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Looking the other way won't end curse of vigilante 'justice'

By Malachi O'Doherty

Published 18/09/2015

Visitors to Belfast will have found it bizarre, if listening in to the BBC, to hear that a road is closed while the police investigate a shooting.

The rest of us will have let it pass as a matter of no great importance, for there are shootings every week. We call them punishment shootings, or paramilitary-style shootings.

Usually, someone is shot in the legs. The news reports that the injuries are not life-threatening, and some of us indulge the passing thought that the victim had probably had it coming, before we turn our attention elsewhere.

The Troubles are over, aren't they? Yet we know virtually nothing about who these people are who are being shot or who is shooting them. We can fit them into the pattern of vigilante shootings that punctuated the Troubles, and punctured the legs of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young men.

What we should have learned by now is that all of our paramilitary organisations do more of this kind of thing than anything else, and we should be asking why.

We have heard their past excuses about the policing vacuum or the response to popular demand or the intimidation of a community. But the simple fact is that people who joined militias to fight for Irish freedom or to defend the Union or protect their areas all eventually found themselves shooting their own neighbours and doing more of that than anything else.

Even during the eighties and nineties, more bullets were expended by loyalists and republicans into the legs of young men judged by them to be anti-social than into those they publicly claimed were the real enemy, whether the British war machine or the IRA. So what's it all about?

I think paramilitaries shoot their neighbours because they are easy targets.

They shoot them to remind everybody that they exist and are to be feared.

They target the anti-social because they have to target somebody, and they have been so infiltrated that their more ambitious efforts to kill police officers usually fail.

And they do it because they have to give their members something to do. If you join a paramilitary organisation and expect to be shooting people, then you are going to get bored and leave if you are not issued with a gun and a target.

And you would probably prefer, if you were honest about it, to be shooting young unarmed civilians, or hoods to taking your chances against the police or driving a bomb into town.

Reporting of this and analysis of it is scant. We can be sure that the police know a lot more than they tell us about who is doing the shooting because they can trace the lineage of the weapons used through forensic tests.

One possible argument for the return of monitoring and reporting of paramilitary activity is that all this would so easily be clarified for us.

If we actually cared enough to want that information.

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