Blood on whose hands?
Fiona Foster on the issues behind the body-count
When Hugh McKibben was shot dead by the Irish Peoples Liberation Organisation on 27 August, it presented a welcome propaganda gift to the British establishment. McKibben was the three thousandth victim of 'the Troubles' in Northern Ireland. The fact that he was killed as part of an internal feud among republican fragments gave British journalists and politicians the perfect opportunity to blame the 3000 deaths on an age-old conflict characterised by sectarianism, tribalism, faction-fighting and 'tit-for-tat' killings.
McKibben's death could not be described as sectarian, but the media decided that it was 'symbolic' of the pointless deaths caused by 23 years of 'internecine strife' between two religious communities. Hugh Annesley, chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, said that 'republican and Loyalist gangs continue to match each other in fanatical hate, blind bigotry and sectarian savagery'.
Pig in the middle
The advantage of this kind of coverage is clear. If the killings in Ireland result from an ancient religious feud then the British can neither be blamed for the violence, nor be expected to prevent it. All they can do is act as the neutral arbiter, keeping troops in Ireland to prevent a Yugoslav-style bloodbath. In this spirit, Northern Ireland minister Michael Mates could call the 3000 deaths 'brutal and senseless', and promise that the security forces would pursue 'terrorists' on both sides of the religious divide.
The statistical breakdown of the 3000 victims provided by the RUC adds to the impression of the Irish War as a sectarian feud with British troops caught in the middle. Most papers simply stated that 2081 of the victims were civilians and 918 members of the security forces.
Hidden within the figures for civilians, however, are 350 people killed by the security forces, the vast majority of whom were nationalists. Also listed as civilians are an unspecified number of people whom republicans target as part of the British war machine, like prison officers, judges, collaborators and politicians. The category of civilian is certainly accurate for the nearly 800 victims of Protestant paramilitaries, most of whom have been targeted simply for being Catholic.
Media coverage of the three thousandth victim of 'the Troubles' revealed some confusion over who was the first. The Independent's David McKittrick said the first was 66-year old Catholic Francis McCloskey, killed in the mêlée after the RUC baton-charged a crowd. The Telegraph and the Times said the first was John Gallagher, a Catholic man shot through the heart by the RUC auxiliary, the 'B' Specials, as he ran for cover in a cathedral in Armagh.
The Irish Times meanwhile named the first victim of the troubles as another Catholic man, Sammy Devenney, a father of nine given a'savage beating' by nine RUC officers who burst into his home during a riot in the Bogside area of Derry. His wife said that though her husband was a strong man, 'his whole body was destroyed' and he died shortly after the attack.
Despite the confusion over who was the first victim, the three deaths all had something important in common. They all took place during the civil rights campaign of 1968-69. And all of the victims were Catholics killed by the British security forces.
There is general agreement that today's 'Troubles' emerged out of the campaign for civil rights, but the consensus is that the noble aspirations of that campaign have been corrupted by the men of violence. Richard Ford of the Times described the three thousandth victim as 'a long way from the demand for civil rights'. McKittrick said that 'the disturbances occasioned by the civil rights movement degenerated first into street violence and later into terrorism'.
They are right to say that what began as a peaceful civil rights movement was transformed into an armed struggle. But they are wrong to blame the victims of violence for creating it.
When Northern Ireland's Catholics took to the streets demanding equal rights with their Protestant neighbours to housing, jobs and political representation they were met with brute force by the security forces employed to enforce British rule in Ireland. Whoever was the first victim of the 'Troubles', Gallagher, McCloskey and Devenney all paid the price of daring to ask for equal rights in the sectarian state set up by Britain, and they were to be the first of many. When the paramilitary police failed to subdue the nationalist protests British troops arrived to keep them down.
Many beatings and shootings later, and after the random internment of nationalists in August 1971 and the massacre of 14 unarmed demonstrators on Bloody Sunday in 1972, a significant section of the nationalist community concluded that they could not achieve equal rights under British rule. An armed struggle for national independence began and continues today. It was the British state which brought violence to Northern Ireland not the IRA; indeed the modern IRA did not exist when the Army arrived. Today, the British authorities use 32 000 armed troops and paramilitary police, and special powers that would be the envy of any dictator, to subdue a community which still refuses to accept the Crown's authority.
The ease with which the British can present their war against the Irish as a sectarian feud is a sign of their confidence today, at a time when liberation struggles worldwide have been defeated or compromised. The Irish republican movement itself is on the defensive and under pressure. Problems with IRA informers and feuds in small republican groupings have made it easier for the media to present Britain as an impartial arbiter - in a year when the Brian Nelson trial has revealed the close relationship between the security forces and Loyalist paramilitaries.
As British as Nelson
Brian Nelson was a British agent paid £200 a week to work as part of a Loyalist death squad targeting innocent Catholics with the full knowledge of his British Army handlers. In the week that the Irish War claimed its three thousandth victim, the RUC visited the homes of 20 nationalists to tell them their personal details were in the hands of Loyalist death squads and an American journal quoted a member of the Ulster Freedom Fighters saying 'we get all our information from the British security forces'.
It was lucky for the British that the three thousandth victim of the Irish War was killed in a republican feud. The next two victims revealed the conflict at the heart of the Irish War - between the nationalist community and the British state and its Loyalist allies. The three thousand and first victim was a young British soldier shot dead by the IRA in full view of the massive British Army barracks that overlooks the staunchly republican village of Crossmaglen. The three thousandth and second victim was 18-year old Peter McBride from nationalist North Belfast, shot in the back by two British soldiers as he ran away from an Army patrol that had just searched him.
The British state's ruthless determination to impose its rule is ultimately responsible for every victim of the war it forced upon Northern Ireland. The British authorities have the blood of those 3000 victims on their hands.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 48, October 1992