Death toll intensifies search for a solution: David McKittrick examines the unrelenting toll of violence during more than 20 years of the Troubles

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THE FACT that the Northern Ireland death toll reached 3,000 - a figure that was immediately surpassed last night - appears to have put additional pressure on local politicians and the British and Irish governments to reach agreement in the talks which are to resume next Tuesday.

Last night peace groups staged a vigil in Belfast to mark the grim statistic, which served to focus attention on next week's talks.

Michael Mates, the Northern Ireland security minister, said the toll of death was doubly futile 'at a time when in all of the troubled history of the last 23 years, there is possibly more hope than there has been before that constitutional politicians are going to find a way out of the morass'.

Mr Mates said his message was that it was time it all stopped, because violence would not force the Government into talking to anyone advocating or supporting the use of violence.

Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein said the human cost had been tremendous, and had added to the mistrust and bitterness. He said there was a deeply held desire for a real peace process which could bring a permanent end to the violence.

As if to underline the calls for peace, the Troubles claimed their 3,001st victim last night when a soldier was shot dead by a sniper at a foot patrol in the border village of Crossmaglen. His death was a reminder that an end to the violence is still being sought 23 years since the killing started.

Hugh McKibben, who will go down in the bleak history of Northern Ireland as the 3,000th casualty of this undeclared war, was not born when the first casualty of the Troubles met his death. He was a member of a faction of an organisation that did not exist when the violence began, killed in a dispute which in 1969 would have been incomprehensible.

He will go down in the files as a member of the army council faction of the Irish People's Liberation Organisation, killed by that group's army council faction.

Statistically, the worst of the troubles ended in the mid-1970s, when the death rate was dramatically cut. Now the annual death toll does not reach 100, and figures can be produced to show that Northern Ireland is a comparatively peaceful place.

In the mid-1980s, for example, it was pointed out that the murder rate was 6 per 100,000 compared with 22 per 100,000 in New York City, 31 in Washington DC and 59 in Detroit. But in Northern Ireland the killings serve as a regular, obscene reminder of a lack of community consensus.

McKibben was a terrorist in a disreputable group which has degenerated into drug-dealing and feuding. This means that many will not mourn his death. But it is difficult to imagine the troubles ending until more people acknowledge that this man was also a victim of a conflict which, though past its peak, has lingering lethal power.

(Photograph omitted)