Statistics of the Conflict and Conflict of Statistics

Tonight The Pensive Quill features guest writer Liam O Ruairc who offers insight into the the ways in which statistical analysis manipulates perceptions of responsibilty for armed actions during the Northern conflict

According to official British statistics, in the six counties between 1969 and 1998 there were some 35 669 shooting incidents, 10 412 explosions, 11 483 firearms and 115 427 kilos of explosives were seized during 359 699 searches, from 1972 some 18 258 were charged with scheduled offences, and some 3289 people were killed and another 42 216 injured as a result of the conflict in the north. (Sydney Elliott & W.D. Flackes, Northern Ireland: A Political Directory 1968-1999, Belfast, The Blackstaff Press, fifth revised and updated edition, 1999, pp.681-687).

Political violence in the six counties did not have the same level of intensity across space and time and social categories. Over 52 percent of killings took place in the years 1971 to 1976. The Sutton Database, a database made available by the University of Ulster detailing the 3526 deaths as a result of the conflict between July 1969 and December 2001 shows that 3269 were killed in the six counties, 125 in Britain, 114 in the 26 counties and 18 in mainland Europe. ( Nearly half of the total number of killings within the six counties occurred in Belfast, and three quarters of these were in the North and the West of the city, which also suffered the highest death rates – 544 fatalities in each.

This contrasts to a total of eight deaths in North Down, indicating that areas in the six counties that are materially disadvantaged also experienced disproportionally high levels of casualties compared to the better off. Nine out of ten of all those killed were men, with the death risk highest in the younger age groups. (Marie-Therese Fay, Mike Morrissey and Marie Smyth, Northern Ireland’s Troubles: The Human Costs, London: Pluto Press, 1999, pp.133-146) Brendan O'Leary and John McGarry point that "nearly two per cent of the population of Northern Ireland have been killed or injured though political violence", a figure close to one in fifty of the population:

If the equivalent ratio of victims to population had been produced in Great Britain in the same period some 100 000 people would have died, and if a similar level of political violence had taken place, the number of fatalities in the USA would have been over 500 000, or about ten times the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam war." (Brendan O'Leary and John McGarry, The Politics of Antagonism: Understanding Northern Ireland, London: The Athlone Press, Second Edition, 1996, pp.12-13)

It is legitimate to classify the conflict as a "war", "the Irish euphemism for the conflict, 'the Troubles', is just that: a euphemism". (Ibid, 18) Some 7,000 parents have thus lost a child, some 14,000 grandparents a grandchild. An estimated 3,000 people have lost a spouse, affecting around 10,000 children, while perhaps 15,000 have lost a sibling. Some 45,000 may have lost an uncle or aunt and around 21,000 a niece or nephew. All in all, more than 115,000 people may have lost a close relative. (Karola Dillenburger, Response, in B. Hamber, D.Kulle, R.Wilson (eds), Future Policies for the Past, Belfast: Democratic Dialogue Report No.13, February 2001).

More recently, on the basis of data gathered by the  Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, the Victims Commission estimated that the conflict resulted in 500 000 'victims' in the north. This underestimates the number of victims as the data did not cover the 26 counties or Great Britain. 'Victims' are those who are directly affected by 'bereavement', 'physical injury' or 'trauma' as a result of the conflict. Over 170 000 people have been directly affected by bereavement, one person out of ten in the six counties. In 2010 it was estimated that 107 000 people in the north suffered some physical injury as a result of the conflict. (Simon Cunningham, Troubles created 500 000 victims says official body, The Irish News, 27 September 2011).

The conflict also left important psychological trauma. A study by the Psychology Institute at the University of Ulster and the Northern Ireland Centre for Trauma and Transformation found out in 2009 that two thirds of the adult population of the six counties have suffered one or more serious traumatic experiences - a finding in line with studies of other European societies - what was remarkable was that of all traumatic experiences, half were ‘Troubles’ related. And the proportion of the population of the six counties with post traumatic stress disorder is at the higher end of international figures. One in one hundred adults suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. Around 40 000 adults in the north today have continuing mental health and related problems related to their experience of political violence. (David McKittrick, Half of all trauma in North is 'linked to the Troubles', The Irish News, 6 January 2010)

Liz Curtis notes that republican violence "dominates the coverage" and the tendency of media of "blaming the IRA" for violence. (Liz Curtis, Ireland: The Propaganda War, London: Pluto Press, 1998, pp.106-107) This is reflected in the coverage of the casualties. The media most often reproduces the following breakdown:

Killings by Military and Paramilitary Groups 1969-2001
Republicans: 2060 (58.6 percent)
Loyalists: 1016 (29.2 percent)
British Forces: 363 (10 percent)
Others – Unknown: 89 (2.2 percent)
Total: 3528
(CAIN – Sutton Index of Deaths. Appendix : Statistical Summary)

The way casualties are presented above will put Republicans at the top of the hierarchy of killings and Crown forces at the bottom. This is also reflected in most academic writing. (For example: Richard English, Armed Struggle: A History of the IRA, London: Macmillan, 2003, pp.378-381) But this not the only way of looking at statistics. There are grounds to challenge the above representation. One of the problems with it is that those who have statistically suffered the most from the conflict – the Nationalist population - are totally invisible and while Republicans certainly played a major part in the conflict, they were not the only component and violence used by the state and loyalists – responsible for the majority of casualties of the largest category of deaths - is largely minimised. Republicans can point to an alternative way of looking at these statistics. Of the 3747 people killed as a result of the conflict between 1966 and 2006, the book Lost Lives breaks them down into the following categories:

Security Forces : 1039 (27.7%)
Republican Activists : 395 (10.5%)
Loyalist Activists: 167 (4.4%)
Catholic Civilians: 1259 (33.6%)
Protestant Civilians: 727 (19.4%)
Others-Unknown : 160 (4.2%)
(David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney and Chris Thornton, Lost Lives: The stories of the men, women and children who died as a result of the Northern Ireland troubles, Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing Company, Revised and updated edition, 2007, p.1555)

It should be noted that approximately twenty per cent of Protestant Civilians killed were murdered by Loyalists because they were mistaken for Catholics. These casualties figures demonstrate that the two largest categories of fatalities were ‘Catholic Civilians’ killed by the security forces and loyalists, and members of the security forces killed by republicans. The largest category of deaths was innocent Catholic civilians. Statistically they were those most at risk of death in the conflict. To put these deaths in context, Catholics represent one third of the population of the north but suffered nearly three fifths of the civilian casualties. "Catholic civilians have evidently suffered both absolutely and relatively more than Protestant civilians." ((Brendan O'Leary and John McGarry, The Politics of Antagonism: Understanding Northern Ireland, London: The Athlone Press, Second Edition, 1996, p.34) The number of Catholics killed per 1000 of population was 2.48 and Protestants 1.46.Catholics were at approximately 50 per cent greater risk of being killed, both relatively and absolutely.

While it should be noted that "neither community in Northern Ireland has a monopoly of suffering in the present conflict, amongst both Catholics and Protestants, hundreds have been killed and thousands injured, lives have been ruined and homes wrecked." It should be emphasized that:

In relative terms it is undoubtedly the Catholics who have suffered the most, for it is against them that the main weight of repression has been directed. Most of the vast number of people imprisoned over the years for so-called 'terrorist' (i.e. political) offences have been Catholics and most of the victims of sectarian assassinations have also been Catholics." (Bob Rowthorn and Naomi Wayne, Northern Ireland: the Political Economy of Conflict, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988 pp.6-7)

A study carried out by the University of Ulster on the 3593 conflict-related deaths between 1969 and 1998 estimated that 1543 of the dead were Catholics, including 355 Republican activists. In terms of agencies responsible of those 1543 deaths:

Killed by Republicans: 381 (24.7%)
Killed by Loyalists: 735 (47.6%)
Killed by Security Forces : 316 (20.5%)
Others-Unknown: 111 (7.2%)
(Source: Marie Therese Fay, Mike Morrissey and Marie Smyth, Mapping Troubles-Related Deaths in Northern Ireland 1969-1998, INCORE (University of Ulster & The United Nations University), Second edition with amendments reprinted 1998, Table 1.1 Deaths by Religion by Organisation Responsible)

These statistics show that there were two campaigns of violence in the North, the republican war against the British state, and the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries counter-insurgency campaign not just against Republicans but against the Catholic population as a whole. Civilian deaths constitute the largest category of victims of state killings - over 50 per cent. Almost all such victims were unarmed; the vast majority - 86 per cent - were Catholic. The next largest category is republican paramilitaries, accounting for 37 per cent of state killings. Remarkably few loyalist paramilitaries were victims of state killings - only 4 per cent of the total. If it is presumed as a shorthand calculation that republican activists were likely to have been Catholic while loyalist activists were likely to have been Protestant, it follows that the Catholic or nationalist community experienced the overwhelming bulk of killing by state forces; 88 percent of victims of state killings were from the nationalist community.

Deaths resulting from collusion between state forces and loyalist paramilitary groups are not included in the above figures. "To do so would be to add at least the same number of deaths again." Collusion has been a factor in loyalist killings since early in the conflict, but reached a peak in the early 1990s. As Arthur Fegan and Raymond Murray documented, between March 1990 and September 1994, loyalists killed 185 people. Of these deaths, 168 (91 percent) were sectarian or political in nature, and in 103 cases (56 percent of all the loyalist killings in the period) there is evidence of some form of collusion. (Figures from: Bill Rolston, Unfinished Business: State Killings and the Quest for Truth, Belfast: Beyond The Pale, 2000)

While the security forces waged war on the republicans, the loyalist paramilitaries were left relatively unhindered. The security forces did not respond to loyalist attacks with the same determination as they responded to republicans. As John Newsinger notes: "The fact is that the British and loyalist campaigns were symmetrical. There is no doubt that the loyalist paramilitaries’ murderous war against the Catholic minority was regarded as reinforcing rather than undermining the security forces’ war against the Provisional IRA." (John Newsinger, British Counterinsurgency: From Palestine to Northern Ireland, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002, 178) Loyalist actions helped wear the Catholic working class down. Loyalists were in effect the substitute for state deaths squads. (ie. Jeffrey Sluka, ‘For God and Ulster’: The Culture of Terror and Loyalist Death Squads in Northern Ireland, in Jeffrey Sluka (ed), Death Squad: The Anthropology of State Terror, Philadelphia, 2000) On top of that the borderline between "security forces" and "paramilitaries" could be blurred. An investigation for example showed that members of the UDR were one and a half times more likely to be convicted of scheduled offences than the adult civilians who they were supposed to be protecting. (Brendan O'Leary and John McGarry, The Politics of Antagonism: Understanding Northern Ireland, London: The Athlone Press, Second Edition, 1996, pp. 268-269).

Roy Greenslade, a former editor of The Daily Mirror working today for The Guardian has noted the media’s tendency to create a "hierarchy of deaths" in which those killed by Republicans receive the most coverage while those killed by Loyalists the least. Those forming the largest single category of fatalities are thus actually the most invisible in the media. (Roy Greenslade, A Hierarchy of Death, The Guardian 19 April 2007) The "hierarchy of deaths" is most visible when looking how the media covered the deaths of children during the conflict. Children have also been killed during previous phases of the republican struggle. For example, of more than 250 civilians killed during Easter Week 1916, 28 children aged between two and 16 were killed by gunfire. (Genevieve Carbery, Call to remember 28 children who died in Rising, The Irish Times, 17 August 2011). Between 1969 and 1998, 23 children under five years of age, 24 between 6 and 11, and 210 aged between 12 and 17 were killed as a result of political violence. Security forces and Loyalists are responsible for the majority of the killings (67 and 74) and Republicans for 90 (some of them soldiers not yet 18 years of age). (Marie-Louise McCrory, More than 250 children killed during Troubles, The Irish News, 16 August 2010) Yet this has not been reflected in media coverage. There are ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ victims. While some victims had a name and a face, others were just an anonymous statistic.

The media however often points that civilians and non-combatants constitute the largest category of victims of the conflict, but without specifying this important fact :

Civilian Victims from Political Violence, 1969-1998:
Civilian Deaths as Percentage of Deaths by this Agency:
Security Forces : 54.4 per cent
Republicans: 35.6 per cent
Loyalists: 87.2 per cent
(Calculated on the basis of Marie Therese Fay, Mike Morrissey and Marie Smyth, Mapping Troubles-Related Deaths in Northern Ireland 1969-1998, INCORE (University of Ulster & The United Nations University), Second edition with amendments reprinted 1998, Table 1.2 Political Status of Victims by Organisations Responsible for Deaths)

The war in the North is often reduced by the media to "terrorism". In the case of terrorism, there is no agreed definition in international law, nor is there consensus among scholars; and moreover the term is politically contested. There have been numerous diplomatic efforts aimed at producing an agreed definition of terrorism. The formula which many governments and international organizations have decided to adopt describes terrorism as politically motivated violence that intentionally targets civilians and non-combatants. This approach has been adopted in various United Nations Security Council Resolutions dealing with terrorism and was endorsed by the UN Secretary General in March 2005. (Peter R.Neumann, Old and New Terrorism: Late Modernity, Globalization and the Transformation of Political Violence, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009, pp.6-7) On the basis of this definition and the statistics above, one would be unable to label unequivocally Republicans as terrorists –they have actually been the most discriminate party to the conflict - but on the other hand the security forces would qualify as terrorists since a majority of their casualties are civilians.

On top of that during the conflict there has been an extensive list of violation of human rights by the state. There have been allegations of:
- Shoot to kill
- Collusion between state forces and loyalist paramilitaries
- The use of unnecessary force on the streets
- Abuse of stop and search powers amounting to harassment of communities and individuals
- Abuse of powers of arrest and detention for purposes of intelligence gathering
- Prolonged use of detention before release without charge
- Mistreatment of people while being interrogated in custody
- Intimidation of lawyers by the state.

In addition, there have been criticisms of the following:
- Abolition of trial by jury
- Partial abolition of the right to silence
- Inadequate means of legal redress either through the inquest system or through complaints bodies.
The ratios of arrests to charges, and of charges to convictions have been relatively low, suggesting the large-scale deprivation of many innocent citizens of their liberties.

Many of the allegations have been upheld by international bodies and organisations such as:
- The European Commission and the European Court of Human Rights
- Amnesty International
- United Nations Human Rights Committee
- European Committee for the Prevention of Torture

The state's reaction to these violations has generally been one of cover up and failure to punish the culprits.

There is thus a counter-narrative to the official and media account of the human costs of the conflict. Representations – such as ‘victims’ and ‘terrorists’- are constructed and can be deconstructed. It is possible to provide a solid counter-narrative to those who try to blame republicans for the bulk of the conflict.


  1. What Bookworm said.

  2. What Belfast Bookworm and Blackwatertown said!


    as always you come in with a well researched piece which will become a resource for many others.

  3. agh...the oul troubles. Who the hell wants that back?

    great reading though.

  4. Laim's research is always impressive and convincing. I really enjoyed reading this piece.

  5. Liam,

    You know what they say about statistics.

    A unionist friend recently suggested to me that the numbers of Loyalist paramilitaries times actually killed Republican paramilitaries was barely in the twenties, and the figure the other way was similar.

    Given these two groups were responsible for most fatalities: one can you confirm, deny that its true; what do you make of it?

    Also, I agree the media is incredibly lazy in terms of victims. But there is a more tangible hierarchy of victims marked out on the streets. When I get off the train at Sydenham, or come out of Mass in Castlewellan, I see memorials to combatants.

    Most civilians who died have no such markers. Many died singly and if not alone have only their immediate families to remember them.

  6. Slugger, I don't believe the media is lazy at all when it comes to 'victims', if anything they invest a great deal of time & energy in selling their spin. Its simply journalism in the service of the great powers, to label it as lazy undermines the sinister & controlled nature of it.

  7. an excelent Authoritve piece.
    I was enlighteded with all the facts, makes good reading to compare the facts within, i would say this piece is a must for Historians,as well as all those affected by the conflict, and, Myself of course.

  8. More Catholics killed by Republicans than by the security forces, I see.

    But I'm not buying any attempt to simply paint Irish nationalists as the principal victims. They suffered horribly, as everyone caught up in the terrorist campaigns did, but your way of presenting British loss shows the dehumanisation of Ulster Protestants and British people generally that is sadly common in Republican discourse. You treat policemen and soldiers as if they were not people. To us on the British side of Northern Irish life, these people were every bit as loved and valued as civilians. And signing up to be a policeman or even a soldier does not give someone the right to shoot you on the streets of your own country. Don't exclude these, the bravest of all of us, from the figures. We all owe them a huge debt. In the face of the scale of the terrorism, they showed remarkable restraint, as the figures bear out. If you're a terrorist who got a boot in the face, you might not see it that way. But that's how it looks to the vast non-terrorist population, Protestant and Catholic.

    For the record, as the figures you quote show, combined British deaths in the Troubles are over 53 per cent - by any measure British people took more casualties than Irish Catholics. It's not a competition - but it is important to state the facts baldly here. The reason the British share of the deaths is as surprisingly low as 53 per cent, when Republicans killed around 60 per cent of the people killed in the Troubles, is that Republicans killed so many Irish Catholics themselves.

    Putting the Catholic casualty figures forward as evidence of nationalists being more sinned against than sinning - as if they had all been killed by us Brits - is disingenuous.

    Then we have the problem of treating all killings the same. We are all equal - of course. But when we get onto blame, we need to bear in mind that not all killings are the same. I have a law degree but you don't need one to be aware that the law treats different killings differently: murder, manslaughter, self-defence and so on. Pretty much all of the killings by paramilitary groups, Loyalist and Republican, were murders. But much fewer of security force killings can be so classified. There were a large number of fatalities in the course of anti-terrorist policing, actions its inconceivable any reasonable state force would be able to avoid during a 30-year period of anti-terrorist policing. There was indiscipline though, there were rogue agents and they did commit murders, this is uncontested. But a very harsh estimate might be that half of the security forces killings were this kind of extra-legal killing where blame lies squarely with British forces. If so, that would be about 5 per cent of the total killings Troubles.

    But I commend you for engaging with the facts of the Troubles. It brings us back to the reality of what happened: not a war but a vicious terrorist campaign perpetrated mainly by Republicans but also Loyalists against Catholic and Protestant alike. The facts should make us focus our attention on the perpetrators. None of this had to happen. They chose it as a trade-off for the "greater good" of a a forced united Ireland. Jesus. Futile doesn't begin to describe it. But the statistics do.

  9. Thank you for your most interesting letter Mr Riley. As a teen born and raised in NE England we held a view of ancient feuding families in both Scotland and Ireland where hatreds went on for decades after their origin had been forgotten. In Northern Ireland the troubles spread more aggressively as a result of a political policy of 'enlarging the British empire' by sending our farmers and other skilled folks willing to start anew. It appeared to us as though sometimes lands handed to these emigrating Brits were often disputed by disenfranchised locals. No doubt jealousies and hatred grew from this notion of Commonwealth. Looking back at India, Singapore, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong, the British seemed to install an excellent grounding in rule of law and efficient civil service government. Also enhanced farming management produced other advantages in the civilization of many countries. In Ireland they were having none of it. Back in 1965 Durham UK we were visited by both Catholic priests, and Protestants giving us lectures on their views of the terrible troubles going on. What was shocking was the extreme hatred of one group for the other. The Catholic Priests hatred in particular seemed close to maniacal. I have seen the same vitriolic hatred coming from the mouth of enraged Irish women on TV that beggared belief at the time. Your own assessments and the main article show the truth that almost everyone knew and suffered deeply from this tragedy of misplaced hatred. Everyone knew someone or some family who'd suffered. Unfortunately both sides were being fed propaganda against the other and expected to take sides or risk dire consequences. The whole of Ireland has wallowed in tragedy far too long and all kudos to the political will that has finally helped turn the tide of religious hatred. I believe folks rejection of this vile religious interference as a result of the pedophile scandals has helped solve the problems.. Priests did more to prolong the war than any historic government armed interference. Overdue is the time to turn the other cheek and accept each other as human beings simply wanting an end to the madness of wars that benefits no one.