David McKittrick

In the 17 years, annual deaths never exceeded 125, but never subsided below 60


A common Belfast catchphrase in the early troubles was: "It'll get worse before it gets better." But no one imagined for a minute that it would go on for well over 30 years, and cost well over 3,000 lives.

Now comes the sinking feeling that London may be facing a sustained campaign of terrorism. It is a terrible prospect, both in terms of the threat to life and the threat to normality.

Yet Belfast, despite having been synonymous with bombing, is still standing and in fact it looks a lot less battered than it used to, and in many ways has been much improved and modernised.

The terrorists have mostly stopped now. It took years for that to happen but eventually the majority of them worked out that, in the end, it didn't work: they could make things worse and command attention, but this did not bring them victory.

Belfast simply absorbed the violence. It did so at huge cost in lost lives, physical and psychological damage and vast reservoirs of bitterness: decades of work lie ahead for the therapists.

Northern Ireland went through phases. Almost half the 3,700 victims died in the early and mid-1970s, the annual death toll on one occasion reaching 500.

Political uncertainty seems to have had much to do with the high killing rate: for with British withdrawal an apparent possibility the IRA kept its campaign going at a high level. Loyalists, meanwhile, killed large numbers to dissuade the British from leaving.

But then things settled down into what in chess would be called the middle game, which in Northern Ireland terms meant a long period which was still lethal but less so than previously

In the ensuing 17 years, annual deaths never exceeded 125, but never subsided below 60. This was not full scale war, but neither was it peace.

This situation developed because of a combination of factors. The security forces and intelligence services became more organised and developed expertise, though it took them years to do so.

But one vital factor in keeping the troubles going for so long was the IRA's decision to opt for a "long war" strategy. Its former belief that it was close to defeating Britain was replaced by the theory that bombings had a cumulative effect.

The notion was that if enough bombs are set off over the years the slot machine would one day cough up the jackpot: that suddenly a British government would crack and capitulate.

For years it was in vain pointed out to the IRA and Sinn Fein that the bombings were first of all wrong and secondly futile. Yet eventually they one day got the message and the current peace process came, painfully slowly, into being.

Conservative governments in the meantime pursued a range of strategies. Vast amounts of money were needed to prop up an ailing economy, while attempts went on to build a centre-based political system.

At the same time secret channels were kept open to the violent republicans, not to offer them a surrender but to reconnoitre their state of mind, and watch for signals of a willingness to compromise. Eventually such signs did appear, paving the way for the current peace process.

The clandestine contacts, when they eventually came to light, were intensely controversial, though today most conclude that they were crucial to subsequent progress. But although dialogue turned out to be essential, the timing of it can be highly problematical.

Senior Dublin ministers, for example, held that secret contacts with republicans during that long middle game sent a dangerous message, by reinforcing the vain IRA belief that the British would eventually pack and go.

Amid all the recurring violent and political cataclysm, more than 90 per cent of the population simply got on with their lives as best they could. There was no wholesale emigration, though many moved out of the city to calmer satellite towns.

With terrorism and disturbances more and more concentrated in trouble spots, mostly simply learned to avoid places of danger, sticking to safe areas and safe company.

In London, of course, it may prove not as easy to do so. New laws and increased security have an important part to play in meeting the present crisis. So too has a stoic acceptance that the bombers will keep trying to hurt people and society.

But arguably what really worked in Belfast was the realisation, which sadly took decades to emerge, that bombs can kill, can cause alarm and can grab dramatic headlines, but do not deliver victory.

That is not to say they have no political effect: the murderous phases of the recent history of Belfast, once the city of no surrender, are now on the way to producing an agreed settlement involving huge compromises all round. The hope must be that the London bombers are not such slow learners.

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