Nowhere to run: As paramilitary threats grow on daily basis, many victims are left in frightening state of limbo
Campaigner warns of 'mayhem' as system to aid targeted people swamped by cases
Victims campaigners last night branded the system for dealing with paramilitary threats "mayhem", claiming terrified families don't know where to turn.
This week police revealed they were dealing with a new death threat from paramilitaries every day.
The revelation came just days after news of a 14-year-old girl being ordered from her home by dissident republicans in west Belfast. But as the threats carry on coming, say experts in the field, the system for those on the receiving end is in disarray.
"It's mayhem at the minute," said victims' campaigner Raymond McCord. "As the police admit, there are people getting threats every day but they don't know where to turn. There are so many agencies who deal with one part or another, people get passed from pillar to post and they don't know where to go."
With a number of voluntary organisations and statutory agencies involved in different ways, from emotional and psychological support to practical help with funding and relocation, navigating their way to safety can be incredibly daunting - and confusing - for people already afraid for their lives.
The PSNI plays a significant part, as Supt Norman Haslett explained when speaking on the subject earlier this week.
Indeed, in many cases it is the police who pass the bad news on to people who are subject to a threat. But according to insiders, their involvement is often minimal after that.
One community worker said: "It's frustrating because while the police are usually the ones to drop off the threats in the first place, after they leave, in many cases, that's it. They hand over a letter and a booklet advising people to step up their security, and leave them to it."
The police say they have a "duty to protect life and to prevent the commission of offences".
Different tactical options are considered depending on the case, and once they have definite knowledge of a threat to someone's life they'll "take all reasonable steps to protect the person whose life is in 'real and immediate danger'".
John (58), not his real name, was shot in the legs, hip, chest, back, right arm and face by republicans in the 1970s. He was then subject to three paramilitary threats since 2008 - twice by loyalists for being a Catholic in their area and most recently by dissidents after he fled to the New Lodge when a known drug dealer was seen at his home in 2013.
"The police came to tell me I was under threat and dropped off a personal safety booklet," he said. "It said things like 'don't leave the lights on at night if you're walking past the windows, don't do the same thing every day'. They said they'd step up patrols round the house, but I didn't see any difference and I didn't feel secure."
Without help from the PSNI, John went to Mr McCord for advice. "Raymond went to the paramilitaries to discuss my options - to meet them and get a bullet in the leg, or get out," said John. "He told them I'd had a house secured and I'd be moving out of the area as soon as possible. Luckily they agreed. Unfortunately, it took two years for the house to be ready so I spent all that time locked up on my own in the house. I was terrified. I lost weight, bolted the doors every time anyone came to see me, I was in a state of panic."
When it comes to mediation with paramilitaries on behalf of people under threat, the PSNI simply doesn't do it. It's left to community organisations and volunteers like Mr McCord.
He said: "People think it's extreme to meet paramilitaries, but it can make a big difference. Sometimes when a threat comes the organisations will say this person is getting shot, that's it. But after negotiation with the family they'll be allowed to come to some arrangement. Surely that's better than having some young kid killed or left with life-changing injuries?"
Another vital element in the process is getting 'under threat' families moved, which is where the Housing Executive and crisis intervention project Base 2 come in. Base 2, as well as the PSNI, health professionals and other community groups, can make a case to the Housing Executive that intimidation is a real issue. But even when 'intimidation points' are taken on board, the process isn't quick.
According to Housing Executive figures, 288 applicants were moved in 2016 because of paramilitary intimidation - and on average it took eight months to rehouse them. It said these people would be offered temporary accommodation in the meantime, adding: "It is the individual's choice whether they wish to accept this or make their own arrangements."
But a Belfast-based community worker said that wasn't good enough. "They're waiting eight months to get rehoused, so what do they do in the meantime?" he said. "Stay where they are with a threat hanging over them, go to temporary accommodation only to move again, or rely on family far away to take them in? It's too much for people to cope with."
In some cases, under threat families have gone to extreme lengths to sort out problems for themselves. "I've heard of one woman whose only option after her son got threatened was to move to an area the whole family didn't want to go, so she made an arrangement that instead of moving away, her son would get shot," said the volunteer. "That is an extreme example, but that's how bad it can be. People are really desperate."
When youngsters under 18 are involved the process is especially complicated and social services step in. In some cases they will assist with relocating families.
Mr McCord added: "It's such a complicated situation that it's no good politicians saying paramilitary threats shouldn't be happening. The fact is they are. Yes, they need to stop, but in the meantime we've got to work harder to get threats lifted so people can live without fear of being hurt or sent away from their families. What I'm doing works, but there are a lot of people at the minute, and more every week, who are finding themselves in this terrifying situation and they need practical, effective help. I want to give that to them, but I need real backing."