Murder in Abstract; the absent sense of intensity in sources of conflict history

Murder in Abstract; the absent sense of intensity in sources of conflict history

This week, Rachel Kowalski (Oxford) examines historical and contemporary coverage of paramilitary violence on one day during the Northern Irish Troubles.

On 17 April 1972 an unarmed civilian, Patrick Donaghy (86), was shot through the window of his home in the Divis flats tower block in Belfast by the parachute regiment of the British Army when it is claimed that he was mistaken for an armed paramilitary.[i]

The lives claimed during the conflict which raged between 1969 and 1998 commonly known as the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’, have regularly featured in the press, memoirs, popular, and academic histories. Unsolved crimes, nodal events, high profile participants, and commemorations of the conflict polarise opinion. Understandably, much of the material published and consumed regarding the troubles is victim-focussed. Accounts of the tragic way in which individuals lost their lives, however, tend to portray events in a somewhat abstract manner. The intensity of the conflict cannot be sensed, and any notion that the events were part of a wider escalating narrative of antagonistic violence is lost. 

The fatal shot which claimed the life of Patrick Donaghy was not an isolated incident. Rather, the day saw more than 140 troubles-related incidents across Northern Ireland.[ii] These included: barricade erection and dismantling; shooting and bombing attacks; punishment violence; kidnapping; crowding; stone throwing; rubber bullets and more. This level of detail, however, cannot be found in even the most minutely detailed accounts of the conflict. The micro and macro context of the events of 17 April 1972 is absent to various degrees in accounts of the day in contemporary newspapers, magazines and chronologies of the troubles.

The contemporary press in Great Britain and Northern Ireland reported only the fatal shooting incidents,[iii] and the collated chronologies of the conflict provide similarly sparse account of the day. The Chronologies by Michael Hall, Paul Bew and Gordon Gillespie, which aim to be comprehensive if concise, surprisingly lack an entry for the day, in spite of the fact that lives were lost in the incidents, which normally warrants annotation.[iv] Thus, in terms of volume of activity accurately reported, the sources of information which have been and are most available for public consumption, the press and chronologies, are quite severely lacking. This discrepancy can have an impact on popular understanding on the conflict which is both quantitative and qualitative in nature.

Donaghy’s death resulted from a culmination of troubles-related activity on a day which was characterised by riots and escalating attacks throughout. Tensions were running particularly high because just days before the army fatally shot Joe McCann, a high-profile member of the Official Irish Republican Army (OIRA), in the back when he was unarmed.[v] McCanns’ death triggered attacks against the security services, and catalysed tensions between the two competing splinter groups of the IRA.

Daily incident logs, compiled by the army provide the most comprehensive detail of immediate situation in which Donaghy lost his life. Reports evidence a rapid escalation of violence directed against the security forces in the Divis flats area of Belfast; from throwing stones to the shooting of automatic weapons.[vi] By the early evening it is recorded that there were more than 80 youths in the area, a six-foot high barrier had been erected, multiple gunmen were firing at the security forces from various high vantage points in and on top of the Divis block of flats, and that it was in returning fire to this threat that Donaghy was killed.

At a micro level, there is a sense that 17 April 1972 saw waves of shooting attacks against the security forces in what appears to be reactive or revenge shootings, as opposed to pre-planned, lured or targeted efforts, although there were a handful of these also. Shooting attacks escalated from initially non-violent or low-impact violence threatening the security forces. Tensions rose between security forces and civilians regarding crowding activity and the use of temporary barricades; erection, dismantling or fortifying by the addition of burnt out vehicles.[vii]

The day saw many instances of crowding, rioting and stone-throwing also.[viii] Such instances invariably escalated to higher levels of violence as the security forces were provoked to respond. Just before 9pm, three rounds of rubber bullets were fired into the crowd of more than forty civilians who occupied Stockmans’ Lane in Belfast; which was responded to by a civilian or paramilitary individual firing a single low velocity round in the direction of the security forces.[ix] Such events, however, were free from reported casualties or fatalities, likely explaining why they have gone unreported in the press or chronologies of the day.

Contemporary newspaper accounts of the evening’s shooting attack which killed Donaghy vary in detail and accuracy. While the Fermanagh Herald correctly reported his death at the hands of the army ‘in the course of shooting’ attacks,[x] Irish News incorrectly reported ‘no causalities’,[xi] and the News Letter, mistakenly identified those killed as having been ‘snipers’.[xii] A British paper, The Times, however, did report the evening’s shooting attacks at the Divis flats tower block in some detail, noting that some civilian families were trapped in their apartments with little choice but to put beds against the windows and walls in a bid to stay safe.[xiii]

The accounts of Donaghy’s death found in the chronologies of the conflict equally fail to build a picture of the intensity of the security situation at the time. Lost Lives, a detailed record of all troubles-related fatalities, for instance, prefers detail of the physical condition of the victim over context of the attack.[xiv] Donaghy is described as a none-participatory member of the conflict, as a man of limited eye sight who was shot through his window where stood each day to say 15 rosaries after lunch because he was too frail to attend mass regularly. As such, the subsequent detail that the soldiers interviewed for the inquest on Donaghy’s death claimed to having fired a shot at the window only after they saw gun smoke emerging from it, appears somewhat unconvincing. By juxtaposition, the Chronology by Richard Deutsch and Vivien Magowan, provides only acute situational context.[xv]

In sum, the various accounts of the killing of Patrick Donaghy in sources widely available for public consumption have demonstrated a situation in which an innocent man was killed amidst an intense gun fight between paramilitaries and security forces which escalated out of control. Separately, the source material can be incomplete, misleading or even inaccurate. By recording only the most violent proportion of troubles-related activity, chronologies and newspapers can be seen to expunge a genuine picture of the day-to-day or personal experience of the conflict from the record in favour of an extreme account, a morbid form of troubles ‘highlights’. The extent to which the general public and paramilitaries were in fact responding to the actions of the Army in Northern Ireland is lost, and there is little explain the casual link between the actions of the crowds and the Army searches, incursions, arrest operations, and provocations they were responding to.

The responsive, escalatory, incidents of crowding, rioting and off-target attacks which have gone unreported, characterised the day and are crucial to our understanding of the nature of the conflict in this period. They demonstrate the intensity and relentlessness of the violence, shape the way in which we consider the typicality of fatal incidents, and alter the way in which we scrutinise the intentions, motivations, or lethality of the perpetrating organisations. The binary discussion of defensive and offensive action becomes somewhat blurred when the full picture is accounted for, and the motivations of the perpetrators of violence better placed within an escalating local story of tensions, or developing national narrative of the conflict. The disparate way in which the events of the conflict has been portrayed in the press across the four nations can be overcome with rigorous historical research. And violence can be best understood in its original and full context: as a live urban battlefield, in which events relate to one another as the level of disturbance undulates.

[i] D. McKittrick, et. al. (eds)., Lost Lives, (Edinburgh, 2007), Reference: 340.

[ii] TNA WO 305/4199,‘Northern Ireland Command’, 17 April 1972

[iii] An Phoblacht, April 1972; An Phoblacht, May 1972; Belfast Telegraph, 18 April 1972; Irish News,18 April 1972; Armagh Observer, 22 Apr 1972; Protestant Telegraph, 1-21 April 1972; Donegal Democrat, 21 April 1972; Fermanagh Herald, 22 April 1972, Dungannon News & Tyrone Courier, 19 April 1972; Daily Telegraph, 18 April 1972; The Guardian, 18 April 1972; The Times, 18 April 1972; The Sun, 18 April 1972; Daily Mail, 18 April 1972; News letter, 18 April 1972

[iv] P. Bew, and G. Gillespie, Northern Ireland, A Chronology of the Troubles, (Lanham, 1999),p.51; M., Hall, 20 Years, (Newtonabbey, 1988), p.34

[v] Ibid.

[vi] TNA WO 305/4199, ‘Northern Ireland Command’, 17 April 1972

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] TNA WO 305/4199, ‘Northern Ireland Command’, 17 April 1972

[ix] TNA WO 305/4199, ‘Northern Ireland Command’, 17 April 1972

[x] Fermanagh Herald, 22 April 1972, p.12

[xi] Irish News, 18 April 1972, p.1

[xii] News letter, 18 April 1972, p.1

[xiii] The Times, 18 April 1972, p.11

[xiv] McKittrick, Lost Lives, Reference: 340

[xv] Deutsch and Magowan, Volume 2,pp.170-171

Rachel Kowalski is a Wolfson Scholar and DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford. He research concerns the nature of the violence perpetrated by the Provisional IRA during the first decade of the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’ (1969-1979). She previously studied in the History and War Studies faculties of Kings College London where her interest in the comparative study of violence was inspired. Rachel also founded, organises and chairs the Oxford Seminar for the Study of Violence

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