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The only way to beat punishment squads is to lock them up

Ambivalence about their victims should not cloud our judgment, according to Malachi O'Doherty.

The most enduring legacy of the Troubles is the type of violence that was most prevalent and most lightly tolerated. Queen's academic Liam Kennedy, who has researched this more than anyone, has estimated that 10,000 people have been subjected to punishment shootings - and the practice continues.

This far exceeds the numbers of soldiers, police officers and paramilitaries who were shot dead.

It is about three times the number of people who were murdered. The only statistic likely to dwarf it is the number of injured in bomb explosions, ricochets and accidents like premature detonations.

So, it doesn't take a mathematical genius to see that shooting their neighbours in the legs is - and has always been - the primary preoccupation of paramilitary groups.

That doesn't fit well with their self-defined purposes of working for a united Ireland, or defending the Union with Britain, but, as your granny probably told you, people are to be judged by their actions, not their words.

So, by that test, what do paramilitaries do? And what to they want?

Answer: they shoot young men in the legs and they want power in their communities.

The effect of their being armed and eager to shoot people has several effects. Since we know what these are - and they have not changed down the years - we can presume that they are the effects which the paramilitaries seek, or at least find acceptable as a price for what they want.

Those effects are the terrorising of young men who come to their attention. Usually, these young men will be viewed in their neighbourhoods as problematic, badly behaved, criminal.

But shooting these young men does not reduce crime.

Paramilitaries have argued that they were needed for this kind of work, because of a policing vacuum.

Yet, they were often shooting men within days of their release from prison, or a young offenders' centre. They were often selecting targets from among people who had already been processed by the courts.

The problem was not that the police weren't catching the hoods, but that the punishment was not as severe as many victims wanted. And that is common.

But shooting a man does not make him a better person. It does, however, damage the targets much more than causing them physical injury. It unhinges them mentally, makes them fearful and depressed. It often makes them reckless and self-destructive.

The terrorising of anti-social young men also provokes them. In the past, the paramilitaries spoke of their "war on the hoods". That is, they understood that an exchange was underway.

When, some years ago, I did my own research among the hoods in Twinbrook, they boasted of how they taunted IRA men, in one case pulling the front door off an IRA man's house by putting an improvised grapple through his letter-box and tying the other end to the back of a car and driving off at speed.

Both loyalists and republicans always wanted to engage the criminal elements in their neighbourhoods - and still do. Another effect of this is to implicate the people the paramilitaries live among.

It is all very well for some journalist like me to moralise about kneecapping, but if it was my car that was stolen, my child who was coaxed into taking drugs, I would feel very differently.

I might well, critics say, want more direct action against hoodlums than the police are going to give me.

And I might go to the local hard man. It used to be that the place you went to in west Belfast was Connolly House, but Sinn Fein doesn't provide that service anymore.

And I might meet a perfectly reasonable and understanding chap who will understand my grievance; promise me some action.

Then, when I read that the person I named as an offender has been shot in both legs and is now in hospital, how do I feel?

Well, I'm not going to tell the police, am I? I am as guilty as the one who pulled the trigger. And, as I'll rationalise, the guy had it coming to him.

And, very likely, a few weeks later, there is a knock on the door from that nice man who said he'd get something done and he is asking me to mind a parcel in my shed and not to worry my wee head about what might be in it.

So, paramilitary punishment draws ordinary decent people into the orbit of the paramilitaries, requires them to be silent and protective of them.

Another effect of the paramilitary attacks is that thugs get practice with guns.

All paramilitaries had more gunmen doing this kind of work than any other.

Yes, there were murders and there were a few hard men who could even shoot a woman in the head, or run up behind a couple of armed police officers and kill them and get away.

But the ordinary grunts of all those movements spent more time shooting their neighbours than anyone else. And still do.

Perhaps the movements think this is one way to train them up. More likely, since they do so little else, they involve their members in these shootings to keep them occupied.

This has another effect of the punishment shooting regime; it preserves the existence of the paramilitary organisations themselves.

Left with nothing to do but attack the police, they would wither away through inactivity for they are ineffective against the state.

I remember being part of a radio programme with a senior probation officer who argued that the IRA really did not want to be fighting the hoods, because it had its own war against "the Brits" and wanted to be getting on with it.

I argued that he had completely misunderstood what punishment shooting was for; that it was not a digression from their war, but was actually what they put most effort into.

And the dissident groups and the successive generations of loyalists have similarly discovered that this is what paramilitaries do if they want to thrive. And they take to it with enthusiasm.

So, what are communities to do if they are to get rid of the thugs with guns, the bullies and gangsters who dress themselves up in the pretence of political purpose, who kid themselves that they are needed?

The best start is to understand that, if all other anti-social behaviour stopped, these people would still find neighbours to shoot and reasons to shoot them.

Then, instead of politicians from those areas bleating about how the gunmen should "go away", or "explain themselves" to the community, they might say that the best possible outcome would be that the police would catch them, disarm them and lock them up.

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