Understanding Bloody Sunday: Is it time to teach CAIN?

The debates around the forthcoming publication of the Saville findings raise an old complaint: that focusing on individual incidents in the Troubles distorts our overall understanding of what happened. Is it time we all got a bit more statistically literate – what about making the study of the CAIN stats compulsory in schools?

Debates about the Troubles – and many historical accounts of the period – are notable for a surprising absence of reference to records of what did actually happen, in terms of the core of what the Troubles consisted of: deaths, beatings, bombings, shooting incidents. That a lot of this information is publicly available makes the omission all the more surprising. True, not everything is recorded, of course. But every single death in the Troubles has been logged and tabulated and is freely available on the CAIN website.

So why are they so infrequently cited in our discourses? I can’t see how we can start to form a view of the Troubles without being intimately familiar with the stats we have available. Now, as a qualitative researcher myself, I need no convincing of the limitations of statistics: my day job is all about filling in the gaps in statistics, the things tables can’t tell you. But every qualitative researcher will readily admit that the colourful human stories that we write about are not the full picture. Our clients read them alongside ‘hard’ data – the numbers and big patterns – to get a full understanding of events.

So here’s one for starters from the Index of Deaths, since Bloody Sunday is about to be discussed again. The deaths, by organisation responsible, in the Troubles up until the end of 1971 (Bloody Sunday was of course in January 1972) are:

British security forces – 60
Loyalist paramilitary – 26
Not Known – 9
Republican paramilitary – 118

So Republicans did around 55 per cent of the killing up to the end of 1971; the proportion over the whole course of the Troubles (taking 1998 as the end year) is 59 per cent. The more remarkable shift as the Troubles went on was the falling proportion of deaths attributable to the security forces: 28 per cent at the end of 1971, but by the end of the Troubles, down to the 10-11 per cent figure we are all familiar with.

Figures like this should be at the heart of any account of the Troubles and its legacy. Everyone in Northern Ireland should have the rough percentage breakdown for responsibility for deaths of 10 / 30 / 60 (security forces / Loyalists / Republicans) in their heads before they say anything about the rights and wrongs of 1969-1998.

It’s  starting point of course – statistics do not give you answers, but they have to be part of the process of working them out. Otherwise, generations will continue to grow up with their history skewed by the power of iconic incidents like Bloody Sunday. It’s not that it isn’t important – it was and is – it’s just that lots of other important things also happened.

Born in Belfast, 1969.
Worked in qualitative market and social research for 16 years and was until recently a research director at a leading UK research agency. Now working freelance.
Formerly qualified and worked as a lawyer for several years in the 90s, having done a degree in Jurisprudence at Oxford University.
Married and living in the UK, with two children.

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