The final reckoning

John O'Farrell acclaims the 'Domesday Book' of Northern Ireland. Will this be the last word on barbarity and bigotry?
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The Independent Culture

Lost Lives by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton Mainstream, £25, 1630pp

Lost Lives by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton Mainstream, £25, 1630pp

This is the Domesday Book of Northern Ireland - the book of its dead, with the context, mechanics and legacy of their violent passing. Yet it is also a book of resurrection. These "stories of the men, women and children who died as a result of the Northern Ireland troubles" restore to the 3,637 victims their names, their age, what they did, and what they were doing when they died. In Robert McLiam Wilson's novel Eureka Street, there is a striking metaphor for violent death. Wilson writes that a full life is like a novel, whereas one truncated violently is reduced to a short story. Lost Lives tells all those stories, elevating the dead from grim statistics to someone else's tragedy - and ours.

Various researchers have tried to make sense of the patterns of violence, or to compile the definitive list of the dead. The authors of Lost Lives came together in 1992 to colour in the outlines. Three are working journalists, one a historian. Most of the tales they tell have been aired before, but remained locked in the first draft of history, the brief newspaper accounts of so many people whose only memorials are their family and friends, and the gravestones in cemetries across these islands.

Northern Ireland is now witnessing a surge of victims' groups, a reaction to the Victims Commission set up in the Good Friday Agreement. Unionist and nationalist politicians vie to establish a hierarchy of victims and exploit their memory to suit party agendas. Lost Lives avoids this nonsense. David McKittrick of The Independent writes that "Those who died... included civilians, members of loyalist and republican groups, political figures, soldiers, joyriders, alleged drug dealers, judges and magistrates, those killed in the course of armed robberies, prison officers, police officers, convicted killers, businessmen, alleged informers, Ulster Defence Regiment members, those who died on hunger strike, men, women, children, pensioners and unborn babies. They are all here."

Another decision which could cause controversy is the exclusion of the names of those accused or convicted of the killings - with the exception of some paramilitary figures so well known "that no useful purpose would be served in not mentioning their names". So some killers are referred to only in terms of paramilitary affiliation. This coyness is not out of fear but rather "to ensure that this work should not be used as a handbook for vengeance". There have been enough "retaliations" already. Most involve people who neither knew nor cared about the victims. Tit for tat, as it is stupidly called.

Stupidity is a current which runs through this book; an arrogant stupidity which motivated the cruellest killings. There was the belief that Catholics could be beaten and shot into accepting second-class status; or that shooting the eldest sons of Protestant farmers could make the rest of their families realise that they were, all along, deluded Irishmen. The crowning achievement of this harvest of eight years' labour are, nevertheless, the single stories. Each of the dead is chronologically numbered, from John Scullion (1), murdered by the UVF in 1966, to Charles Bennet (3,637), murdered by the IRA last July. Not that the Provos admitted that one. "The IRA ceasefire is intact," chimed Mo Mowlam.

All the victims of the infamous mass killings are named: the 21 who died in the Birmingham pub bombings of 1974; the 15 Catholics who died when the UVF blew up Mc Gurk's bar in north Belfast in 1971; the nine Protestants and one IRA man killed in the 1993 Shankill Road bomb. The deaths are crossreferenced, so we can find out the details of other, connected fatalities: others killed in the same attack, or by the same killers, or even the demise of those killers.

The book tells some astonishing stories of the dead: loyalist killers like Lenny Murphy (2,483), leader of the Shankill Butchers, responsible for up to 18 repulsive murders, or Jim Craig (2,993), the UDA commander and racketeer shot by his "own side" in 1988 for informing to republicans about loyalist leaders who were later shot, including Lenny Murphy.

A book about Murphy was read "over and over" by Thomas Begley (3,426). This boy from the north Belfast Catholic ghetto of Ardoyne would leave school aged 16 qualified to do nothing except join the IRA, for which he would shoot dead Stephen Waller (3,362), a soldier home on leave for Christmas 1992. Begley would later be vaporised in the 1993 Shankill bomb, which exploded in his arms.

On and on it went. And it may well go back to all that, if we are not careful. Many in the North will read this book with the same selectivity that ensures that "their" side are the unblemished victims of the other's brutality.

The authors are not to blame for that. McKittrick, Kelters, Feeney and Thornton cannot be commended highly enough. They have undertaken a massive task with little hope of material recompense. This is public-service journalism at its finest. If the British and Irish governments are serious about reconciliation, they would divert some of the public money they presently throw at hopeless quangos and pay for 50,000 copies of this book. It should be distributed to every library, classroom, pub and waiting area, and to any family that wants a copy, particularly families of the individuals unfortunate enough to end in this book. All human life is there.

John O'Farrell edits 'Fortnight' magazine in Belfast