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No civilised society would put up with ongoing savagery of 'punishment shootings'

Seana McGibbon's dad Michael was left to bleed to death in an alleyway after a so-called 'punishment' shooting. Yet last weekend barely a dozen people turned up to a rally protesting against the attacks. Why do we persist in looking the other way, asks Fionola Meredith.

By Fionala Meredith

Published 09/06/2016

The protest rally held at Belfast City Hall against paramilitary punishment attacks
The protest rally held at Belfast City Hall against paramilitary punishment attacks
Michael McGibbon

People are getting shot and beaten every week in Northern Ireland. And we're all absolutely fine with that. Did I mention that many of the victims of this special form of paramilitary violence, the so-called "punishment attack", are children?

Not to worry. It's been going on for decades and we've got used to it, you might say. Out of sight, out of mind and all that.

The reality that people are regularly getting tortured by thugs - posing, laughably, as protectors in their own communities - doesn't fit so easily into the narrative of peace, so we prefer to look away.

We don't like to think about the stifled screams, the severed arteries, the crushed limbs, the blood. The psychological trauma that echoes down the years.

Maybe we'll shake our heads when a "punishment" attack "goes wrong" - as if it could ever go right - and someone is actually killed because they have bled to death. Even then, the names quickly fade.

"An acceptable level of violence": that old phrase, coined by Reginald Maudling, then British Home Secretary, in 1971, seems curiously apposite in the post-conflict Northern Ireland of 2016.

It referred to the level of paramilitary activity that the authorities were prepared to put up with. As long as the bloodletting was kept within manageable proportions, that was considered tolerable.

There were 58 casualties as a result of paramilitary-style assaults in 2015/16 - the same number as in 2014/15 and 10 more than the 48 recorded 10 years ago. Is this tolerable? Is this within the bounds of acceptability?

Professor Liam Kennedy of Queen's University has carried out extensive research into this foul local phenomenon. He has described Northern Ireland as "a blackspot for the abuse of children" that has "no parallel elsewhere in Western Europe".

Since 1990 more than 500 children have been shot, beaten and maimed by paramilitary groups, while hundreds more have been driven from their homes under threat of violence.

In his 2014 report - They Shoot Children, Don't They? - Prof Kennedy says that he was told by a consultant surgeon at the Royal that the youngest victim he had treated was 14 years old.

Adults shooting children - there must be something in those words that can raise us from our moral torpor?

"It is not sufficiently appreciated that attacks on children actually intensified after the paramilitary ceasefires of 1994 and continued at high levels for a number of years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement," said Prof Kennedy. "This means the victims and the perpetrators are very much in our midst."

Sometimes the after-effects are terminal. In 2004 the INLA abducted a 17-year-old boy from Ardoyne from his bedroom, bound him with electric cable, beat him about the head and threw him down a manhole. The boy was accused of joyriding, which his family denied.

He eventually managed to chew his way through the cable and after seven hours emerged covered in blood. He never recovered from the "punishment" and was tormented with feelings of anxiety and paranoia. He killed himself a year later.

It's easy for many of us to ignore the attacks, because they tend to happen to young men in working-class areas. If teenagers from Holywood or Stranmillis are accused of anti-social behaviour, they don't tend to get hauled off the street, pushed up against a tree and shot through the legs. Malone Road mothers don't routinely make appointments for their son's "crimes" to be summarily addressed by baseball-bat-wielding men because they fear the consequences will be even worse for their child if they don't.

What if the disruptive behaviour of the indulged young people in the Holylands area of south Belfast, when they trash the streets and create mayhem for residents, was dealt with in this way? Would we be willing to tolerate that? Of course not.

So, why do we continue to avert our gaze when it happens on the other side of the city, or the other side of the country?

Our silence on the fate of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children in this society suggests that we simply don't care enough.

Even when they are not the direct victim of punishment attacks, children are suffering the most grievous loss.

Seana McGibbon was only 17 when her dad Michael  was shot in Ardoyne in April. The 33-year-old taxi driver bled to death in the arms of his wife Joanne yards from his own front door. He had been summoned to a meeting in an alleyway after he allegedly said something to offend the daughter of a republican paramilitary.

Responding to a new report on the disbandment of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland, Seana called BBC's The Nolan Show yesterday, asking those with information on the murder to speak out.

"I just want to express my anger towards how people are dealing with the criminals who did it," she said. "I think that it's so unfair that they are able to get away with it and because they are a law unto themselves, nothing will be placed unto them. We're having to suffer for their actions. They're doing it to their own people and it's not fair.

"My dad was ordered to go down to an alleyway and meet murderers from paramilitary groups. They gave him no reason why. He went to protect us, not to get murdered. He wanted to protect his family and show that he was innocent."

Joanne has also spoken bravely about the need for communities to unite against those who appoint themselves judge, jury and executioner.

But at a rally against punishment attacks, held in Belfast city centre last weekend, only a handful of people turned up.

And so the beatings and shootings go on and the rest of us pretend it isn't happening. Too fearful, too complacent, too brutalised to care.

Let's not fool ourselves that we live in anything like a normal, civilised society.

While this casual butchery continues, we all carry the shame.

Belfast Telegraph

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