Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: Thugs behind 'punishment' attacks act as if they enjoy some sort of community endorsement... shamefully, they're not wrong

There have been 68 shootings and beatings so far this year, so where's the public outcry, asks Malachi O'Doherty

Paramilitary shootings and beatings continue on both sides of the community
Paramilitary shootings and beatings continue on both sides of the community
Paramilitary shootings and beatings continue on both sides of the community

By Malachi O'Doherty

Apart from weaponry, there are two basics that you need before you can run a paramilitary/terrorist campaign. For a start, you need people who won't find it too difficult to kill, or maim, someone; that is, people to whom extreme violence either comes naturally, or for whom it is easily learnt.

I don't think that there are many people like that. If I look back at my schooldays and think of the boys around me, I can count only a few who enjoyed fighting. By that, I don't mean the rough and tumble of wrestling for a lark, but actually wanting to damage another boy.

And there were some like that, the head-butters and kickers, the ones who would sharpen the buckle of a Scout belt so that they could use it as a weapon.

There were lots of others with baseline aggression, who could play rough on the pitch. But, really, who among them could have put a gun to your leg and pulled the trigger?

When I was researching the kneecappings in Twinbrook in the 1990s, I discovered that only two men were doing most of them.

I later had a conversation with a Special Branch officer about the "punishment shootings" and he named the same two men.

Now, there were a lot of people involved in the whole process by which someone might be reported to the IRA as a "hood".

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There would be people who would hide and deliver the gun, arrange a safe house for the shooters to clean themselves up in. But, in terms of actually pulling the trigger, not so many.

Of course, some could learn to do it, but really the only people who are going to shoot young men in the legs week after week for years are not going to be people for whom this is an onerous duty. Only men who can get some job satisfaction from work like that are going to stay with it.

An awful lot of people went to jail for paramilitary offences, but most of them never shot anyone.

Some committed horrific acts of violence, but with some detachment, leaving a bomb somewhere under orders, passing information back to someone else who had the power to decide on targeting.

All of this morally dubious, but, really, holding a pistol to a teenager's leg and shooting him: could you do that?

A lot of relatively decent young people and family men do get implicated in ordinary thuggery.

We have seen that in riots and in the behaviour of soldiers. They get caught up on a popular mood, or they are showing off to each other, but I suspect that even on the battlefield a lot of men make the right noises and do precious little harm.

I had a friend who was in the IRA and was given a machine gun during a battle in Lenadoon in 1972 and he told me that he fired into the air, hoping to God that he wasn't hurting anybody.

And the experience of the big gun battles of the early Troubles suggests a lot of shots were squandered in the same way. On that day in Lenadoon, I heard thousands of shots fired. Nobody died there.

I was over on the Newtownards Road one night in 1971 when the air was popping with gunfire like Diwali fireworks.

I think two people died. You'd have thought the death toll would have been massive.

So, finding people who can shoot other people may not be so easy. And we can disregard the descriptions of such people as heroic soldiers.

They are men of a violent disposition, who can be deployed by armies to do what others can't. Call it division of labour; the same men wouldn't perhaps be much use in the kitchen.

The other thing that you need for a paramilitary/terrorist campaign is a degree of popular indulgence. If I see you in a back alley near my home with a gun, I am going to call the police. I would not have done that as readily in 1972. And there was a simple reason for that: I would not have trusted the police, or the Army, to come in and arrest you without causing just as much mayhem as you had in mind with your gun.

I never thought back then that inviting the Parachute Regiment to come into Andersonstown to make arrests would lead to a better outcome than looking the other way.

But if people have a baseline faith in the state and the police, then it is not going to be so easy for paramilitaries to indulge their violence.

What the paramilitary needs is for people in an area, exercising ordinary common sense, to excuse them.

So, when someone is shot dead, a lot of others, who would never have dreamed of shooting that person themselves, are going to react by saying something like, "Well, he had it coming to him". Or, "What do you expect?" Or, "It was time somebody did something about him".

That's what happens after the "paramilitary attacks", as they are now called: no one makes a big fuss.

Even without knowing the victim, or anything about him, people will lightly accept that he was probably a hoodlum, or a drug dealer, which may not be true at all.

You can only make that assumption by taking the word of the people who had him shot and the hoodlum who shot him.

And these may not be people you would normally credit with insight into the way the world works.

You don't vote for those people, or perhaps even notice them on the street.

If you know them at all, you will stay out of their way, but somehow, if they have shot someone, you will assume that there was probably some point to that, the victim being at least as bad as the shooter and neither of them warranting much thought. Otherwise, there would be outrage.

The police say there have been 68 paramilitary assaults this year.

Fourteen of these have been shootings, 12 of them attributed to "republicans" and two to "loyalists", though it is hard to say what it is about shooting your neighbours in the leg that entitles you to be credited with a political ideology.

There is a reason why paramilitary gangs don't do worse than they do. Their communities would not excuse them whipping up war again. They need some popular assent to that kind of thing - and they don't have it.

They do appear to think they have some endorsement from their communities for their routine thuggery.

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