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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .


Northern Ireland's Troubles: The Human Costs
Marie-Therese Fay, Mike Morrissey and Marie Smyth

(London: Pluto Press, 1999)
229pp. Index. Bibl. 45.00; ISBN 0-7453-1379-5. Pb.: 12.99; ISBN 0-7453-1374-4.



If the Northern Irish Peace Process does succeed, and a permanent cessation of violence is achieved, a number of questions remain. Not the least of these are how to think about the 'Thirty Year Crisis' that preceded the peace, and how/can violent sectarian history be interpreted and remembered in a fashion which reinforces, not jeopardises, a peace settlement? How do we forgive but not forget? This is the question which underlies this important and timely study.

This book sets out the parameters of the problem by looking at the human costs of the 'troubles' in Northern Ireland. Yet, it is not just another indictment of a tragedy that has killed thousands and disfigured Republican-Unionist relations for generations; nor is it an exercise in apportioning blame between the various agencies involved. It is, rather, an attempt through the use of meticulously gathered data to explain the geographic, religious, age and gender distribution of violent deaths in Northern Ireland and to place this human suffering in a socio-economic context.

The medium of statistics might seem a dull way to explain the scale of human tragedy and loss experienced over three decades; far better perhaps to have told or retold the 'sad' stories that have witnessed widows, parents and children at countless gravesides - and yet this approach, which includes charts, tables and graphs, works. The statistics sometimes speak for themselves and point to the very specific nature of the conflict. Just under quarter of all victims were 21 years of age or younger and almost half were aged 22-39. Thus nearly three quarters of those who died did not reach their fortieth year. This was, in many ways, a young man's conflict and one waged again (as the data shows) between individuals in the streets, in parts of the countryside and in the absence of 'heavy weaponry'. This identification of youth with the effects of violence is crucial; yet there is also a broader point, successful reconstruction must include all those most affected by the conflict.

So this is not just a catalogue of 'facts'. It is an invaluable account of the economic dimension of conflict and it clearly indicates the correlation between social and economic conditions and violence: we are predominantly what our economic circumstances make of us. An obvious conclusion is that peace must be underwritten by economic restructuring. Indeed, the last few years, which have witnessed an outburst of peace, have been among the most prosperous for the Northern Irish economy, if not for all sections of the population. Yet economic restructuring is probably easier, as the authors recognise, than the restructuring of mindsets.

We therefore return to the question of how to remember without replicating. Can we be emancipated from the past? The authors of this study certainly believe so: their recipe for the future in Ireland is a plea for an understanding of how others have suffered, an acknowledgement of the hierarchies of pain and responsibility, a bringing in of those marginalised by the violence and an attempt to 'communalise' these memories for a fully rounded picture of the past. It is the hope of leaving behind the violence but of absorbing its lessons. Is it, in other words, possible to think beyond our own skins and our own grief? (Ken Booth, 'Three Tyrannies' in Tim Dunne and Nicholas J.Wheeler. ed, Human Rights in Global Politics (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,1999) The authors believe that there is no other way: only time will tell whether they are correct, or whether in another few years, another statistical survey of those killed in Northern Ireland, will be necessary.


Caroline Kennedy-Pipe
University of Durham




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