Dissidents learn from painful lessons of the beat generation
Renegade republicans fire more bullets in 'punishment' attacks than they do against the police. But is the Real IRA only following the Provisionals' example, asks Malachi O'Doherty
The Real IRA has apparently concluded that it can increase its popular support in republican areas through punishment shootings.
In the past, the Provisional IRA, which expended more bullets into the arms and legs of young men in nationalist areas than into any other kind of target, argued that this hurt them as much as it hurt their victims.
I often had republican spokespeople explain to me, with great patience, that the IRA did not want to do this kind of thing; that the need to pursue joyriders and drug-dealers was a distraction from their war against British occupation forces.
They said that the community demanded this kind of vigilante activity of them, for want of an acceptable policing service.
And there were many who accepted that rationale; indeed, perhaps many republicans themselves accepted it.
But while dissident republicans are devoting so much energy to punishment shootings, it has to be asked if attacking those perceived as criminal delivers real political advantage after all.
In effect, the behaviour of the republican dissidents challenges us to critique the past history of the Provisional IRA and the other paramilitary organisations in a new way.
I interviewed many of the men who were kneecapped in west Belfast in the early 1990s.
I learnt how the whole republican policing system operated and how it interfaced with the institutions of the state.
In those days, Sinn Fein headquarters at Connolly House on the Andersonstown Road functioned virtually as a police station, receiving complaints against 'hoods' - the young men who plagued the housing estates by raking around them in stolen cars at all hours of the night.
These men were undoubtedly a major social problem.
I am thinking of Pip, the son of one of the men who directed the punishment shootings from Connolly House.
Pip and I sat down one day and calculated the scale of the damage he had caused. During the two years of his most active 'joyriding' he had stolen two or three cars a night. He had destroyed many of these. All the joyriders had nicknames, like Shirley and Wurzle. Pip's father assented to his kneecapping. The shooting itself was botched and he lost half of one foot.
He was given his punishment on release from Hydebank Young Offenders' Centre, which compromises the argument that the IRA had to punish these men because no one else would. I haven't met a single joyrider who hadn't already been caught by the police.
But I also met with members of the Probation Service and other community organisations who dealt directly with the IRA kneecapping squads. There were members of staff in organisations like Niacro and Base Two, whose jobs were to meet the IRA on behalf of young men under threat.
It worked like this: if you received a message from the IRA that you were going to be shot in the legs, you could approach a salaried community worker from one of these organisations to mediate with the IRA.
That person would then sit down in Connolly House with the two men responsible for administering IRA justice. He would ask the IRA to confirm the authenticity of the threat and he would be in a position to negotiate a reduction of the punishment.
For instance, the IRA might be demanding that the man they were targeting should leave Ireland. The intermediary could plead for more time to arrange accommodation for him in England. What the Provisionals had got from their vigilantism amounted to official recognition of their policing role.
And it has to be acknowledged that this integration of their vigilantism into a network of community organisations provided the basis for the system of Community Restorative Justice which evolved later.
I remember once, in a BBC studio, arguing with a very senior member of the Probation Service that the Provisional IRA was gaining major political advantage from its punishment system. And that, I argued, explained why the organisation was putting far more work into fighting the hoods than it was into fighting the British or the police.
The man thought I was barking. His view of a guerrilla organisation told him that it would want to be fighting a war directly against the state.
It didn't accommodate the possibility that republicans might usurp the state by taking over some of its responsibilities in their own areas, in spite of the fact that that is what they had always said they would try to do.
The belief that the Provisionals were filling a policing vacuum supposed that they would have entirely different motives for fighting criminals than those which drove the loyalists in their areas, where the police were accepted by the people.
The reality, as we can now understand more clearly from the behaviour of the dissidents, is that paramilitary organisations always see great benefit to themselves in fighting crime.
It is one way of distinguishing themselves from ordinary criminals. It enables them to provide a service for which people will be indebted, and it affords them the opportunity to swank their power among the people who matter most to them, those of their own community.
But now there are no community workers, clergy or probation officers providing excuses for the Real IRA and pleading for a little understanding for the plight of committed soldiers of the Republic having been dragged down into a war against petty criminals on the street.
Perhaps some of them might reflect on the rationale by which they previously explained this anomaly: that men who presented themselves to the world as revolutionaries fired more bullets into the people they claimed to represent than into those they opposed.
It is, after all, no mystery to the Real IRA. They have worked it out for themselves.