Opportunity may arise to take on gun-wielding thugs in Northern Ieland
I haven't met anyone who welcomes the prospect of an Assembly election, still less one that is likely to be 'brutal'.
As voters, we did the biz less than a year ago. The signs are that this empty election campaign will simply entrench deeply-held prejudices within the nationalist and unionist communities.
Yet there is one issue that could confer some meaning on what will otherwise be a predictable and largely destructive season of hot-air ballooning.
Before coming to that, I want to recall two conversations from the last week. On the Monday I spoke to a man who has become a friend in the last year or so.
He was attacked by a paramilitary gang in January of last year.
Armed and hooded, in boiler suits (fashionable in some circles), the members of the gang were in the business of extortion for the 'cause'.
Mark (not his real name) told me that he was suffering flashbacks and nightmares. He was depressed.
In one sense I was surprised. I had met him just before Christmas and he was in good form.
Only later did I realise that this was the first anniversary of the beating he had received almost exactly a year earlier. The likelihood is these memories of the terrifying assault will be triggered from time to time, possibly for the rest of his life.
On Tuesday, I was with colleagues from Children of the Troubles, a human rights group that campaigns against paramilitary terror.
We were meeting with three senior officers from the PSNI. All three deal regularly with so-called paramilitary 'punishment' beatings and shootings. The three women officers were passionate in their concern for victims, committed to investigating cases where prosecutions might prove possible, but the conclusion was bleak.
The probability of a successful prosecution is slight. We knew this, of course. The barriers are formidable. The perpetrators are sometimes known but most victims won't talk to the police. Neither will a parent, family member or friend sign a witness statement, even if they have some relevant information. Why would they? It would be worse next time, when the men in hoods came back.
There have been well in excess of 6,000 recorded cases of paramilitary-style attacks on civilians, including children, since the start of the Troubles. In research I hope to publish later this year, I estimate the true extent to be more than 10,000.
In the context of a small society, this is an appalling catalogue of abuse, mutilation and torture.
In virtually all cases these were instances of green-on-green and orange-on-orange violence, perpetrated by the 'defenders of the community'.
Last week, in what I think is unique among the 10,000 or so attacks, three armed men invaded the privacy of a house in the Turf Lodge area of west Belfast, and shot in the legs a middle-aged couple, Marie and Peter Dorian. If it proves to be the case that the couple were shielding their son, then they are heroes of the struggle against paramilitary child abusers. Less than a month ago, as a pre-Christmas gift from paramilitary-land, a sixteen-year-old Belfast boy was shot for alleged anti-social behaviour. What of his future prospects in terms of education and training - now badly disrupted - or of future employment, not to mention the physical and emotional scars he will carry?
Here's a question to occupy the intelligence of the lords of vigilante justice. Might not the terrorisation and mutilation of a defenceless child - pumping bullets at close range into his limbs - be a form of 'anti-social behaviour'? It will be interesting to see how many political parties give priority to tackling paramilitarism in their manifestos.
It is astonishing how long we have been sleepwalking in the company of some of the most bizarre personalities and sadistic individuals in our midst. It is astonishing that we accept as almost normal that young men should turn up for shooting by appointment down an alleyway or on a piece of waste ground.
It is astonishing that we forget so easily the long-term depression, alcohol or drug abuse that afflicts victims of the 'punishment' culture.
Nowhere else in Western Europe would this be tolerated.
Moreover, this damages Northern Ireland's reputation as a 'cool' place to visit and one in which multinational companies might safely invest. Outsiders are unlikely to find attractive a society in which Islamist-style practices of 'punishment' are prevalent. The stakes are high, for all of us.
Children of the Troubles is proposing two courses of action.
The first is that all political parties make fighting paramilitarism a priority, during the election and, more importantly, when the next government is formed.
We know the 'cash-for ash' scandal is a grave one; it will be sorted out; no one died (and self-incineration seems unlikely). Gun law, which is what we have in many disadvantaged neighbourhoods, is a far more insidious threat to our way of life.
The second is that Belfast City Council, as the largest and most prestigious council, appoint two community workers to lead the fight against paramilitarism at local level.
Later on, other councils such as Derry might follow suit. This is so vital, it needs elaboration.
From the GAA to the Orange Order, the unpalatable fact is that there is a degree of 'community' support for vigilante-style attacks in some local communities, particularly in disadvantaged areas. In view of the problems facing police in securing convictions, changing those values and attitudes is the long-term solution. That means many people in public life and many agencies have a role. The policing role is a distinctive one, but is only part of the picture.
Those with responsibility, it seems to me, include local politicians and political activists, community workers, women's groups, schools, media, voluntary organisations such as the GAA, the Orange Order and (maybe) community restorative justice schemes, human rights organisations, probation services, the Children's Commission, clergymen and clergywomen, youth workers and indeed any individuals and groups with roles in the local community. Let's face it, paramilitarism is a deeply-ingrained community and societal problem, as are racism, sectarianism, child abuse, and violence against women. If we have funds for traffic wardens, noise-abatement officers, and a host of other useful officials, then surely we have funds to educate and help mobilise civic organisations to fight murder and mutilation in one of Europe's finest cities.
My own proposal is that we have a lyric-writing competition that celebrates the heroic exploits of hooded men, who against fearsome odds, cleanse our society of undesirables.
It could be an annual event, provisionally titled the 'Kneecappers Ball'. The winning entry could be set to the tune of 'Bring in the Clowns'.
Perhaps Tim McGarry and the Hole in the Wall Gang would do the honours. As for dress for the grand gala night, formal wear should be optional, but boilersuits preferred. Hoods obligatory of course, but iron bars and cudgels might be left at reception.
If the coming election is to be known for anything other than sour jibes, it must be given a meaning that transcends communal rivalries.
That should be a convergence of political thinking that gives priority to challenging gun law, and its residues, in working-class communities.
This could be the defining moment when Northern Ireland faces up to the unacceptable face of vigilante 'justice' and its related activities.
It would also answer the heart-felt plea of Kate Carroll, the widow of the first PSNI officer to be murdered in the line of duty. As she told the Belfast Telegraph, she wanted fulfilled her husband's 'dream of a better Northern Ireland.' Amen to that.
- Liam Kennedy is a Professor of History at Queen's University and author of the report They Shoot Children, Don't They. He is a founder member of the cross-community group, Children of the Troubles