Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

'Punishment' attacks: brand of justice which has no place in society

It's time the chief constable and Secretary of State called them for what they are: torture

Punishment-style shooting
Punishment-style shooting

Someone, somewhere in Coleraine over the last few days helped loyalist paramilitaries pinpoint the exact whereabouts of a 15-year-old boy whom they subsequently shot in both legs.

Some people on the Kilcooley estate in Bangor went to the local hardmen in the UVF/Red Hand Commando, naming the names of those they accused of anti-social activities.

And many turned a blind eye when a woman was forced from her home after it came under attack in Ardoyne and the organisation Oghlaigh na hEireann issued a warning that she was to be expelled from the district.

The violent events over the weekend – from the North West to the north Down so-called 'Gold Coast' – underline a brutal social fact about life in working class areas of Northern Ireland: there are plenty of people in these communities that collude with alternative, instant and summary paramilitary "justice".

This is a line paramilitaries of all hues often trotted out when challenged about these human rights abuses.

They would refer to being constantly petitioned (one of them once used the term "tortured" without irony) by the "wee old woman down the street" to do something about the young thugs terrorising her, or the local concerned parents complaining about the presence of drug dealers in their area and the threat they posed.

Authentic justice, however, is not and should not be predicated on a popularity contest, or the will (or, indeed, tyranny) of the majority.

For a start, the type of "law-enforcement" the likes of the UVF mete out originates in whispering games, rumours, malicious innuendo and witch-trial like hysteria. Think of Andrew Kearney, who lost his life in such an attack for the "crime" of winning a fist fight with a north Belfast IRA commander.

What the "consumers" who avail of this instant form of social revenge tend to forget is that there is also no guarantee that either they, or one of their loved ones, would avoid such arbitrary punishment in the future.

I have lost count, down through the years of the conflict, of those I knew who used to cheerlead the kneecappers and the baseball bat bone crunchers who eventually experienced the same sort of "justice" – either personally, or when their relatives fell out with "the boys", too.

In the paramilitary dominated "judiciary", no-one is, ultimately, safe from the whims and the prejudices of the local commander.

In the meantime, the excuses – the "it's a tough job but someone has to do it" line – often mask the real rationale behind maintaining an in-house reign of terror on your community. From the loyalist side, it appears clear than many attacks involve clearing out non-connected rivals in the drug trade and other aspects of criminality.

On the republican dissident side, "alternative justice" is a means of building support, such as RAAD did to some extent in Derry over the last few years.

In terms of the latter groups, it also allows them to compete with the PSNI and, in turn, Sinn Fein for hearts and minds in a more overt political battle in nationalist areas.

In terms of human rights, one of the most important developments in the latter phase of the Troubles was Amnesty International's decision, in the early-1990s, to monitor abuses carried out by non-state armed groups. This move put a new global human rights focus on the paramilitary organisations, as well as the state, for the first time in Northern Ireland.

It is a well-known fact that, if a policeman, or soldier, doled out rough treatment to a paramilitary suspect, his, or her, political allies would be calling on Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups to investigate such state abuses.

Of late, Amnesty and others have again (quite correctly) been calling for a proper mechanism to investigate the crimes of the Troubles. Yet, at present, from republican Ardoyne to loyalist redoubts in east Belfast, Bangor and Coleraine, there are ongoing human rights abuses taking place almost every week, in the time of relative peace and political power-sharing.

It is imperative that organisations with good reputations, like Amnesty, speak out in a forthright manner and denounce this low-level terror for what it is – summary injustice and torture.

They might also want to remind those, particularly on the loyalist side, who tour the world lecturing others locked in conflicts, from the Middle East to Latin America, to look back into their own backyard and clear up the human rights mess their comrades-still-in-arms are leaving at home.

But the biggest call in the current situation rests with both the chief constable, Matt Baggott, and the Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers.

The latter has to make the determination on the status of the UVF's ceasefire based on the intelligence provided by the former.

Given the Northern Ireland Office's unspoken toleration of keep-it-in-your-own-communities paramilitary violence in the post-ceasefire era – encapsulated in that notorious phrase from the late-1990s, "internal housekeeping" – you wouldn't bet your house on the ultimate power-brokers in Northern Ireland declaring that one loyalist cessation is effectively over.