The Politics of Force: Conflict Management and State Violence in Northern Ireland - A Brief Historical Overview

Blackstaff Press Belfast (2000)

Minnesota Legal Studies Research Paper No. 12-12

87 Pages Posted: 28 Mar 2012

See all articles by Fionnuala D. Ni Aolain

Fionnuala D. Ni Aolain

University of Minnesota Law School; The Queens University of Belfast

Date Written: March 20, 2012


The substance of this book is an evaluation of history in one particular sphere, the use of lethal force by agents of the state in Northern Ireland. The book has particularly contemporary resonance in a post 9/11 world as democratic states, notably the United States has sought to legally justify the use of extra-judicial force against citizens whom are suspected of being engaged in terrorist activity. The United States is not the first country to engage in systematic practices of extra-judicial force or targeted killings, nor is it the first democracy. This book is the sole substantial study of the use of force and targeted killing by the United Kingdom during the course of the Northern Ireland conflict. In many cases the state claimed that those killed were members of paramilitary/terrorist organizations and that the force was justified under domestic criminal law norms.

The use of force — targeted and extrajudicial – was a crucial element of Northern Ireland’s political and legal landscape for many decades. Violence both by and against the state was a defining feature of Northern Ireland’s self-definition since it emerged as a distinct political entity in the early twentieth century. Understanding the shape, scope and rationale of the use of force by any state is an indispensable prerequisite to understanding the state itself. It is also crucial in order to hold the state accountable where it has inadequately or failed to protect the lives of its citizens. The use of extrajudicial force and targeted killing by agents of the state in Northern Ireland created a profound consciousness of distance from and rejection of the state within certain communities. It sharpened issues of state accountability and transparency, and held up a mirror to the state’s own rhetoric of democracy and rule of law. The use of force created national and international headlines, and became a testing point for the state’s commitment to its own domestic law and consentingly entered into international human rights treaties. A parallel narrative is emerging for the United States as it seeks to justify the use of targeted killings against its own citizens.

This book is focused on a subset of deaths arising from the United Kingdom’s conflict in Northern Ireland, namely the 351 deaths caused by agents of the state between 1969 and 1994. It is the only comprehensive analysis of extrajudicial and targeted killings as a discrete sub-category of loss of life or injury arising from the conflict as a whole in Northern Ireland. It engages both statistical and systematic analysis of the patterns discernable in the manner, distribution and agent responsibility for deaths caused by agents of the state. However, the significance of analyzing lethal force deaths is not exclusively limited to understanding the individual contexts in which citizens have lost their lives. The use of lethal force by agents of the state is argued book to significantly link to an evaluation of security policy, national security discourses and the political management of the crisis in Northern Ireland since 1969. The book assesses what that political and social impact has been on the state from a resort to such measures in the context of counter-terrorism and conflict management strategies.

The context and conclusions of the book are premised on the international obligations of the state with respect to the protection of human rights. The United Kingdom like other leading democracies has contracted freely to adhere to international standards that protect and ensure basic rights, foremost of which is the right to life. Thus, it has particular legal and moral responsibilities with respect to maintaining that right. The willingness of the United Kingdom to do so is seriously undermined by the empirical evidence presented in this analysis of lives taken by the state since 1969.

Keywords: conflict management, Northern Ireland, national security

Suggested Citation

Ni Aolain, Fionnuala D., The Politics of Force: Conflict Management and State Violence in Northern Ireland - A Brief Historical Overview (March 20, 2012). Blackstaff Press Belfast (2000), Minnesota Legal Studies Research Paper No. 12-12, Available at SSRN:

Fionnuala D. Ni Aolain (Contact Author)

University of Minnesota Law School ( email )

229 19th Ave. So.
Minneapolis, MN 55455
United States
612-624-2318 (Phone)
612-625-2011 (Fax)

The Queens University of Belfast ( email )

University Square
Belfast, County Down
Northern Ireland

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