Why should we believe those dishing out vigilante justice?
A list of suspected drug dealers circulating in Belfast has echoes of darker days, says Henry McDonald
They were meant to be filmed in silhouette behind the backdrop of a pulled down window blind in the upstairs of a Belfast city centre business. There would be at least four of them possibly five. And they would talk about how they had just been told their names were on a death list.
It was the late summer of 1995, the IRA ceasefire was a year old and I was working as Security Correspondent for BBC Northern Ireland.
However, the filming never took place and these haunted and hunted men's stories were never told on camera.
The reason why a news executive decided not to allow the interviews to go ahead was because each of the men under threat admitted they were drug dealers or users. We could not, I was informed, carry the testimonies of men admitting to criminality.
The contact between myself and the marked men is someone who still enables people under paramilitary threat to escape Northern Ireland and find exile elsewhere. A reliable source, he later revealed that at least two of the men whom I was to base this report on were shot dead in the Provisional IRA's murder campaign directed against drug dealers, under the false flag of Direct Actions Against Drugs (DAAD).
In fact, one of the men under the death sentence actually told me off camera about the DAAD flag of convenience that would be adopted to create the impression that the ceasefire had not been breached.
It was a scoop that never was because while one crime (no matter how heinous) was deemed political and therefore its perpetrator worth hearing, the petty criminals who lined up to talk would be given no voice.
Fast forward to 2012 and DAAD is resurrected once more and this time given the name Republican Action Against Drugs. Dozens are shot, beaten and threatened in Derry while across the border in Donegal, Andrew Allen is murdered.
The vigilante tactic of building support by being seen to be dealing ruthlessly and rapidly with criminals in the community had been adopted from the Provisionals and remade by some of its ex-members alongside republican dissidents.
So, on hearing about an alleged new list of 52 suspected drug dealers circulating around homes in west Belfast I am inclined to take this as a serious threat to those who are named.
There may be no named paramilitary organisation on the printed copies of the list but as recent history shows they are the only groups willing and capable of taking their name and shame operation one step further
Paul Maskey, the very able and hard-working Sinn Fein MP for West Belfast, quite rightly denounces those behind the list. But as he knows only too well there will be some sneaking regard for any individuals or groups who are perceived to be taking on the drug dealers, particularly in his own constituency.
There is a perception (it might be more apparent than real) that ordinary criminality and lawlessness has increased since the ceasefires in certain communities. Of course all the evidence proves that the rough justice of paramilitarism did not curb criminality. Rather it pushed it out to other areas and in general the sub-cult of paramilitary crime arguably encouraged general lawless behaviour especially amongst young men growing up in the worst years of violence.
What should also never be forgotten is that the instant "Nescafe justice" meted out by masked men with baseball bats and guns was often random and sometimes based on personal vendettas.
Think of the numerous examples during the Troubles of men shot first and then branded criminals later whose only real "crime" was to win a fist fight with a known republican or loyalist.
It is reported that young people are taking to Facebook and Twitter to protest against this latest witch-hunt being whipped up in west Belfast with some complaining that there are many "innocent" people being marked out.
Chinese whispers, malevolent inaccuracy and vengeful gossip have all played their part in the history of that oxymoron "community justice".
Before cheerleading yet another "crusade" against alleged drug dealers perhaps the supporters of vigilanteism should recall the wisdom of the 9th Commandment: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour."