Belfast Telegraph

Child abusers whose deeds are shielded by a cloak of fear

By Liam Kennedy

Attacks on children intensified following the paramilitary ceasefires of 1994.

Even the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 did not mark a turning point in orange-on-orange or green-on-green violence.

The loyalist and republican legacies lived on.

Many of those under threat were children; others were children of adults under threat. Sometimes, as we have seen, the attacks on children were by arrangement, rather like a dental appointment or a job interview, with an already-stretched National Health Service obliged to pick up the pieces.

Exiling also achieved fresh popularity during the later 1990s.

In the late 20th century Northern Ireland was home to waves of organised and violent child abuse of a kind that had no exact precedents in the history of the Irish or British states.

The closest parallels may be abuses within the Magdalene asylums, mother and child homes, reformatories and clergy-controlled schools. Even in these institutions there was no general policy of organised and systematic physical abuse of children. Among those "punished" by the paramilitaries, in extreme cases the consequences could be lethal: some died from the injuries they received, others were driven over the edge into suicide.

It is easy to see how the 'punishment' system generated its own automatic cover-up. Every victim understood that speaking to the media or the authorities more generally could result in further attacks on them or their loved ones.

Virtually without exception, every victim of a paramilitary 'punishment' I have spoken to is unwilling to speak in public.

Being silenced is part of the 'punishment'.

Had a rogue gang of policemen cornered and overpowered a child and smashed his limbs or joints while the parents were held helplessly nearby the public would have been shocked and angered. Had this gone on, week in and week out, the international community would have been outraged. Every human rights group in the western world would have been alerted.

Not so in the demi-monde of paramilitary control in Northern Ireland.

Paramilitaries enjoyed and enforced silence and compliance, even though the signs of abuse - welts, bruising, bandaging, swellings, crutches, wheel chairs - were highly visible, but only in the neighbourhoods controlled by paramilitaries.

The silence is only beginning to be broken, and for some - already broken in spirit as well as in mind - the stories, with their manifold ramifications, are unlikely ever to see the light of day.

Liam Kennedy is a professor at Queen's University, Belfast.

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