Fears over rise in Northern Ireland punishment attacks as mediation body folds
A scheme that mediates between dissident republicans in Londonderry and people under threat has folded due to lack of funding.
The Time 2 Choose project is said to have saved hundreds of people from shootings, beatings and from being forced out of the city by paramilitaries.
Tommy McCourt is manager of the Rosemount Resource Centre, where the project is based and which has lost seven project support workers.
He said that while the centre was still inundated with calls from people under threat, there was no one left to talk to dissident republicans.
He added he believed the closure could exacerbate a spike in violent attacks in the city.
There have been 15 incidents in which guns have been used on people and property in the Derry and Strabane council area this year.
In the most recent attack, on Sunday evening, a 44-year-old man was shot in the leg by masked gunmen who dragged him into a tunnel along the Madam's Bank Road.
Dissident republicans previously issued a statement saying the Rosemount Resource Centre was the only centre they would engage with.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Mr McCourt voiced his alarm at the increase in gun attacks this year.
"There is no denying the increase in activity of the paramilitaries, which we are all alarmed about," he said.
"For the last number of years, the Time 2 Choose project has been very successful in steering young people - some very young teenagers - away from the kinds of activities that brought them to the attention of the paramilitaries.
"Sadly, the funding that allowed the project to carry out that work isn't there any longer and the seven people who shared the load of mediating with the paramilitaries and providing training and counselling around options to the people under threat are not here in the centre."
Although the staff are no longer there, "the work load hasn't gone away", stressed Mr McCourt.
"We are still inundated with calls from people who are fearful for either themselves or for a member of their family and they want our help," he added.
"The paramilitaries made it clear through various statements to the media that the Rosemount Resource Centre and the Time 2 Choose project were the only projects they would engage with. That is still the case, but our ability to respond has greatly decreased.
"The problem now is we are limited in our ability to respond and I think in turn the paramilitaries have been less inclined to come forward to us because we are not at the same level of being able to respond. They have recognised that.
"The project is running on a much more limited capacity - it is run on a voluntary basis.
"We literally have one volunteer who is running around from pillar to post trying to talk to paramilitaries, trying to talk to families and to the person targeted themselves. We are getting on average four complaints a day and we are just not able to handle all of them."
The Time 2 Choose project was set up in 2013 with £700,000 funding from the International Fund for Ireland's Peace Impact Programme.
Since its formation, it has dealt with more than 1,000 cases in which people from Derry have been threatened by paramilitary groups.
An increasing number of the victims are children, some as young as 13 and 14.
Mr McCourt said if the escalation in violence by paramilitaries was to be addressed, the statutory providers needed to get imaginative with possible solutions. He continued: "If society is going to attack paramilitary violence, there are a number of different angles to that.
"There are people who will argue the way to tackle it is through law and order, policing, community support for the police and whatever, and that is fine and great.
"There is also a case for saying that some kind of intervention model has to be in place which can be accessed by the individuals who are under threat and the individuals who are imposing the threat.
"We have records to show that we dealt with well over 1,000 cases. The reality is there haven't been well over 1,000 shootings, so the Time 2 Choose project worked.
"There are a number of things happening that are not coming to us which in the past we were getting constantly and which we, in a lot of the cases, prevented from escalating into the kind of actions we are seeing now.
"The Time 2 Choose project was undoubtedly an innovative and community-based approach to the provision of a social service."