Grim milestone of 3,000 Ulster killings: David McKittrick examines the unrelenting toll of violence during more than 20 years of the Troubles

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THERE used to be a saying in Belfast, in the early days of the Troubles, that 'things will get worse before they get better'. Many people subscribed to that theory, yet no one believed that what lay ahead was more than two decades of violence leading to this terrible milestone of 3,000 deaths.

Several political and other sources yesterday deplored the fact that the casualty list had mounted to such a pitch, one Irish newspaper pointing out that on a pro rata basis the 3,000 casualties represent the equivalent of almost 120,000 killings in Britain.

Sweeping changes may have taken place politically, economically and socially, but the one constant has been the violence. In times of political inactivity, paramilitary groups move in to fill the vacuum; and when progress appears possible, they act to sabotage it.

Most people in Northern Ireland wish to see an end to the violence, but there are substantial minorities, both Catholic and Protestant, who support the use of force for political ends. There are many who will not use the word 'murder' to describe killings by their own side. A striking number of people from both communities can give chapter and verse on the violence inflicted on their side, but can talk for an hour without referring to the actions of their co-religionists. Some Catholic priests and Protestant ministers have a particular talent for doing this.

Such devices are obviously useful for transforming any sense of guilt into the more desirable feeling of being a victim. When their side's misdeeds are pointed out, the response is often to take refuge in 'what-aboutery'. Thus, a republican pressed about IRA violence will often retort: 'What about the Army and the Prods shooting people?' A loyalist will respond with: 'What about the IRA?'

Most people, however, tend not to dwell on the violence, preferring to take refuge in what has been called the culture of escapism. Most people who can afford it have moved out of the real trouble spots, which are today largely concentrated in a few well-defined areas of Belfast, Armagh, Tyrone and Londonderry.

These areas have suffered from an appalling concentration of violence. The border village of Castlederg, for example, has been devastated by a republican campaign against Protestants with security-force associations. The graveyard of one little Presbyterian church contains the bodies of nine Protestants killed by the IRA.

On a larger scale, the north Belfast area has experienced almost one-fifth of all deaths during the Troubles. There are Catholics there who can reel off the names of a dozen or more relatives and friends who have been killed. Such an intensity of death creates much bitterness and, often, a desire for revenge.

The constant drip of death has brutalised many, to the point where they take pleasure in hearing of the death of those they perceive as opponents. Their hearts hardened to the point where their sorrow is reserved for their own side. The deep sense of having been victimised and wronged, coupled with a lack of appreciation that others have been victimised and wronged also, has been a factor which has helped the death toll to mount.

That toll is an awful one: 3,000 people who should not have died, with a further 33,000 injured. And beyond them, no one knows how many lives and families have been shattered beyond repair in this still unresolved conflict.