Belfast Telegraph

Three ways to tackle this scourge of 'justice' meted out by thugs

By Liam Kennedy

'I just can't believe what you are saying. Are you really sure?'

These were the sceptical words of an American TV producer some years ago.

She was interviewing me about the history of the Troubles. I had mentioned that an important dimension to the Troubles was the use of extreme violence by loyalist and republican paramilitaries against young people within their own communities.

I was speaking of green-on-green and orange-on-orange violence. Might these be occasional cases, she wondered, where perhaps rogue Provo or UDA 'soldiers' went on the rampage, as sometimes happens during warfare?

On the contrary, I retorted, we are speaking of organised attempts to control working-class communities, to exclude the police and to administer 'people's justice' in these areas.

When I added there had been thousands of such attacks, I don't think she really believed me.

Fortunately I didn't mention that some of the younger victims turned up for shooting by appointment, as if attending a clinic. That would have strained credulity to breaking point.

The fact is it is impossible for visitors from outside Northern Ireland to believe that human rights abuses of such enormity take place in the land of friendly voices, sunshine, showers, music and craic.

It is almost inconceivable that palaces of justice should consist of dark alleyways, pieces of waste ground, and the environs of GAA clubs and leisure centres.

Instruments of justice that included high-velocity weapons, shotguns, hurley sticks, nail-studded baseball bats and sledgehammers defy the civilised imagination.

The methods might be a bit crude, as Gerry Adams once conceded, but for three decades Sinn Fein facilitated the shooting and mutilation of fellow nationalists.

Loyalist paramilitaries strung together equally implausible rationalisations for their resort to vigilante methods: the police force was unacceptable or too slow to respond, the courts were too lenient, the 'community' cried out for vengeance.

In fairness, Sinn Fein and former loyalist spokespersons now admit that these methods were counter-productive in terms of controlling anti-social behaviour in working-class areas.

But new generations of paramilitaries have learned little from their illustrious progenitors. Like some virulent disease, the balaclava has been passed on. The wider political community may speak of child abuse, as of yesterday's three-bullet 'punishment' victim in west Belfast, or of control of communities through fear and violence.

But after four decades of de-civilising violence, in which Islamist-style justice became normalised, is it any wonder that in disadvantaged communities there are still some recruits into the ranks of the paramilitaries and some residual support for instant vengeance?

What can be done? Here are three suggestions. As the chances of intercepting the perpetrators are slight, there might be greater reliance on intelligence-led police operations to crack down on the directors of these forms of terrorism.

The law might be amended to take 'out-of-control' youths into protective custody for their own safety.

Finally, north and west Belfast are notorious black spots for human rights abuses.

So, Belfast City Council might take the lead in appointing two educational outreach workers to co-ordinate the efforts of voluntary and statutory agencies in combating populist attitudes to crime and punishment.

Liam Kennedy is a professor of history at Queen's University, Belfast and a founder-member of Children of the Troubles.

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