Belfast Telegraph

Monday 20 October 2014

Deal a lifesaver despite its flaws

The peace post-1998 has been imperfect, but life after the agreement is vastly better than it was before, says David McKittrick

But, amid all the political contention and disagreement, a number of key points are clear enough. The first is that the accord has not delivered complete peace: there is a peace process, but there is not perfect peace. And certainly not tranquillity.

The second is that the 15 years since the agreement have seen the most dramatic drop in deaths related to the Troubles. People are still dying, but the reduction in the murder rate is striking.

This is little consolation for those individuals who have lost loved ones during the last 15 years. Not a single year has gone by without people being killed, so that new families continue to be plunged into loss and grieving.

Those who have died include members of the security forces, uninvolved civilians and many with paramilitary backgrounds. There is personal pain for their families and friends.

But, for society as a whole, the impersonal statistics of death provide one dispassionate measurement of the transformation which has taken place in the last decade-and-a-half.

Since the agreement, provisional figures indicate around 130 people have died – an average of nine a year. By comparison, the 15 years before the agreement, when violence was sustained on a large scale, saw more than 1,000 murders – an average of 71 every year.

Within these figures lies evidence of a continuing, steady fall in killings, for the rate has dropped within the last 15 years and, particularly, since 2003. In the first five years following the agreement, there were more than 100 deaths, the Omagh bomb in August 1998 killing 29 people.

Since 2004, deaths have not reached double figures in any single year, which means the rate in the last nine years has fallen to an average of around four a year.

In terms of responsibility for deaths, dissident republican groups killed approximately 44 people, a majority of these in the Omagh bombing.

In recent years, they have become the most active killing element, causing at least 10 deaths in recent times. In a number of cases, they have killed their own members or supporters following internal disputes.

The various dissident groups also shot dead republican Denis Donaldson at his isolated farmhouse in Donegal, soldiers Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey, and police officers Stephen Carroll and Ronan Kerr (right). Other victims include prison officer David Black, shot dead on the M1 motorway last year.

This means that, in the space of the last four years, dissidents have killed four members of the security forces and a prison officer. The most recent dissident killing – that of Kieran McManus in Belfast last month – has been admitted by the Continuity IRA.

The mainstream IRA, which in previous times was the greatest taker of life, was responsible for around nine deaths following the agreement, almost all of which were in the period 1999-2001.

Those killed in these attacks, which were not acknowledged as the work of the IRA, were generally alleged to have been involved in the drugs trade.

Mainstream republicans were also held responsible for the 2005 death of Robert McCartney, who was killed in an attack following a brawl in a bar near Belfast's city centre.

Almost exactly half of all deaths since the agreement were the work of loyalist groups, which claimed 65 lives. Many of these were Catholics, while some were Protestants killed because they were thought to be Catholics.

In one incident, in 1998, the Quinn brothers, the oldest of whom was aged 10, died in a loyalist petrol-bombing related to the Drumcree marching dispute. Several loyalists were killed when their own bombs exploded prematurely.

A high number of loyalist victims – 26 – were killed in bouts of feuding which involved the UDA, UVF and LVF, as these organisations battled over territory and control.

In addition to attacking each other, fighting inside the UDA claimed a number of lives, including those of 'brigadiers' John Gregg in 2003 and Jim Gray two years later.

One striking statistic is that feuding within loyalism and dissident republicanism together accounted for more than 30, or almost a quarter, of the total post-agreement death toll.

The general pattern in the last few years shows a decrease in loyalist killings, but an increase in those carried out by dissidents.

The ongoing dissident campaign and the sporadic flaring of loyalist street disturbances over issues such as flags and parades make it very clear that Northern Ireland remains an unsettled entity, which has yet to experience absolute peace.

The statistics of fatalities make it obvious that the peace is incomplete. Yet they also make it very clear that Troubles's funerals are now far rarer than they ever were and that life after the agreement is vastly better than what went before.

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