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The Vacuum Issue 8 spacer Issue 8
Statistics Of Danger
by Liam O'Rourke
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Is Northern Ireland a dangerous place ? Many people would believe so. The image of the province is above all associated with political assassinations, sectarian murders, bombings, shootings, kneecappings and other punishment beatings. On top of that, there are the usual dangers of illness, accidents, and crime. To have a clear picture, it is necessary to quantify and qualify the nature and extent of dangers. The best source of information is the University of Ulster's CAIN website (http://cain.ulst.ac.uk).
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The website has probably the most extensive database of official and independent statistics on various kinds of dangers. First, how dangerous is the province in terms of political violence ? An independent and reliable source (Malcolm Sutton's index of Troubles related deaths) records 3,523 deaths which are directly linked to the conflict in Northern Ireland, and which occurred between 14 July 1969 and 31st December 2001. The discrepancy between this figure and the official British figure arises because of differences of interpretation in a small number of cases. One might point out that 3523 deaths might be small, but it is for a population of 1,685,267 (Census 29 April 2001). Almost 2 percent of the population of Northern Ireland have been killed or injured as a result of political violence since 1969. The equivalent ratio of victims to population in Great Britain during the same period would have been over 100,000 killed, and in the USA over 500,000, about ten times the number of Americans killed during the Vietnam war.
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Of course, the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland remain a "low intensity conflict" not comparable to major wars where hundreds of thousands or if not millions have died like in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, etc. It is also important to note that political violence does not occur with equal intensity in space and time. For example, 479 died as a result of the "security situation" in 1972, but only 8 in 1999. And the spatial distribution of killings is also uneven. Much of the violence has been spatially concentrated within specific areas (like North Belfast's infamous "Murder Mile", the Tyrone/Armagh "Murder Triangle" etc), leaving the rest of the province fairly normal. Government agencies have tried to downplay the scale of the conflict and stressed the "normality" of the province. For example, they point out that the number of people killed as a result of road accidents during the period 1969-2003 exceeds the total number of those who died as a result of political violence (1).
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Compared to the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland is the most dangerous place to be on the road, as it has the highest number of deaths resulting from road traffic accidents (with 10 deaths per 100,000 of population as opposed to 6 per 100,000 in England).This figure is also substantially higher than the figures for the Republic of Ireland. Roads in Northern Ireland are more dangerous than the conflict. But Brendan O Leary, a political scientist from London School of Economics, has pointed out that comparisons between dangers resulting from the "security situation" and dangers resulting from road traffic are fundamentally misleading. "The contrast between deaths from political violence and deaths from road accidents is grotesquely inappropriate.
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Deaths because of political violence are an addition to other socially caused deaths, and in functioning and stable liberal democracies deaths caused by road accidents should be, and usually are higher than deaths caused by political violence. There is nothing exceptional about Northern Ireland's road accident/political violence ratio, except that it is used as a distracting indicator by a police force anxious for a good press. Citizens of liberal democracies and their governments support private and public transport policies which have known and built-in risks of death. There is no comparable way in which they explicitly accept built-in risks of death from political violence when they make and enforce public policy." (Brendan O Leary and John McGarry, The Politics of Antagonism, 12-13)
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If governmental agencies are looking for the single most persistent cause of premature death to compare with the death rate from political violence, they should point to the death rate from heart and respiratory diseases. Ulster fries and Regal cigarettes are more dangerous and lethal than local drivers or the security forces and paramilitaries, as Northern Ireland has a higher incidence of deaths resulting from both heart diseases and respiratory diseases than any other part of the UK. The province is also a dangerous place to be born in. Northern Ireland had the highest rate of infant mortality in the UK. However, this has been decreasing steadily over the years, and has fallen from 22.7 (per 1,000 live and still births) in 1971 to 6.1 in the late 1990s.
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Statistics Of Danger
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Another comparison used to "prove" that the six counties are not a dangerous place is that the numbers killed as a result of political violence in Northern Ireland are much lower than those killed in homicides in major US and European cities. For example, Invest Northern Ireland promotional material boasts that according to the 2001 World Victimisation Survey, Northern Ireland has the lowest crime victimisation rate in the world (even lower than Lichtenstein !) and according to the 2002 Peace Monitor report, Northern Ireland is a safer place to live than other UK regions many European countries and the USA, with a death by violence rate of 2.5 per 100 000 compared to a UK and US average of 4.4 and 8.9 respectively. For O'Leary and McGarry, the comparison of the death rate in the Northern Ireland conflict with the homicide rate in major US cities is equally misleading: "Ordinary violent criminality is dramatically less in Northern Ireland: it is politically -not criminally- violent, whereas the converse applies to the USA." On the whole, the overall level of crime (excluding "scheduled offences"-political violence) in Northern Ireland is significantly lower than that in England, Scotland or Wales, notifiable offences (per 100,000 population) in Northern Ireland being less than half of that recorded in England and Wales.
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There are however three categories in which Northern Ireland had a higher rate of offenders than any of the other areas. These categories are sexual offences, fraud and forgery and 'other' offences. Northern Ireland also has a high proportion of burglaries (although proportionately fewer than England and Wales) and these accounted for almost three quarters of all recorded crime in Northern Ireland. The number of drugs related offences in Northern Ireland has been increasing steadily and rapidly over the past number of years. Having said this however, these figures are still dramatically lower than the figures for any other part of the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland. Overall, comparing various "dangers" is problematic as it raises the spectre of incommensurability. What is there in common between heart diseases, car accidents and political violence apart from some Wittgensteinian "family resemblances" ? A more relevant question perhaps is to ask who is most at risk from the various dangers ?
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The vast majority of those who died as a result of political violence in the North were of a working class background. The lower you are on the social ladder the unhealthier you will be and the shorter will be your life expectancy. If you are in a low income group you are more likely to suffer from lung cancer, coronary heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, obesity and violent accidents; your birth weight will be lower, your diet will be poorer and your life expectancy will be five years shorter than those in upper income groups. The same goes for industrial accidents. Last year, a report from the Institute for Public Policy Research showed that children from the UK's most deprived neighbourhoods are three times more likely to be knocked down by cars. The number of children in poor wards of the UK have 2.2 casualties per 100,000 children compared to 0.6 in rich areas. From availablestatistics, the conclusion is that the poorer you are, the more dangerous life in Northern Ireland is likely to be.
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(1) A recent programme on Channel 4 ("Casualties of Peace", 14 July 2003) revealed that since 1991 over 2000 British soldiers had died on duty in non-combat situations, victims of everything from drownings and suicides to car accidents. That is about four times the amount of British soldiers (excluding local Irish regiments) killed during the whole Troubles. Years ago, one of the NIO's favourite arguments was that West Germany was a more dangerous place for the British Army than Northern Ireland as more soldiers died in car accidents there than in political violence in the North.
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