Just how violent is Northern Ireland? The figures from the troubles have been gone over many times. Over 3500 deaths, thousands more injured, billions lost in jobs and destruction. Families left with empty seats. Untold suffering, and many hidden victims. In any one day in 1972 you could have multiple deaths, explosions, robberies, hijackings, shootings, riots. Truly disturbing times and yet those of us over 50 lived through it all.
But what of today? How violent is N.Ireland? What do the figures say as opposed to media created impressions, fearful misconception and guess work? It is obvious that the situation has changed dramatically. Barring the Omagh bomb since 1995 things have been relatively quiet but sadly not for families such as recently, Kevin Kearney, the family of Ronan Kerr, the family of David black and so on. However it is a fact that most violent crime in the country is civilian or has no terrorist motivation. It is a reality that the media will dwell on the more ‘juicy’ murders such as the dissidents in an attempt to gain more sales. I will argue that violent crime in N.Ireland is totally unlike much of the crime portrayed in the media, the movies and crime fiction novels. Agatha Christie would not have much to do in N.I. although having said that, the police are truly puzzled by some, as yet, unsolved killings.
So what is meant by violent crime? I take for this article both murder and manslaughter as seen by the Court system of N.Ireland. Many people will be charged with murder which will be dropped later to manslaughter. Of course there is attempted murder, GBH, GBH with Intent etc. but to make this task manageable I have selected what most people would regard as the worst of violent crimes namely killing another person no matter what the reason, cause, excuse or motivation.
I have selected the period from January 1st 2004 until December 31th 2007. I have calculated that there were 112 killings in this period. (30, 27, 27, and 28 in those respective years.) Most of these cases have been dealt with in the court and as such the details e.g. circumstances and motivations , of the case have become public.
I have used a variety of sources including the main TV channels, local papers and court appeal s which can be accessed on BALII. (If we take a corresponding 4 year period from 1971 to 1974 we find that there were 1242 troubles related deaths with possibly other non-political killings not included in those figures. )
Comparative rates. For the purposes of this article (and this period) I have used the population of N.Ireland as 1.7 million. The census of 2011 showed a population of over 1.8 million. So for example in 2007 there was 28 illegal killings. This equates to 1 killing per 60,714 of the population. A common usage in the literature looks at the figures in terms of ‘per hundred thousand’. Therefore in 2007 there were 1.64 killings per hundred thousand of the population in N.Irealnd. The figure for England and Wales is 1.59 while Scotland is recorded at 2.17. The Republic of Ireland had a figure of 1.45. On an international comparison we have countries like America with a rate of 5.6 while Austria has a homicide rate of 0.6. The unbelievable figure of 91.6 belongs to Honduras where over 7000 people in one year out of a population of 7 million were illegally killed. Intriguingly there is a figure of 6.9 for the whole world. Put in this context, N.Ireland sits as one of the less violent countries.
Of course the cravat that “there are lies, dammed lies and statistics” holds true and figures can vary from one country to another as indeed so can definitions and judicial systems. (Sources, Wikipedia, Crimlinks, Guardian, UNData. )
Political/ paramilitary killings. The Good Friday agreement followed on from the 1995 ceasefires. While the current situation is still turbulent there has been a huge drop in paramilitary related deaths with the notable exception of the Omagh bombing on 15th August 1998. How many political killings were there in the period of 2004 to the end of 2007? I would argue that there were 13 such killings. This represents a figure of 11.6 % of the 112 illegal deaths in the period. Or, just over 1 of every 10 deaths was due to paramilitaries. The problem of course is telling exactly what was planned and what was not. For example, in this period was the UVF -LVF feud which took a number of lives. The UDA killed in Nov 2005 one of its more flamboyant characters, Jim Gray. The Provos had two notable killings namely Robert McCartney in January 2005 and Paul Quinn in September 2007. Of the paramilitary killings the loyalists committed 10 in this period. Recent figures indicate a large reduction by loyalists while dissident republicans are figuring more prominently.
From the early seventies the figures show that paramilitary killings have dropped from about 66% to 11%. Still far too much for such a small society but figures do indicate a slow and gradual reduction in the murder rate from this source. However this figure is confused by the rise of organised crime as drug gangs seek to eliminate competition through violent means. It may be a more sombre assessment that organised crime gang activity will increase but perversely they will inflict their violent activities on each other.
Another emotive aspect to murder and manslaughter is that of children. In this case the old adage holds true a person is at greatest risk of being killed by a member of their own family or someone they know. Stranger killings (bar the paramilitaries) are rare in N.Irealnd. Children (for this article) are regarded as anyone aged 17 and under. In this period some 11 children were illegally killed. The figure is massively skewed by the tragedy of 13th November 2007 when a convicted sex offender killed his partner Lorraine, and the 5 Mc Elhill children aged 13, 7, 4, 1 and the youngest of only 10 months. In this period a baby aged weeks was killed by his mother. A 16 year Devlin was savagely stabbed to death on a Belfast street in a sectarianism murder. A young man of 15 years, Michael McIlveen, died after an altercation in Ballymena in May 2006. These 11 deaths out of a total of 112 represent a figure of 9.8%. Or, just under 1 in 10 violent deaths involve children. Of these 11 cases 9 would have known or been related to their killer.
The facts and figures alone can never tell the full story of the victim, their family and friends and the shattering impact it has on them. However the facts reveal something more about the society we live in. We do not live in a perfect society if there is such a thing. And while violence occurs it is not on the scale of other parts of the world. Paramilitary activity such as bombing pubs and bombing soldiers e.g. Warrenpoint, has more or less stopped. Children are still being killed as has happened for as long as people can remember. But for N.Ireland the murder figures are reducing slowly which is what we would all wish for. There were only 16 illegal deaths in 2010 and 2012. This year to date there has been 12 illegal killings (to 26.10.2013) with a possible estimate for the year of 16. Whether we get back to the pre troubles days of when a murder was a sensation is open for debate. Let’s not forget the massive slaughter of civilians in the 1920s. Society has changed and so has attitudes. In a follow up article I will look at various other aspects in this period such as the influence of alcohol in killings, ethnicity, conviction rates, class, motivations and why some murders have not been cleared.