The British state caused about 10 per cent of deaths during Northern Ireland's sectarian Troubles and paramilitary groups were responsible for the other 90 per cent, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers said on Thursday.

Villiers praised security forces for their work, saying that while they were involved in some "truly shocking" incidents she wanted to counter "deliberate distortion" by critics who claim abuses were "rife or endemic."

"Over the period of the so-called Troubles, broadly speaking from 1968 to 1998, over 3,500 people were killed, mostly, though not all, here in Northern Ireland," she said in a speech at Ulster University in Belfast.

"Thousands more were maimed or injured," she said. "Businesses and livelihoods were destroyed, pre-existing sectarian divisions were deepened and entrenched."

Villiers praised "the remarkable dedication, professionalism and courage" of Northern Ireland's Royal Ulster Constabulary and British troops stationed in the territory, saying more than 1,000 members of the security forces had died in the violence over three decades.

She rejected a "pernicious counter narrative" that seeks to "place the state at the heart of nearly every atrocity and murder that took place," but admitted there were "instances where members of the police and armed services fell below the high standards we expect of them."

"Sadly, we know that there are some truly shocking instances where they fell drastically short of those standards," Villiers said.

"But to suggest that misconduct by the police and our armed forces was somehow rife or endemic is, in the view of this government, a deliberate distortion and a narrative of the Troubles that is not justified by the facts.

"Of all the deaths that occurred during the Troubles, 60 per cent were caused by republican groupings, 30 per cent by loyalists, and 10 per cent by the state," she said.

Republican party Sinn Fein criticized Villiers' speech and said British secrecy over security forces' activities during the Troubles was "stopping progress on dealing with the past."

"The fact is that the British state has tried to absolve and distance the actions of its forces and agents from having any responsibility for the conflict, and the suffering experienced by all sides," Declan Kearney, Sinn Fein's national chairperson, said in a statement.

Kearney accused the government of using a "national security pretext" in an attempt to prevent information disclosure focussing on the role of "the most senior levels of British state decision making" during the Troubles.

"Lifting a block on information about the actions of state forces and agents over 40, 30 or 20 years ago poses no threat to British national security by any definition," he said.

Northern Ireland was riven by sectarian conflict for 38 years, in which Catholic nationalists, or republicans, sought a united Ireland and Protestant Unionists, or loyalists, sought to remain in the United Kingdom.

The number of reported attacks declined after the Troubles were brought to a close in 2007 through a peace process that led to power sharing in the territory.

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