Was ‘troubles’ related death toll as high as 30,000?

How many people died in the recent conflict in Ireland? You’d think this would be a relatively easy to answer question. But depending on how you decide to define a death as conflict-related, the total, which is usually given as around 3,700, is probably at least 5,733 and may be as high as 30,000.

A quick trawl of existing databases puts a detailed death toll in the region of 3,640-3,760. This is a considerable figure and itself only a fraction of the number who received injuries or were harmed in some other way by their experience over the same period. But a comparison of some of the components of those totals shows that this is an estimation and a very conservative one and doesn’t seem to fully reflect the extent of loss of human life arising from the conflict. Initially, I was looking at this to see the methods employed to determine what might be the best way to estimate the loss of life in the north (and Belfast in particular) in 1919-23. Instead, I noticed that, depending on how you choose to define whether a death is related to the conflict here, you can argue that the actual death toll is at least 5,733. Or you could even put it as high as 30,000.

There are a number of publicly accessible databases recording deaths arising from the post-1966 conflict here. This includes the following: Lost Lives ; Malcolm Sutton’s An Index of Deaths from the Conflict in Ireland 1969-1993 (with a draft list up to the present); and, Michael McKeown’s Database of Deaths Associated with Violence in Northern Ireland, 1969-2001. The latter two databases are hosted, in various formats, along with contextual literature and other resources on the Conflict Archive on the Internet (known as CAIN).

The 2006 edition of Lost Lives records 3,720 deaths from 1966 to that date. The database compiled by Malcolm Sutton covers the period from 1969 to 2001 and records 3,532 deaths (in relative terms, this is 149 less than the total for the same period in Lost Lives). It also includes a provisional total of 88 deaths from 2001 to the end of 2017. The second database available via CAIN, prepared by Michael McKeown, records 3,649 deaths over the period from 1969 to 2005. Compared to the same period covered by Lost Lives, McKeown lists 3,622 deaths, 98 less than Lost Lives. Combining the figures in Lost Lives and those on CAIN for the period up to 2017 gives a total of 3,762 conflict-related deaths from 1966 to 2017.

This variability hints at the complications that underlie what deaths are deemed to be conflict-related and how that is defined. It is also still possible to identify some deaths that have been overlooked in all them, such as Erwin Beelitz in Berlin in 1972. Lost Lives does provide discussions of individual cases that illustrates the scope of what is considered as a conflict-related death. It generally just includes violent deaths and so would not typically include, for instance, someone whose health suffered from conflict-related stresses leading to a premature death. The latter may be much more difficult to determine and be quite subjective (although more on this point below).

What got me interested in the divergence from the general quoted figures of around 3,700 was in the officially declared military death toll. I’d thought that a relatively obvious way of checking how robust the available figures were, was to compare figures for individual groups against published records. In December 2012, the UK Ministry of Defence provided a breakdown of British military personnel who died during Operation Banner (the British army deployment to the north). For deaths as a “…result of operations in Northern Ireland or Irish Terrorism in other countries…” it gives a total of 1,441. Lost Lives gives an overall figures for the British Armed Services of 503 along with 206 UDR and RIR. The breakdown for Operation Banner, provided by the Ministry of Defence, though, is 814 regular army, 548 UDR and RIR, and a further 79 for other branches (making up that total of 1,441). This is 732 in excess of the figures provided for in any of the relevant databases. This underestimate, by some 103%, is considerable. As the term used in the letter detailing the figures very specifically says that the deaths were as a “…result of operations in Northern Ireland or Irish Terrorism in other countries…” this would be appear to be the official total.

Critically, to understand the methodology, the existing databases all list every individual who was is included. The official figures for Operation Banner do not provide individual details.

It is also possible to look at the figures given republican fatalities. A ‘Roll of Honour’ was published in An Phoblacht in 2010, identifying the deaths of those named as having being conflicted-related. This gives a total of 336 conflict-related IRA deaths (it also lists 25 Sinn Féin members). Using the tables provided by Sutton, his equivalent figure appears to be 292 (excluding Sinn Féin members) suggesting there were a further 44 deaths on top of those conventionally associated with the conflict. A further 83 republican combatant casualties are recorded by Sutton (including INLA, Official IRA etc). McKeown reports some 271 IRA deaths, of a total 350 republican dead, while Lost Lives provides a combined total of 396. If the An Phoblacht figure reflects deaths deemed to be conflict-related but not conventionally captured by the methodologies employed by Lost Lives, Sutton and McKeown, the existing method may underestimate republican conflict related deaths by around 15%. So, if extrapolated for republican casualties as a whole, a figure of around 455 may more accurately reflect the scale of loss. If it might be argued that similar factors would be at play, the Lost Lives figure for unionist paramilitaries, 167, should probably be revised upwards on the same basis to 192. Neither of these figures would necessarily capture conflict-related deaths that are due to factors connected to their experience as combatants, incarceration or self-harm.

The issue of self-harm, more particularly suicide, is one that arises in a variety of contexts. The number of recorded RUC fatalities is given as 301 by Sutton, 303 by Lost Lives and 304 in McKeown. But on a number of occasions, official statements and figures have been given for suicides among serving RUC members, with 55 recorded by 1996 and 75 recorded by 2007. Without trivialising such a complex and emotive issue as suicide, it may never be known how many of these could be directly attributed to conflict-related factors. However, as noted with the difficulty of assessing the factors in any individual death, a review of overall figures might show any increased mortality that, in the context of the north during the conflict, is likely to have arisen from factors related, at least in part, to the conflict.

Occasionally, individuals who took their own lives are included amongst the conflict-related deaths. Patrick Sheehy, an IRA volunteer who appears to have shot himself in Nenagh in County Tipperary on 1st January 1991 is listed in Lost Lives (3170), although not in either Sutton or McKeown. It seems difficult to argue that it wasn’t related to the conflict and so it’s inclusion seems reasonable. On the same basis, it would seem that RUC fatalities should also be included. Taking Samaritans figures, it is possible to make wider comparisons with suicide rates across Ireland and Britain to see if the broader impact of the conflict on mental health is reflected in elevated suicide rates. There doesn’t appear to be any evidence for this until 2007, after which time an apparent rise by about 6 deaths per 100,000 since around 2007 is considered by some to be attributable to earlier conflict-related stresses. This would amount to around 1,080 deaths and continues to this day.

Combined with other additional deaths noted above for Operation Banner, the IRA, RUC etc, this would suggest the total number of deaths is closer to 5,733.

To follow this through, a similar comparison of general mortality for the north in the 1970s through to about 1998, makes for equally grim reading. Typically the male mortality rate was at a level significantly below that of the UK and the south of Ireland, by around 200 deaths per 100,000 per year. By the early 1980s, this had closed to around 100 per year and the mortality rates were then roughly comparable throughout the 1990s. The female mortality rate was significantly higher in the north than the UK and south of Ireland average in the early 1970s, by around 210 (per 100,000 per year), staying just under 200 higher in the early 1980s, rising to around 220 higher in the 1990s and the dropping back to just under 200 deaths higher (per 100,000 per year) by the end of the 1990s. Taking the overall differential in the mortality rates over the period from the early 1970s to 1998 suggests that maybe 24,000 more people died than would be expected, based on the rates prevalent in the UK and the south. Are there a series of complex factors underlying the increased mortality rate? Undoubtedly, but it is hard to see how it is likely that any complex factors are not, in themselves, somehow connected to systemic and structural issues related to the conflict. In that sense, it could be argued that these 24,000 should also really be regarded as conflict-related.

So is it plausible that we should consider the death toll from the recent conflict to be 30,000 or roughly 5,733 rather than around 3,700? The currently used conservative estimates of the quantum of deaths arising from the conflict has at least two origins. A concern of many of those who complied the databases was in painstakingly researching and detailing each individual death. Where the deaths are anonymised into collective data (such as the casualties from Operation Banner), it seems that there is no mechanism for either Lost Lives or the likes of Sutton or McKeown to include them.

Another factor, though, is that acceptance of the reduced figures is also an artefact of the same security policy that sought to minimise the nature and intensity of violence and brought us terms like ‘ulsterisation’ and ‘criminalisation’. This isn’t to imply that Lost Lives, Sutton or McKeown are somehow complicit in furthering the same policy. They are simply following convention and documenting instances of violence in which lives were lost. This differs significantly from British (and Irish) government strategy that sought to present violence in the conflict in the language of decontextualized, criminal acts. A logical outworking of this would be to continue to adopt a minimalist approach in assessing the human cost of the conflict even where, for instance, the official death toll of Operation Banner is way in excess of the figure normally cited for military losses. Unfortunately this attempt to promote a conservative estimate minimises the actual impact and adds to the dissonance between the official narrative and the impact experienced by individuals, families and communities. For them, perhaps we need to recognise that the scale of related fatalities is much greater. In that regard, a fresh consideration of how we define the death toll from the recent conflict may be worth further exploration and debate.

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Hundreds of pets killed in sectarian attack – Belfast, 1969

From The Irish Press, Tuesday 16th September, 1969: “The threat to the owner of a pet shop that his premises would be burned out if he did not sack his Catholic manager was carried out yesterday morning.

More than 100 birds, 170 mice, 20 parrots, 20 hamsters and scores of tropical fish died in the blaze at the Castle Aquatics, on the Castlereagh Road, Belfast.

Owner, Mr Robert Matthews (32) received the threat by telephone five days ago. “Of course, I did not sack my manager,” he said. Police and forensic experts yesterday searched among the burned out portion of the shop for clues as to the origin of the outbreak.

The pets died of suffocation, but Mr Matthews, who lives nearby, rescued three puppies and a rabbit.”

Other news reports provide some further details. Robert Matthews owned two adjoining shops on the Castlereagh Road where his manager was Jim Killen a Catholic from the Rathcoole estate in Newtownabbey. Thousands of tropical fish were killed in the fire including a piranha fish worth £60 (that’s just under half a teachers monthly salary in 1969). There were actually 25 parrots killed and several valuable peach-faced love birds. The fire appeared to have been started with petrol bombs.

 

 

Pets

The Manchester Martyrs centenary and echoes of the 1969 split in the IRA

Up to the Easter Rising, one of the key annual events in the republican calendar was the commemoration of the ‘Manchester Martyrs’, William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O’Brien, the IRB members who were publicly hanged in front of a crowd of 8-10,000 outside Salford Gaol on 23rd November 1867. They were hung for the death of a police sergeant during an attempt to free two IRB prisoners from a police van. Neither Allen, Larkin or O’Brien fired the shots that killed the policemen and two others that had also been sentenced to death had their sentences commuted due, in one case, due to American citizenship (a lesson not lost on a future generation), and in another, due to the clearly perjured evidence against him (bizarrely, the others were all convicted on the same evidence but not reprieved).

Smashing of the Van

‘The Smashing of the Van’ – the attempt to free two IRB leaders that led to Sergeant Brett being shot and the execution of the ‘Manchester Martyrs’ in 1867.

The execution was only the second public hanging in Manchester and The Pall Mall Gazette in London noted (on 25th November) the well behaved nature of the crowd (as opposed to the rioting that frequently accompanied hangings in London) and put it down to the fact that “…a taste for execution is perhaps, rather acquired than natural.” The hangman, William Calcraft, was notoriously inept and only Allen is believed to have been killed by the initial drop. Calcraft himself pulled on Larkin’s legs to break his neck but a priest in attendance, Fr Gadd, stopped him from doing the same to O’Brien. Instead the priest held O’Brien’s hands for three quarters of an hour until he finally died. The three were buried in the New Bailey prison in Manchester, although public funerals were held across Ireland and in some cities in Britain. Allen, Larkin and O’Brien are publicly commemorated in the song ‘God Save Ireland’, first published by Tim Dan Sullivan in December 1867. Another song, ‘The Smashing of the Van’ commemorates the events that led to their execution. Their remains were moved from the New Bailey prison to Strangeways in 1868 and then cremated and reinterred in Blackley cemetery in 1991.

Even after 1916, a huge commemorative ceili continued to be held annually in the Mansion House in Dublin for several decades. There are a lot of parallels with 1916, in terms of how the event became a focal point within the broader political methodology of Irish republicanism. For long periods, Irish republicanism had focused on building towards an event that might become the spark that would lead to the establishment of the Irish republic, rather than what would later become known as a ‘long war’ strategy (or low intensity conflict). In 1916, the ‘blood sacrifice’ concept understood by Pearse and Connolly was rooted in a realisation that failure to secure a republic by force of arms, in April 1916, would likely see their deaths either in battle or by execution. However, both knew Irish republicans could then catalyse the reaction to executions (rather than the whole Rising) into an ideological parable to try and give impetus to the Irish public to go out and establish that republic (as had happened with the Manchester Martyrs). Arguably, the structure of republican strategy, post-1981 hunger strike can be read within a similar framework. In the late 19th century, the Manchester Martyrs had provided a similar focus rather than the broader ‘Fenian movement’.  In many ways, the historical narrative around Irish republican ideology is often best understood within the context of such events involving a small number of individuals, rather than by looking at time periods defined in other ways (eg the ‘War of Independence’ was often reduced to a summary that focused on the likes of the execution of Kevin Barry).

The centenary of the Manchester Martyrs saw various events organised. Known, by 1967, as the Manchester Martyrs and Easter Week Commemoration Committee, the main organisers announced a few weeks in advance that a ‘Manchester Martyrs Commemoration Week’ was to be held in Manchester from November 20th to 26th. This was to include a folk night in St Bernadette’s Hall, Princess Road, a play presented by the St. Brendan’s Irish Players in St. Brendan’s Irish Centre. City Road, Old Trafford, a High Mass in St. Patrick’s Church, Livesey Street on the actual anniversary (celebrated by the Bishop of Salford),  a dinner dance in St. Brendan’s Irish Centre, City Road with the Assarce Ceili Band and then a parade on the 26th from Bexlev Square past the place of execution to St. Patrick’s Church for 11.30 am Mass. The parade was then to reassemble at Ben Brierley, Moston at 3 p.m. and continue to Saint Joseph’s Cemetery, Moston, where an oration was to be given by Jimmy Steele, Belfast, and a decade of the Rosary in Irish. All Irish organisations in Manchester were requested to keep that week free of engagements to support the committee’s functions.

In Manchester itself the centenary was preceded by a dispute over the erection of a memorial plaque at the site of the execution. The memorial was proposed and sponsored by the Manchester branch of the Connolly Association rather than the official Manchester Martyrs Memorial committee. It was given planning permission but opposed by the Manchester police and the issue was not resolved prior to the centenary itself. The Connolly Association had offered to include the policeman’s name on the plaque (arguing that he too was equally a victim of British imperialism). But the left wing politics of the Connolly Association also brought it into conflict with the conservation Catholicism of the official Memorial committee.

At the end of the main commemoration on the 26th November, the Memorial committee chairman, Austin Fitzmaurice, was prompted by one of his committee to add some final comments. The first was that the commemoration was nothing to do with any other commemoration committee (clearly meaning the Connolly Association), the second was that ‘those present’ did not want Ireland freed with the help of Soviet Union and the last was “We are Catholics first and Irishmen afterwards.” (Irish Democrat, January 1968).

The Connolly Association plaque was put on display during the commemorations, though. The main gathering on the Sunday was attended by 3,000 people including 77 year old, Elizabeth Maher, a cousin of Michael Larkin, who had travelled from Dublin. Also in attendance were Tomas MacGiolla, President of Sinn Féin and Jimmy Steele, Chair of the Republican Clubs in the north, members of Fianna Éireann (whose Dublin branch organised Ms Maher’s travel and provided a colour party), Cumann na mBan, the Brian Boru Pipe Band and the Pre-Truce IRA Association.

At the main gathering in the cemetery in Moston, Jimmy Steele gave what the Connolly Association’s newspaper, The Irish Democrat, described as a ‘spirited oration’ in its December issue. In it he criticised the ‘New Departure’ of John Devoy and Michael Davitt, stating that “…it was always an error to become involved in political parties.” (Irish Democrat, December 1967). Devoy, who had later supported the Treaty and Cumann na nGaedhal, had pushed the IRB leader, Michael Davitt, into supporting Parnell and the constitutional nationalists sitting at Westminster in 1878. This was perceived as having weakened the IRB and directed energies towards four decades of an ineffectual ‘Home Rule’ campaign in Westminster (the culmination of its failures being the IRB’s response with the 1916 Rising).

The month previously, Dan Breen, the former IRA leader who had been a Fianna Fáil TD, led a commemoration and wreath laying at the John Devoy memorial in Kildare, alongside leading Fine Gael politicians. Notably, neither party appears to have been represented at the official Manchester commemoration. There is an interesting echo here of last year’s 1916 centenary and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s embarrassingly strained emphasis on constitutionalists like John Redmond.

Steele might have intended his comments to be a commentary on the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael détente at Devoy’s memorial, or at least be read as such. But within the IRA and Sinn Féin, Cathal Goulding had been pushing for an end to abstentionism at Leinster House, Stormont and Westminster. This had been repeatedly defeated when put to a vote. While his strategy was being questioned, Goulding had increasingly been centralising control of both the IRA and Sinn Féin in himself and in its public voice, like The United Irishman newspaper. The Belfast IRA newspaper Tírghrá, edited by Steele, was starved of resources and effectively closed down by Goulding in 1965. In September 1968, Goulding was to dilute the ability of the IRA to oppose his attempts to end abstentionism by dramatically expanding the Army Council so that he could then install a majority of his supporters and force through changes (and, apparently, stall any Army Convention that might reverse the changes). This precipitated the crisis within the IRA that surfaced in the early summer of 1969, led by Steele. In that light, Steele’s comments in Manchester should be seen as commentary on Goulding’s aspirations to transform the IRA. The Manchester Martyr’s commemoration in 1967 should perhaps be regarded as an opening salvo in the dispute that was to split the IRA two years later.

For more on the Manchester Martyrs, see Joe O’Neill’s The Manchester Martyrs.