The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Is Northern Ireland Ireland A Dangerous Place
Liam O Ruairc • 23.11.03

The Irish News recently reported that there have been twice as many killings in the police division based around Glasgow as in the whole of Northern Ireland this year. In this division, which has a population of two millions, compared to 1.7 million in Northern Ireland, there have been 60 murders since January 1, compared to thirty in the six counties. (Irish News 17 November 2003). This kind of information will be used by all sort of governmental agencies and various experts to “prove” that contrary to received opinion, there has been and is no real conflict in Northern Ireland.

Is Northern Ireland a dangerous place? Many people would believe so. The image of the province is above all associated with political assassinations, sectarian murders, bombings, shootings, kneecappings and other punishment beatings. On top of that, there are the usual dangers of illness, accidents and crime. To have a clear picture, it is necessary to quantify and qualify the nature and extent of those dangers. The best source of information is the University of Ulster's CAIN website ( This website has probably the most extensive database of official and independent statistics on various kinds of dangers. First, how dangerous is the province in terms of political violence? An independent and reliable source (Malcolm Sutton's index of Troubles related deaths) records 3523 deaths which are directly linked to the conflict, and which occured between 14 July 1969 and 31st December 2001. The discrepancy between this figure and the official British figure arises because of differences of interpretation in a small number of cases. One might point out that 3523 deaths might be small, but it is for a population of 1,685, 267 (Census 29 April 2001). Almost two percent of the population of Northern Ireland have been killed or injured as a result of political violence since 1969. The equivalent ratio of victims to population in Great Britain would have been over 100 000 killed, and in the USA over 500 000, about ten times the number of Americans killed during the Vietnam war. Of course, the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland remain a "low intensity conflict" not comparable to major wars where hundreds of thousands if not millions have died like in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, etc. It is also important to note that political violence does not occur with equal intensity in space and time. For example, 479 died as a result of the "security situation" in 1972, but only 8 in 1999. And the spatial distribution of killings is also uneven. Much of the violence has been spatially concentrated within specific areas (like North Belfast's infamous 'Murder Mile' where over 25% of deaths related to the conflict happened, or the Tyrone/Armagh 'Murder Triangle', etc) leaving the rest of the province fairly normal.

Government agencies have tried to downplay the scale of the conflict, and have stressed the 'normality' of the province. For example, they point out that the number of people killed as a result of road accidents during the 1969-1994 period exceeds the the total number of of those who died as a result of political violence during the same period.(1) Compared to the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland is the most dangerous place to be on the road, as it has the highest number of deaths resulting from car accidents (with 10 deaths per 100 000 of population as opposed to 6 per 100 000 in Britain). This figure is also substantially higher than the figures for the Republic of Ireland. Roads in Northern Ireland are more dangerous than the conflict. But Brendan O Leary, a political scientist from the London School of Economics has pointed out that comparisons between deaths resulting from the 'security situation' and deaths resulting from road traffic are fundamentally misleading.

The contrast between deaths from political violence and deaths from road accidents is grotesquely inappropriate. Deaths because of political violence are an addition to other socially caused deaths, and in functioning and stable liberal democracies deaths caused by road accidents should be, and usually are higher than deaths caused by political violence. There is nothing exceptional about Northern Ireland's road accident/political violence ratio, except that it is used as a distracting indicator by a police force anxious for a good press. Citizens of liberal democracies and the governments support private and public transport policies which have known and built-in risks of death. There is no comparable way in which they explicity accept built-in risks of death from political violence when they make and enforce public policy. (Brendan O Leary and John McGarry, The Politics of Antagonism, pp.12-13)

If governmental agencies are looking for the single most persistent cause of premature deaths to compare with the death rate from political violence, they should point to the death rate from heart and respiratory diseases. Ulster fries and Regal cigarettes are more dangerous and lethal than local drivers or the security forces and paramilitaries, as Northern Ireland has a higher incidence of deaths resulting from both heart diseases and respiratory diseases than any other part of the UK. The province is also a dangerous place to be born in. Northern Ireland had the highest rate of infant mortality in the UK. However, this has been decreasing steadily over the years, and has fallen from 22.7 (per 1000 live and still births) in 1971 to 6.1 in the late 1990s.

Another comparison used to 'prove' that the six counties are not a dangerous place is that the numbers killed as a result of political violence in Northern Ireland are much lower than those killed in homicides in major US and European cities. For example, Invest Northern Ireland promotional material boasts that according to the 2001 World Victimisation Survey, Northern Ireland has the lowest crime victimisation rate in the world (even lower than Lichtenstein!) and according to the 2002 Peace Monitor Report, Northern Ireland is a safer place to live than other UK regions, many European countries and the USA, with a death by violence rate of 2.5 per 100 000 compared to a UK and US average of 4.4 and 8.9 respectively. For O Leary and McGarry, the comparison of the death rate in the Northern Ireland conflict with the homicide rate in major US and European cities is equally misleading. "Ordinary violent criminality is dramatically less in Northern Ireland: it is politically - not criminally - violent, whereas the converse applies to the USA." On the whole, the overall level of crime (excluding "scheduled offences" - political violence) in Northern Ireland is significantly lower than that in England, Scotland and Wales, notifiable offences (per 100 000) in Northern Ireland being less than half of that recorded in England and Wales. In 1969, before the Troubles started, there was a total of 600 prisoners in the North. By 29 February 1976, there were over 1500 special category status prisoners as well as 460 others awaiting trial. In comparison, there were less than 1300 "ordinary decent criminals".

Overall, comparing various 'dangers' is problematic as it raises the spectre of incommensurability. What is there in common between heart diseases, car accidents and political violence apart from some vague Wittgensteinian "family resemblances"? A more relevant question perhaps is to ask who is most at risk from the various dangers. The vast majority of those who died as a result of political violence in the North were of a working class background. The lower a person is on the social ladder, the unhealthier this person will be and the shorter his or her life life expectancy. A person from a low income group is more likely to suffer from lung cancer, coronary heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, obesity and violent accidents, a lower birth weight, a poorer diet and will have a life expectancy five years shorter than those in upper income group. From available statistics, the conclusion is that the poorer you are, the more dangerous life in Northern Ireland is likely to be.

(1) A programme on Channel 4 ("Casualties of Peace", 14 July 2003) revealed that since 1991, over 2000 British soldiers had died on duty in non-combat situations, victims of everything from drownings and suicides to car accidents. That is approximately four times the amount of British soldiers (excluding local regiments) killed during the whole of the Troubles. Years ago, one of the NIO's favorite arguments was that West Germany was a more dangerous place for the British Army than Northern Ireland as more soldiers died in car accidents there than in political violence in the North. It is also interesting to note that US casualties in Iraq are double of what is usually reported because of the number of accidents, suicides and other non-combat deaths. In early August, according to Pentagon figures, 52 US soldiers had been killed since President Bush declared the war over in 1 May. But the total number of US deaths from all causes was more than double of that, at 112. (The Guardian, 6 August 2003) But no one is going to say that there’s not really a war going on in Iraq because more soldiers are killed in non-combat situations than in ambushes.





Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

23 November 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Raymond Blaney Interviewed
Anthony McIntyre


Derry's Ultimate Protest Vote

Eamon Sweeney


Boycott Undemocratic Elections
Andy Martin


Is Northern Ireland A Dangerous Place
Liam O Ruairc


Liam O Comain


Stop Bush
Colin Gregory Palmer


The Learning Experience of Rakan
Mary La Rosa


18 November 2003


Interview with Eamonn McCann
Anthony McIntyre


SEA Foyle Election Manifesto


Towards True National Liberation

Liam O Comain


Belief in Santa Claus
Tommy Gorman


Getting It All Wrong
Liam O Ruairc


Castlewellan Arrests
Green Party


Inductive Writing Doesn't Make It So
Marty Egan


All Animals Are Equal, But Some Are More Equal Than Others
Sean Smyth


Authentic Americans - US Martyrs Pose Questions for John Negroponte
Toni Solo


Call for Boycott
Palestinian Academics




The Blanket




Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices