The ‘Forgotten Victims’

Violent Displacement in the Northern Ireland Conflict

Dr Brendan Browne
Trinity College Dublin


The conflict in and around Northern Ireland spanned a period of 30 years (1968 – 1998) and claimed the lives of over 3,500 people across the sectarian divide. The impact of the conflict was far reaching with some suggesting that almost 1 in 3 people were affected indirectly. Since the onset of a peace process, one that remains unfinished, issues pertaining to the legacy of the conflict and how best to address the needs of victims and survivors, have dominated academic and practitioner discourse. Despite much by way of blue sky thinking, there has been an inability to implement a programme that addresses the diverse needs of those who were impacted. Within the myriad options for dealing with the past there is little to no mention of those who were violently displaced as a result of the onset of the conflict itself. In fact, the issue is almost completely absent from scholarly analysis of the ‘troubles’. This is particularly surprising when one considers that somewhere in the region of 65,000 people were forced to leave their homes as a direct result of violence or intimidation; at the time considered the largest movement of people in Europe since the Second World War. This project, ongoing since 2016, seeks to recover the narratives of these forgotten victims who were displaced, giving them a platform in the debates around dealing with Northern Ireland’s past. It is a direct response to existing academic projects that overlook this aspect of victimhood in favour of more procedural based, fiscal responses to conflict transformation. Through a mix of creative methodologies (including semi-structured interviews, artistic representations of displacement, and documentary film) the research engages with both those who were victims and those who were victim makers, when it comes to better understanding the longterm impact of violent displacement.

The Research Idea

Debates surrounding how best to deal with the legacy of violence in and around Northern Ireland continue to find prominence within scholarly discourse. A cursory glance at research projects across a number of departments in both the north and south of Ireland reveals that major research bodies find the issue eminently fundable. Projects vary from analysing truth recovery options, to problematising compensation for victims, survivors and/or perpetrators. Yet glaringly absent from the work that has been advanced to date is an examination of the longterm impact of violent displacement and forcible transfer on civilians during the conflict. Little to no scholarly analysis has been conducted on the issue which can lead to unhelpful conclusions that such experiences are less valid than others. The fact remains that, anywhere between 45,000 – 65,000 people left their homes during the early years of the conflict, considered at the time to be the largest movement of civilians in Europe since the Second World War. The experience of being violently displaced/forcibly transferred has had for some, a longterm and deleterious impact on their lifetime trajectory. Family disintegration, substance reliance, residual PTSD, lost labour opportunities, were, for some, unforeseen consequences. Reflective of the heterogeneity of personal experience during the conflict, others managed to navigate their particular set of circumstances and continue with life relatively unscathed. This project engages with both victims and victim makers, taking them back to the places where they were displaced, do as to better understand the longterm effects of such violent encounters.


Pioneering voices in the field of dealing with the past in Northern Ireland include; Christine Bell, author of the seminal piece, ‘Dealing with the Past in Northern Ireland’ (2003), Kieran McEvoy (with HTR, 2006) has contributed generic discussion on options for dealing with the past before later publishing work on bespoke issues pertaining to legal and procedural aspects surrounding the examination of legacy issues. Shirlow (2006) has critiqued in detail the very notion of Belfast being a ‘post-conflict’ or transitional city. Others focus on specifics; Lawther (2014) on truth recovery and transition, Bryson (2016) on the issue of transitional justice and oral history, Rolston (2006) on pro-state paramilitaries and transition, Hamber (1998) on reconciliation and dealing with the past, and more recently Moffett (2016) with his narrow focus on reparations and procedural aspects of financial remuneration for victims and perpetrators. A common criticism associated with work that seeks to provide some form of redress for victims of the conflict is that it inadvertently generates a ‘hierarchy of victimhood’, whereby one wronged group is perceived as more or less worthy than another. Perhaps somewhat ironically, the silence surrounding the issue of violent displacement in academic debate on dealing with the past in Northern Ireland has to some extent fuelled the fires of this criticism. By failing to adequately consider in any meaningful detail, the real, longterm impact of displacement on victims and survivors scholars in the field, by their silence, have rendered analysis of the displacement narrative less worthy than others.

The Focus

This research represents the first serious attempt to examine and recover the real-life narratives, and longterm impact of being violently displaced during the Northern Ireland conflict (K. Side’s [2015] article on visual and narrative accounts of displacement exists as the one minor contribution to the debate). It is a timely intervention into the discourse on how best to deal with the past in that many of those who experienced at first hand this trauma are beginning to enter the later stages of life. In safeguarding these oft sidelined narratives of violent displacement we are seeking to broaden the debate beyond the traditional and expanding binary victim versus perpetrator narrative. Those who were perpetrators of forced displacement were, in some cases, also victims and as such theirs is a complex narrative. Preliminary research conducted with victims and survivors has reinforced the view that the phenomena of violent displacement cut across the sectarian divide and was, in some instances, exacerbated by policies implemented by the state. By providing a platform to share personal accounts of displacement, through the variety of creative mediums proposed, we seek to empower oft-hidden and marginalised victims and survivors of displacement to ensure their personal traumas are both represented and heard. An historical analysis of displacement opens up the possibility for a contemporary slant, especially when one considers the fact that residual conflict related issues continue to result in the displacement of vulnerable and at risk civilians (300 individuals were relocated due to intimidation in Northern Ireland [2017]).

Theoretical Novelty

Whereas much work has been dedicated to generating a widely accepted notion of victim and survivor when it comes to reflecting on those who were killed or maimed, or who lost a loved one during the Northern Ireland conflict, (for attempts at generating an accepted definition in law see – The Victims and Survivors Order [Northern Ireland] 2006), in this work we are seeking to have a more focussed assessment of one particular group, namely those who were forced to leave their homes as a result of being violently displaced. In so doing we are expanding the discourse on victimhood and victimology in Northern Ireland and further afield, to include voices of those individuals who may have experienced loss, suffering or harm, as a result of being forced out, but who perhaps find the label victim/survivor problematic or who would not have verbalised their trauma as such. Our analysis moves beyond a narrow focus of what may be considered a deserving/less deserving victim (a particular favourite among positivistic scholars who seek to apply international notions of reparatory justice to the conflict in and around Northern Ireland). Our sociological analysis of victimhood moves beyond the merely procedural and helps to reinstate the agency of victims and survivors of displacement. By imploring scholars to move towards a more generous and thus greater appreciation of the far reaching impact of the trauma of violent displacement, we are advancing the case for a more creative approach to dealing with the past in Northern Ireland.


This project uses a range of creative methodologies that transcend disciplinary boundaries; semi-structured interviews with victims & survivors, ethnographic documentary film, and visual photographic methods. The lead PI has close personal and professional relationships in the region which aids in generating access to targeted respondents. Data gathered has been analysed thematically with reference to the projects theoretical framework. Qualitative methods deriving from the ethnographic tradition have been chosen so as to ensure the requisite ‘thick description’ (Geertz, 1973) and subsequent recovery of personal accounts of conflict related displacement. We bring both victims and perpetrators back to the spaces where violent displacement took place and ask questions pertaining to the longterm impact of being forced out, gauging the views of victims and survivors in an effort to critique the ad hoc attempts that have been made thus far to deal with the past. Data gathered from a cross-section of research participants has revealed the deleterious impact that such a trauma had on, inter alia, lifetime opportunities, labour, wellbeing, education and social life. Working with a co-investigator, an award winning documentary film maker, allows for the production of a film on displacement that has the capacity to resonate with a wide cross-section of Northern Irish society. Preliminary fieldwork encounters in Belfast (23rd June – 1st July 2017) involved conducting interviews with survivors of displacement and revisiting the site of violent displacement with a victim maker, and prominent former member of the Provisional IRA. [All work complies with Trinity College Dublin’s ethical standards].

Work Plan

Given the different physical location of the two project investigators involved (Belfast, Trondheim) there is a need to ensure regular contact is retained. This has been achieved thus far through monthly progress report meetings on Skype. An agenda for each meeting incorporates time to review work that has been completed in the intervening period. Additionally, the project will set out a number of key goals and targets to be reached over the next 12 month period linked to desirable output. The first major academic output (journal article listed below) is due for submission by December 31st. Trips to locations in Northern Ireland, including the cities of Belfast and Derry, but also to areas where physical displacement of civilians led to longterm demographic shifts (in particular the towns of Downpatrick, Craigavon and Larne) are proposed. The research team will meet in Trondheim to advance and showcase the artistic and documentary film phase of the project. Finally, a series of workshops will be held at Trinity College Dublin, whereby experts involved in similar global work on displacement could be invited to contribute their time and energies to helping shape the outcomes of the project. As this is a piece of work that has the capacity to contribute to wider policy debates in Northern Ireland on how to develop a more nuanced approach to dealing with the past, we intend to host a workshop in Belfast with community organisations/local NGOs involved in such work to date (Expected outcomes elaborated in detail below).


The project has already begun to bare the fruits of its labour with an academic journal article on the issue accepted for publication in a special edition of ‘Capital & Class’. The article, entitled; ‘From 1969 to 2016: Relocating historical narratives of displacement during the “troubles” through the European migrant crisis’, seeks to stimulate wider debate on the issue of historical displacement in Northern Ireland through the lens of Ireland’s response to the Syrian migrant crisis. In addition, following on from fieldwork conducted in June/July 2017, some 7 hours of documentary film material has been gathered and is in the process of being edited and reviewed with a view to production of a short documentary film. The documentary will be one proposed output of the research project. Other platforms, similar to the QUB Prison Memory Archive ( are currently being explored. Visual representations of displacement across Northern Ireland will inform an artistic instalment under the guidance of co-PI, Casey Asprooth-Jackson and work in this regard is ongoing. Further academic written pieces that focus on specific aspects of displacement are proposed and will be sent to high ranking international journals, including; Transitional Justice and Ethnopolitics. As this is a project that seeks to widen the debate on dealing with the past in Northern Ireland we intend to make our outputs as broad and accessible as possible. Thus, we plan to engage with the leading community based NGO, ‘Healing Through Remembering’, with a view to displaying and/or curating collected imagery and narrative.