful beach of Templetown on the shores of Carlingford Lough, a few miles south of Northern Ireland’s border with the Irish Republic. They wait in the parking lot or on the dunes, while members of the Irish police dig holes and pits, looking for the bones of their mother.

Jean McConville was abducted from her home in Belfast by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1972 and never seen again. Since their father had died a short time before, her ten young children were left alone. They told no one what had happened and tried to survive in silence. Eventually, all but the eldest were taken to a series of orphanages. For them, and for the wider Northern Irish society that is struggling to come to terms with thirty years of grief and atrocity, a proper burial for Jean McConville might symbolize some kind of ending. Still, though the IRA has finally admitted her murder and given information on the disposal of her body, all efforts to find her remains have so far failed. Neither she nor the troubled society from which she came has yet been able to rest in peace.

The story of Jean McConville is just one of 3,637 told in one of the most remarkable books to have emerged from any conflict. Lost Lives, the work of the journalists David McKittrick, Chris Thornton, and Seamus Kelters, and the academic and sometime politician Brian Feeney, is a scrupulous, austere secular litany that describes every single person killed in the Troubles, from John Patrick Scullion, a young Catholic murdered in June 1966 by Protestant paramilitaries in a prelude to the wider outbreak of violence two years later, to Charles Bennett, an even younger Catholic murdered by the IRA in July 1999. (A few people have been killed since then, mostly as a result of feuds within the Protestant paramilitaries.) The book simply records, calmly, accurately, and without discrimination, who the dead people were, how they died, and who killed them. Slowly and quietly, it reveals a fundamental truth about the Northern Ireland conflict: that it was not primarily about history, religion, or sovereignty, but about the deliber-ate destruction and dishonoring of vulnerable human flesh. Especially after the first four years, violence became an end in itself. However obvious it may seem, the chances for a lasting and decent settlement depend crucially on a thorough acceptance of that fact.

It is not, of course, that any of the parties to the conflict could possibly be ignorant of the extent of suffering that it caused. In the catalog of late-twentieth-century civil conflicts, the Troubles may have been relatively harmless. Compared to the mass killings in Rwanda or the breakup of Yugoslavia, the struggle for power in Northern Ireland, which left fewer than four thousand people dead and another 30,000 seriously injured, was no more than a footnote in the grim saga of barbarity. All of this, however, took place in a very small society (Northern Ireland has a population of just one and a half million) that was not actually at war. Large sections of the civilian population in a Western democracy were touched by politically motivated violence. By 1995, one in twenty people had suffered some kind of personal injury. A fifth of the adult population had witnessed an explosion. The same proportion had a family member or close friend injured or killed. What they may have lacked in absolute scale, the Troubles made up in intimacy, duration, and, at times, in savagery.

The desire to end this suffering, even among many of those who had helped to create and sustain it, led in April 1998 to the signing of the brilliantly creative Belfast Agreement between most of the Northern Ireland parties and the British and Irish governments. That this desire was shared by a huge majority of the people of both parts of Ireland was evident in the subsequent referendums in which 71 percent of voters in the North, and 94 percent in the Republic, endorsed the deal. To outside observers, it may seem inexplicable that an agreement with this level of popular support is only now being implemented and that its success remains in doubt.

The persistence of ethnic conflict, exemplified by the recent violence sur-rounding the attempt by the Protestant Orange Order to march through a Catholic area in what has become an annual trial of sectarian strength at Drumcree, seems to support the pessimistic notion that this is an atavistic, almost medieval antagonism which no amount of clever diplomacy and no amount of political change can ever solve. That notion was most famously expressed by Winston Churchill in 1922, shortly after Ireland was partitioned into a Catholic-dominated independent state in twenty-six of its thirty-two counties and a Protestant-dominated autonomous British province in the other six northeastern counties. Contrasting the radical changes wrought in Europe by the end of World War I with the stubborn persistence of the hatred between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, he remarked that

The modes of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous change in the deluge of the world, but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.1

As sectarian tensions continue to emerge in sporadic violence, it is easy to conclude that the tremendous institutional changes set in train by the Belfast Agreement will leave the religious quarrel in Northern Ireland unaltered and that implacable bigotry will wear down this settlement as it has done with so many others. To understand why this notion is fundamentally wrong and why the peace process will ultimately succeed, it is necessary to grasp one basic but paradoxical truth. Sectarian prejudice did not cause the violence. It was, to a great extent, the violence that caused the prejudice.

If Northern Ireland were a normal society, it might be reasonable to expect that its older citizens would be relatively narrow-minded and prejudiced, while the young would have shaken off the shackles of sectarian stereotypes. In fact, the opposite is the case. In an analysis of the Northern Ireland Social Attitudes Surveys carried out between 1989 and 1995, sociologists Bernadette Hayes and Ian McAllister have found that

The older generations, particularly those growing up in the period when partition took place, and those growing up during the Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War, show low levels of prejudice. By contrast, the highest levels are found among those who have grown up since the start of the Troubles in 1968; within these generations, prejudice is up to three quarters higher than among those who had grown up half a century before.2

These findings, rooted in a series of large-scale surveys of popular attitudes, destroy the long-cherished image of ancestral hatreds being passed down like the gene for some deadly disease from gnarled bigots to their children and grandchildren. Sectarian animosity was certainly a fact of life before the Troubles and it was deliberately sustained in Northern Ireland by systematic discrimination against Catholics in employment, housing, and the electoral system. On both sides of the divide, there were church and political leaders willing to express and foment contempt for the other religion and its adherents and minorities who were willing to act on those attitudes.

But in the minds of most people most of the time, prejudice was neither very strong nor very active. By the time the Troubles broke out in 1968, marriages between Catholics and Protestants had become quite common. Many neighborhoods in Belfast that had previously been the exclusive territory of one or another tribe had become mixed. The IRA was moribund and Loyalist paramilitarism was confined to a lunatic fringe. When Catholic protest gathered force through the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, it took the form essentially of a demand that the emerging social realities be recognized, allowing Catholics to take their place as equal, law-abiding citizens of a normal democracy.

What changed all of this was the organized violence of the IRA, of Loyalist paramilitaries, and of the state. The IRA’s murder of Jean McConville is a very good example of the way violence was used to reinforce strict religious and political divisions that had actually been fraying at the edges. She had been born a Protestant but married a Catholic and took his religion. They initially lived in a traditionally Protestant area of Belfast but were forced to leave in 1969 after the outbreak of violence. They moved to the Catholic Divis district. Like most of the local people, Jean McConville welcomed the arrival of the British army in 1969, seeing it as a protection from Protestant gangs who operated with the tacit consent, and often with the direct participation, of the police. But the British army destroyed that support by crude and arrogant behavior toward the Catholic population. The Belfast journalist Malachi O’Doherty, who comes from the Catholic housing projects that would become the heartland of the IRA’s urban terror campaign, and whose 1998 book The Trouble with Guns is the most subtle and astute account of that campaign yet written, recalls the shift in public attitudes created by the sheer ignorance of the soldiers:

The soldiers had come and I had been amazed. On the first days of their being here we had driven down the Falls Road just to look at them. Now, English soldiers calling Irishmen “stupid Micks” seemed to confirm the republican notion that there was old bad blood at work here.

The gradual alienation of the Catholic population became sudden and complete with the massacre by British paratroopers of fourteen unarmed civil rights demonstrators in Derry in January 1972, a catastrophe that was compounded by the official inquiry conducted by Lord Widgery and justifiably characterized by Peter Pringle and Philip Jacobson, in their horrifying counter-blast Those Are Real Bullets, Aren’t They?, as a lamentable “propaganda exercise.”3

The IRA took the opportunity presented by the state’s heavy-handed and deadly blundering to begin an armed campaign against the British army and the local police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Jean McConville was too slow to react to this change of circumstances and committed the crime of showing compassion toward a young soldier who had been shot outside her front door. Her abduction and murder sent a message to the wider Catholic community about what was and was not acceptable conduct. Complicated people like Jean McConville, who did not fit neatly into the prescribed categories of the conflict, would have to fade quietly into the background or face the brutal consequences.4

  1. 1

    Hansard, Vol. 150 (February 16, 1922), col. 1270.

  2. 2

    Generations, Prejudice and Politics,” in Ireland North and South, pp. 474-475.

  3. 3

    Pringle and Jacobson were members of the Sunday Times Insight investigative team, whose archives of interviews form a key body of contemporary evidence for the new inquiry under Lord Saville which is currently in progress in Derry. While the Widgery inquiry laid the primary blame for the killings on the organizers of the march and strongly implied that at least some of the dead civilians had attacked the army with guns or bombs, Pringle and Jacobson present overwhelming evidence that the killings were “part of a deliberate plan, conceived at the highest level of military command and sanctioned by the British government, to put innocent civilians at risk by authorizing the use of lethal force during an illegal civil rights march.” The evidence so far presented to the Saville inquiry tends very strongly toward the same conclusions.

  4. 4

    Lost Lives, pp. 301-302. I have also drawn some details from an article by Jim Cusack, “McConville Isolated as Falls Rejected British Army Role,” in The Irish Times, May 31, 1999.

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