Belfast Telegraph

Paul Nolan: Lyra McKee became 160th person murdered since Good Friday Agreement ... they all deserve to be remembered

Paramilitaries, both republican and loyalist, accounted for the vast majority of killings, writes Paul Nolan

Lyra McKee was the 160th person to be murdered here since the Good Friday Agreement
Lyra McKee was the 160th person to be murdered here since the Good Friday Agreement
The scene after the Omagh bomb in 1998

By Paul Nolan

The murder of Lyra McKee by dissident republicans was deeply shocking. This talented young woman had described herself as a child of the Good Friday Agreement and it seemed particularly tragic that news of her death came through on another Good Friday morning, 21 years later.

The hugely emotional public response was no more than was appropriate for such a death. And yet, there must be police officers who were standing close to her in Creggan that night who have reflected ruefully that if the bullet had hit its intended target and it had been one of them who was killed, there would not have been a service in St Anne's Cathedral attended by a Prime Minister, a Taoiseach, an Irish President and other persons of high office.

However much we like to say that there can be no hierarchy of victims, the column inches tell another story.

In the 21 years since the Good Friday Agreement, 160 people have been killed and very, very few of their names have been remembered beyond their own families and personal networks.

It was striking that, in the national and international coverage of Lyra McKee's murder, there seemed to be an underlying belief that this event represented a rupture in a peace that had existed since the 1998 accord. The reality is, of course, completely different.

I have been monitoring the killings over this period and it has been a depressing story. We may have moved a long distance from the height of the Troubles (in the worst single year, 1972, a total of 476 people were killed), but we are still far from the promise of the peace deal.

It is not always easy to determine in this most recent period whether or not a particular death can be classified as - to use a PSNI term - a "security-related" killing, or whether it is simply what the Dublin media call a "gangland" killing.

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I have drawn upon PSNI statistics, the records maintained by the CAIN project at Ulster University and newspaper accounts. Other people using different criteria may arrive at a different total from mine, but however finely one draws the lines the overall picture is of a society that has not managed to put its past behind it. The killings have continued, albeit at a different tempo and with a different pattern.

The largest single loss of life occurred on August 15, 1998, when 29 people were killed in the Omagh bomb. There have been no other multiple killings since that time and so the pattern of killings over the past 21 years has been quite different than that during the Troubles, when atrocities with multiple deaths, such as McGurk's Bar, Bloody Friday, Bloody Sunday, La Mon, or Warrenpoint, became staging-posts in the history of the conflict.

The Omagh bomb was, in that sense, more characteristic of the earlier period of the Troubles and the figures for 1998 to 2018 are significantly altered if the deaths from that terrible event are excluded.

Whichever way the figures are counted, the largest single victim group is Catholic civilians (a category that excludes republican paramilitaries, or Catholic PSNI officers). This represents the continuation of a trend very marked in the 1968-1998 period.

In the 30 years of the Troubles, they constituted 32.4% of victims. In the period since 1998, they are an even larger percentage: 64 people, a percentage share of 40%.

Most of the Catholic victims were killed by republican paramilitaries. Out of that total of 64 deaths, 40 (62.5%) have been the victims of organisations operating from within nationalist communities. Loyalists killed a further 22 (34.4%) and there were two killings where attribution has not been possible.

The second largest victim category in the 1998-2019 period is that of loyalist paramilitaries, who make up 25.6% of all deaths. By way of contrast, loyalist paramilitaries made up barely 4% of deaths during the 1968-98 period.

The other distinct difference concerns the number of security forces killed. During the Troubles, the deaths of Army personnel, RUC, RUC Reserve, UDR, Royal Irish Rangers and Northern Ireland Prison Service personnel made up a combined total 27.8% of all deaths. Since 1998, they account for just 4.4% of the total.

This has been the period of the paramilitary. No one has been killed by a soldier. No one has been killed by a PSNI officer.

In the statistics for security-related killings, dissident republicans and loyalist paramilitaries have been running each other a deadly race. Republican paramilitaries are responsible for 76 deaths and loyalist paramilitaries for 72.

The violence has been turned in on communities in quite a localised and intimate way.

Many of the victims have been known personally by their killers. They have lived in the same neighbourhoods, or worked in the same workplaces. In a very large number of cases, the killers and the people who were killed had been comrades in the same paramilitary organisation. While the killings are evidence of a very divided society, they have not followed the pattern that might be expected in a sectarian conflict.

Only a very few have been sectarian in the sense of people from one community killing a person from the other. For the most part, the victims of republican paramilitaries have been Catholics and the victims of loyalist paramilitaries have been Protestants - very often other loyalist paramilitaries.

For example, in 2000-2003 there was a prolonged killing spree that is sometimes referred to as the "Shankill feud", but which was a series of protracted wars involving the UVF, the LVF and the UDA that spilled out far beyond Belfast.

Republican paramilitaries have not engaged in rivalrous feuds in the same way, but each of the main dissident groupings has shown ruthlessness when quarrels have erupted within their ranks.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. When the IRA ceasefire was declared on August 31, 1994, the Belfast Telegraph headline, set out in large, bold type, read "It's Over". There were images of atrocities from the Troubles, but the message was one of hope.

It took another four years for a peace agreement to arrive, but on Good Friday 1998, optimism was renewed. If that hope had been fulfilled, Lyra McKee would be alive today. So, too, would all the others who have ended up as statistics.

They, too, were lives lost to violence and they, too, deserve to be remembered.

Dr Paul Nolan is an independent researcher who has been monitoring the Northern Ireland peace process

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