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

Yet the need to send these brutal messages, repeated again and again in many different ways, helps to explain one of the most significant absences of the conflict. What Donald L. Horowitz has called the “deadly ethnic riot”—an “intense, sudden but not necessarily wholly unplanned lethal attack by civilian members of one group on civilian members of another”—which has characterized brutal civil conflicts in India, Nigeria, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, and elsewhere, hardly featured in the long history of the Troubles.5 The political conditions for this kind of mass violence certainly existed in Northern Ireland, and it was a feature of political life in the province in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Indeed, in July and August 1969, precisely this kind of ethnic riot broke out in the cities of Belfast and Derry, leaving ten people dead, 154 suffering from gunshot wounds, hundreds injured in other ways, and large areas of both cities devastated.6

But mass intercommunal violence did not take hold. One obvious reason is the intervention of the British army in August 1969 and the gradual militarization of the conflict. There is, though, a deeper reason. There was simply not enough support on either side for a sustained campaign of civilian attacks on other civilians. Even at times of extreme tension, ordinary Protestants and Catholics showed, after the initial wave of violence, no desire to invade each other’s ghettos in order to kill, maim, and humiliate the other side. For most ordinary people, ethnic and sectarian hatred was not deep enough to generate such acts. The apparent integrity of the quarrel was maintained not by the psychotic atavism of the general population but by the terror campaigns of small armed minorities on both sides and by the generally incompetent and sometimes brutal responses to those campaigns of successive British governments.

Both republican and Loyalist terror groups presented their violence as essentially defensive. The IRA, which killed nearly half of those who died in the Troubles, claimed to be a reaction against the unlawful and unjust occupation by Britain of part of the historic territory of Ireland. The Loyalist gangs wanted their murders to be understood as a defense of the Protestant and British community against IRA aggression. Even in their own terms, however, neither of these claims was in fact sustainable. Of the 1,771 people killed by the IRA, just 455 belonged to the British armed forces. Even if members of the local police and military auxiliaries—all, in the IRA’s ideology, fellow Irish people—are included, not much more than half of their victims were casualties of the kind of “war” they said they were fighting. 7 In the case of the Loyalists, the myth of a struggle against republican aggressors is even more flimsy. Figures compiled by the independent Cost of the Troubles Study and published as Northern Ireland’s Troubles: The Human Costs show that of more than a thousand people whose deaths can be attributed to Loyalist paramilitaries, just twenty-nine were serving or former members of the IRA or its allies. The overwhelming majority of their victims were innocent Catholics chosen purely on the basis of their religion.

More important for the long-term prospects for peace, however, is the fact that both sets of paramilitaries also made war on their own communities. Far from being a natural outgrowth of the festering animosities of ordinary Catholics and Protestants, the terror gangs found it necessary to enforce their authority within their own territories by repeated brutality. This was true even within their own ranks. While the British army and the police killed 115 members of the IRA, the IRA was responsible for the deaths of 149 of its own members. Over twice as many Loyalist paramilitaries were killed by their own colleagues as by the IRA. While many of these deaths were a result of accidents like premature explosions, many others were deliberate killings of alleged informers or dissidents, or, as in the violence which has claimed three further lives in recent weeks, feuds between rival paramilitary groups.

In the wider communities which they purported to defend, meanwhile, the gangs acted as aggressors. While the British army killed 138 members of the Catholic community, the IRA killed 198. Even in its own stronghold of West Belfast, where the civilian population was the target of random assassinations by Loyalist gangs, the IRA still managed to kill more local people than the Loyalists did. And this is without taking into consideration the thousands of beatings, maimings, and tortures that make up the paramilitaries’ continuing system of local “justice.”

All of this internal violence was necessary because the communities in which the paramilitaries operated were not made up of fanatical zealots driven by inherited hatreds. This reality, hidden by the mutually reinforcing propaganda of both sides, explains why, to this day, the best-kept secret of Northern Ireland is that even with all the polarizing effects of violence, the general population did not form itself into two monolithic blocs, one Protestant and loyal to Britain, the other Catholic and bent on uniting the province with the rest of Ireland. Though it is almost never mentioned by politicians or journalists, the extraordinary truth revealed by studies of popular attitudes is that a very significant and consistent proportion of the population refuses to be categorized as either unionist or nationalist. In the combined Northern Ireland Social Attitudes Surveys from 1989 to 1995, almost 40 percent of respondents fall into this “none of the above” category. Half of them are Catholics, the other half Protestants.8 Within both communities, in other words, a very significant element of the population does not even identify with the official ideology of the tribe, let alone support the use of violence to further that ideology.

How, then, could the presence and significance of this third political identity remain such a secret? The reason the people who refuse to be categorized tend to vanish from accounts of the Troubles is that, lacking any strong affiliation with a political party, they are largely invisible. Many of them are so disillusioned and despairing that they don’t vote at all. Others vote for the least extreme varieties of unionism or nationalism that present themselves within their communities. Only a small minority vote for parties like Alliance that specifically try to transcend the sectarian divide. Thus a diverse public opinion, with a huge middle ground, is represented by a polarized political system in which Protestants are assumed to be unionists and Catholics to be nationalists. Though less traumatically than Jean McConville, these nonaligned people are also made to disappear.

Nor, except for sporadic attempts at protest, did this third section of the population ever manage to revolt against the paramilitaries. Well-justified fear was a powerful inhibition. So too, however, especially in the Catholic community, was a genuine ambivalence. To tell the police where the IRA had stored its guns or who had carried out a particular act of violence was to side with the security forces who treated you and your neighbors as “stupid Micks.” Malachi O’Doherty captures this ambivalence perfectly in The Trouble with Guns:

As the transition to greater violence continued, I felt myself losing my own moral bearings. By 1971 I could, for instance, have been well able to point the police towards men on the run and to the likely positions of stores of arms and explosives. I didn’t do that because I didn’t trust them to come in and deal fairly. I wasn’t siding with the IRA, but I wasn’t siding with anybody.

Yet in one, albeit negative, sense, these uninvolved people retained a powerful presence. Their quiet, even silent, refusal to get involved thwarted the aims of the paramilitaries. The IRA was able to retain enough control in its own areas to prevent people like Malachi O’Doherty from betraying them to the police. But they could never win enough active support, particularly in the Republic of Ireland, where most Irish Catholic nationalists live, to have a realistic prospect of forcing the British to withdraw. As this reality became unavoidable, the IRA and its political wing Sinn Fein9 switched to a strategy of combining armed propaganda with electioneering, the so-called “Armalite and ballot box” approach. Eventually, however, it became clear that so many of its own potential voters were repelled by violence that the IRA itself had become a liability.


While the actual use of violence had become a hindrance to the hard-line Republican Movement as a whole, still, the implicit threat of violence remained a political asset. The hint that if the elected politicians did not get their way, they might, alas, be unable to control the hard men in the background has long been a powerful tactic in Northern Ireland. The Sinn Fein leadership was understandably loath to lose this implicit source of power. Conversely, the other parties to the Belfast Agreement, especially David Trimble’s Unionists, were determined that Sinn Fein would not have this extra leverage. That is why the decommissioning of IRA weapons became such a crucial issue and why the Unionists would not agree to establish the power-sharing Executive envisaged by the Belfast Agreement of April 1998 until the IRA had effectively ceased to be a threat.

The agreement was followed by two years of wrangling, including the establishment of the Executive, followed by its collapse when the IRA failed to deliver on promises to begin the process of decommissioning arms. The republicans were eventually forced to abandon their simultaneous bet on democracy and on terror. In early May, a combination of intense pressure and imaginative thinking by the British and Irish governments led to the IRA’s acceptance of a formula for putting arms “beyond use.” Its arms dumps were to be inspected by independent international figures—Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa and Marti Atissari of Finland. They were to be sealed and regularly reinspected. The first of these inspections took place in June, within a few weeks of the reestablishment of the Executive.

The scale of this breakthrough is monumental. In effect, the IRA is accepting that armed violence has no legitimate role in the new context created by the implementation of the Belfast Agreement. Just as significantly, in its statement accepting the arms proposals, the IRA defined the political process as one “in which Irish republicans and unionists can, as equals, pursue our respective political objectives peacefully.” As an ideological position, this statement by the IRA that unionism and republicanism are equally legitimate is even more historic than the agreement on arms. While the mechanisms for sealing the dumps put specific weapons beyond use, the recognition of the equal rights of unionists puts the whole notion of a terror campaign aimed at overturning those rights beyond use.

None of this means that Northern Ireland will become, overnight, a peaceful and stable democracy. The two years of sterile maneuvering over decommissioning arms broke the momentum of the April 1998 agreement and allowed the fatalism generated by thirty years of failure to reassert its grip. Political unionism is deeply divided, and at least half of its representatives in the elected assembly are opposed to key aspects of the agreement, especially the presence of two Sinn Fein ministers in the government.10 Dissident republicans, principally in the so-called Real IRA that was responsible for the horrendous Omagh bomb in August 1998—which killed twenty-nine people and injured over two hundred—are attempting to restart an armed terror campaign. Dissident Loyalists, including the Loyalist Volunteer Force and elements within the supposedly pacified Ulster Freedom Fighters, have been making belligerent gestures, most recently in the disturbances at Drumcree during the standoff between Orange Order marchers and Catholics, and also in fighting between the Loyalist paramilitaries themselves.

Neither the LVF nor the UFF is associated with a party that has secured seats in the elected assembly, and, though the UFF’s political wing is strongly committed to the peace process, the large anti-agreement constituency in some Protestant areas is a tempting prospect for gangs hoping to build a power base. Opposition to the agreement also offers political cover for local struggles to control the increasingly lucrative drug trade. Few societies know better than Northern Ireland does the capacity of a small group with access even to primitive arms and explosives to inflict grief and misery on a large scale.

But these are the aftershocks of an upheaval, not the earthquake itself. In a wider perspective, the most significant thing about this year’s Drumcree disturbances is how few people—perhaps a tenth of the number who participated in previous years—actually took part. Likewise, the most significant thing about the Real IRA is the tiny scale of its support base in the Catholic community at a time when the mainstream IRA has just abandoned its basic principles. With the three main sources of violence—the IRA, the main Loyalist paramilitaries, and the state—all now decisively committed to the peace process, the conflict as we have known it since 1968 is over. The task that faces the new political institutions, moreover, is not the almost impossible one of transforming a society saturated in murderous prejudice into a decent democracy. It is the easier, though still formidable, job of reshaping the political system so that it reflects the complex decency of the ordinary people that finally defeated all attempts to reduce them to unflinching bigots.

This Issue

October 5, 2000