Book review — Refugees and Forced Displacement in Northern Ireland’s Troubles (Niall GILMARTIN and Brendan Ciarán BROWNE)

Among the imagery associated with the Troubles, occasionally you see one of a van or car overladen with house furniture and hastily assembled parcels of clothing and personal possessions. These people were given enough time to bring some things with them as they were either forced out or no longer felt safe remaining in their homes.

These incidents usually get a brief mention in the analysis of the 30-year violent conflict in Northern Ireland, yet in a tone of an unfortunate consequence of once mixed neighbourhoods becoming binary political geography. At least most of such victims escaped with their lives; their stories were not going to capture the attention away from the deaths and physical injuries being endured.

Yet whole areas were transformed, permanently. It is worth examining the dynamics of this process, which is what Niall Gilmartin and Brendan Ciarán Browne have done comprehensively with their book, Refugees and Forced Displacement in Northern Ireland’s Troubles: Untold Journeys. One of the authors’ aims is “to broaden the spectrum of what is considered conflict-related violence and harm”.

Gilmartin and Browne introduce this subject with a fair account of the political and social environment at the onset of the Troubles, pointing out that displacement happened on both sides of the conflict, in both urban and rural areas, and through “push and pull factors”:

“In contrast to the intensity associated with mass house burnings and evacuations, much of the direct forms of anticipatory intimidation were akin to a slow grind — months and sometimes years of smaller incidents that culminated in a decision by families to leave their homes for fears of safety…”

In other words, intimidation to leave can be direct and/or indirect. And migration can be voluntary (e.g. to seek a better life) or involuntary (e.g. to save your life).

The authors complement their sound theoretical framework with a rich variety of testimony of first-hand accounts of those who left their homes. (Indeed, they point to a transgenerational phenomenon whereby offspring not born in the original neighbourhood carry a sense of loss of “home”.) One gains an appreciation of the decisions of some Catholics to relocate to southern Ireland, while some Protestants evacuated to Liverpool and Glasgow. Why some Protestants felt an acute sense of fear living along the border with Ireland, with IRA attacks. Why some Catholics squatted into new housing estates, to establish a physical presence. Why some forced to flee deliberately destroyed their homes, so as to render them obsolete and inhabitable for members of the “other” community.

The authors make constructive policy suggestions; too often academic research produces a call for more research without indicating practical outworking of their work. For Gilmartin and Browne, a proposed Belfast History Museum [or Belfast Stories?] offers a further avenue for capturing and presenting stories of displacement “in a way that ensures they no longer remain hidden from the public eye”:

“Capturing displacement stories in dedicated oral history archives will also shine a light on the fact that, before the outbreak of conflict in the late 1960s, many spaces across Northern Ireland were, in fact, shared, mixed areas. This is a powerful message of hope when it comes to challenging those who see segregation and sectarian division as the norm.”

More specifically, Gilmartin and Browne point out that a key institution of the Stormont House Agreement that is often overlooked is the proposal for an Oral History Archive, which could provide an important platform for personal storytelling and public acknowledgement.

As the authors conclude, this acknowledgement carries forward to the present, citing statistics from the Department for Communities (DfC), showing that from April 2015 to October 2018, there were 1,488 cases of homelessness due to intimidation by paramilitaries. Further data from DfC show an up-to-date figure of 2,581 such cases:

Reason Intimidation Intimidation: Anti-Social Behaviour Intimidation: Paramilitary Intimidation: Racial, Sectarian, Sexual Orientation or Disability Total
Apr. 2015–Sep. 2018
2,028 1,488(a) 46,494
Oct. 2018–Mar. 2019 481 60 377 44 18,202
Apr. 2019–Mar. 2020 335 51 246 38 16,802
Apr. 2020–Mar. 2021 286 27 236 23 15,991
Apr. 2021– Mar. 2022 180 142 15,758
Apr.–Jun. 39 31 4,111
Jul.–Sep. 38 27 4,067
Oct.–Dec. 42 7 34 3,411
Total 3,418 =>145 2,581 =>112 124,836

Sources: Northern Ireland Housing Bulletin October – December 2020 (Table 2.1  Households Presenting As Homeless By Reason); Northern Ireland Housing Bulletin October – December 2022 (Table 2.1 Households Presenting As Homeless By Reason); (a) Refugees and Forced Displacement in Northern Ireland’s Troubles, p. 185.

The issue of forced displacement is not only a matter of redressing through this thoroughly researched and well-presented publication, but with concrete public policies — those already agreed such as the Oral History Archive as well as addressing the scourge of paramilitarism.

Article originally published on 20/2/2023; updated figures published on 23/2/2023.

Cross-published at Mr Ulster.

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