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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 2 .

The Politics of Force: Conflict Management and State Violence in Northern Ireland
Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 2000
336pp. Index. Biblio. Pb.: £14.99; ISBN 0-85640-668-6.

This is a fine book. Long in the gestation, it is a remarkable review of an important issue which has lurked at the heart of the conflict; the more than 10% of deaths caused by the British state and its agents.

There is a close quantitative analysis of the 350 killings inflicted by state forces in the 6 counties from 1969 to 1994. According to this analysis, three distinct phases can be detected. The first, from 1969 to 1974, was the period of militarisation when the British army was in the ascendant and the RUC was demoralised and incapable of imposing its will on a situation of civil conflict. 1975 saw the new policy of normalisation when British policy sought to change the definition of the conflict and hand back primary responsibility for managing the conflict to the RUC. The third phase lasted from 1981 to the ceasefires. This longest phase involved a retrenchment of normalisation with a massively increased focus on counter-insurgency.

Ní Aoláin reviews the case law and the failure of safeguards adequately to protect life. More worryingly she reviews European case law which has tended to illuminate the establishment consensus in Western Europe concerning those who use violence and are portrayed as "terrorists". McCann v. UK was a triumph long overdue in holding the state to account for its easy approach to the death of its citizens. The breakthrough occurred because the European Court, for the first time questioned the finding of fact of the domestic courts. While narrowing the scope for the state in taking life at the point of death, the judgement broke new ground in widening the responsibility of the state to take prior actions in planning the arrest/confrontation and assessing risk to public and suspect.

Perhaps one of the greatest contributions of the book, however, is the discussion of the applicability of international humanitarian law to the conflict. This is a proposition which has caused much angst to the human rights community in the past. It was felt this would detract from the primary task of holding the state to account and the secondary task of denying legitimacy to non-state combatants. However, the book argues cogently that, given the stagnancy of the conflict towards the end, the application of "the new narrative" of the laws of war may have provided a stimulus to the recognition of the political nature of the conflict. This in turn may have deepened the urgency towards negotiations and compromise rather than seeking to defeat the "criminal conspiracy" and maintain a deformed legal apparatus. It may also have forced armed groups to consider the humanitarian implications of their actions, tactics and strategies. These are arguments which deserve consideration.

There are some caveats about the book. Firstly, it is not for the intellectually faint-hearted. It is a work of formidable scholarship - which means that it will not have the wide readership its subject matter deserves. Secondly, and unfortunately because of the importance of the footnotes, the page references in the notes section have gone askew. Finally, there are only three references to the issue of collusion between state forces and loyalists. While it can be argued that the relative lack of empirical evidence means that a discussion would amount to speculation, it could equally be the case that managed collusion with elements reactive to the insurgency (along with the use of informers a classic symptom of colonial systems in transition) was an important part of the counter-insurgency arsenal and masked the real extent of the state's willingness to compromise the right to life of its opponents. More information will emerge around the collusion issue as the conflict recedes and tongues begin to loosen. Perhaps then Ní Aoláin will address this issue too.

In one sense, it is to be hoped that both this book and the European court (in McCann) have come too late to influence the state's approach to managing the conflict and the use of violence by non-state combatants. Let us hope that the war is over for good. However, that the mentality of the state and its agents still needs to be decommissioned is clear from this book. The emergency law regime persists, the few British soldiers to have faced the courts are being well-treated by their employers. The single inquiry into disputed deaths so far conceded (the Saville Inquiry) is being fought tooth and nail by the military establishment. Human rights campaigners need to continue their activism and vigilance so that other unresolved cases come to a conclusion. The analysis in this book will assist in that task.

Mike Ritchie, Coiste na n'Iarchimí

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