David McKittrick

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

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Defendant Personal Injury 2+PQE

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - NICHE DEFENDANT FIRM - Defendant Pe...

Java Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: JAVA DEVELO...

HR Business Partner (Maternity Cover 12 Months)

£30000 - £34000 Per Annum 25 days holiday, Private healthcare: Clearwater Peop...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Developer

£475 - £550 per day: Progressive Recruitment: MDAX / Dynamics AX / Microsoft D...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Fist bumps will never replace the handshake - we're just not cool enough

Jessica Brown Jessica Brown
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on