Belfast Telegraph

Liam Kennedy: What we need now is a special taskforce to tackle scourge of paramilitaries


Police cordon off the scene of a shooting incident in the Havana Walk area of Ardoyne on Wednesday night
Police cordon off the scene of a shooting incident in the Havana Walk area of Ardoyne on Wednesday night

By Liam Kennedy

It's a rainy day in Belfast. I hear of a punishment shooting in Ardoyne. Shots to the leg. The rain is beginning to clear. Time to think about lunch. Just another Belfast day.

That is how desensitised some of us have become to the mutilation of men and children in working class Belfast.

Almost 50 years ago, the image of 'Free Derry Corner' signalled a brighter world of civil rights and new political beginnings in Northern Ireland.

Idealistic longings were soon subverted by the brute force of paramilitaries who cared little for people's rights but were driven by an all-consuming desire for an Ireland 'united' by force of arms.

Not long after, within a stone's throw of Free Derry Corner, a young factory worker was being humiliated, tarred and feathered by a group of vigilantes. What we have come to call informal justice or the punishment system was born, or born again.

It is hard to know how many have suffered at the hands of loyalist and republican paramilitaries who, in their self-important way, terrify their own communities.

I recall the words of the great political scientist and peace activist, Frank Wright: "It takes after all very few people to kill enough people to frighten a very large number."

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Police estimates of the extent and power of intimidation are woefully inadequate.

To get an intimate view of how force works there is no better source than Milkman, the award-winning novel by Ardoyne writer, Anna Burns.

Rumours, threats, paranoia, swaggering gunmen, fear, sadism, and of course the invocation of a higher ideal all feature.

For what they are worth, the PSNI statistics indicate well over 6,000 punishment shootings and beatings since 1973, roughly equally divided between loyalist and republican organisations. This in itself is an appalling toll of human suffering. The levels of intimidation have dropped since the 1970s but there is still a continuous stream of victims.

Unlike the weather, we could actually do something about these affronts to the dignity, health and welfare of these victims, many of them vulnerable and marginalised within their own communities.

The Lord Mayor of Belfast, John Finucane, has told us that he is placing rights at the centre of his year in office.

Is the nightmare of paramilitary-style attacks not the great rights issue that confronts the city? Might it not be time to convene a taskforce representative of the police, youth and community workers, the clergy - Fr Martin Magill comes immediately to mind - and other interests to tackle terror at community level?

Otherwise we are left with little more than the now largely formulaic denunciations by politicians.

  • Liam Kennedy is emeritus professor of economic history at Queen's University, Belfast. He is a founder member of Children of the Troubles, which campaigns against paramilitary attacks on children

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