For as long as we fail to challenge the perverse logic behind republican and loyalist thuggery, we risk a return to widespread violence
It's almost two years since the Executive collapsed. The ensuing political vacuum risks perpetuating paramilitarism while squandering the hard-won peace, argues Aaron Edwards
Twenty-five years ago I saw a man with tights on his head and a knife in his hand running up an alleyway in East Way, Rathcoole, in Newtownabbey, a short distance from my grandparents' home.
My abiding memory of the incident was how alien he looked, his features horribly distorted by the beige-coloured silk stocking clinging to his face. The adrenaline coursing through his body made him behave erratically. I found his whole demeanour at once disturbing and amusing. It was as if he had dropped into the estate from another planet.
Along with some of my pals, we gave chase. It was a scene redolent of that famous sequence from the classic movie Rocky.
But the person we pursued that day wasn't some underdog champion from within our local community. No. We were quick to realise that - on the balance of probabilities - this man was a petty criminal.
The street conditions you to make a judgment call on people within minutes of encountering them. On that day I realised that this wasn't someone to emulate; this was someone to fear.
Growing up in an estate like Rathcoole, you come to accept that the only time you can reasonably expect to see a man in a mask is whenever he is letting loose a few live rounds at a so-called "show of strength". He is usually maniacal in his fanaticism as an assembled crowd cheers him on. Terrorism is about sending a message and the threat of violence combined with spectators tends to give it more oomph.
On the day I spotted the petty crook he was on his own. He was also hyper-aggressive. He turned to me abruptly, snarled, then barked out an uncouth "F*** off" as he made good his escape.
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Feeling somewhat emboldened by being given an ultimatum by a man dressed in hosiery, I ignored him. Creeping forward, carefully, I caught a glimpse of his solitary figure disappearing into the middle of a block of flats. It was the last I ever saw of him.
Moments later I was retracing my steps back to my friends and joining in a chorus of laughter as we poked fun at the ridiculous-looking figure who'd just ran past us.
As we made our way back down to East Way we spotted a woman, clearly distressed, being comforted by a tiny knot of people across the street. I recognised her immediately. She was one of the women who worked in a local shop. She'd obviously been robbed by the knifeman, who'd made good his escape. She was visibly shaken by the whole ordeal.
Later on that evening several eyewitnesses to the incident were cross-examined about what they saw. The people who asked the questions weren't police officers from the RUC. They didn't wear uniforms, nor did they carry warrant cards, or their weapons openly, for that matter. Although we never acknowledged it at the time, these men belonged to a local paramilitary faction.
At that time Rathcoole was home to 10,000 people, making it one of the largest housing estates in Western Europe. It had one part-time community police officer. RUC officers based in nearby Whiteabbey police station spent most of their time cruising around in armoured Land Rovers, mostly in republican areas.
To these officers - perhaps rightly - they saw their main enemy as the Provisional IRA. They had neither the time nor the inclination to investigate everyday crime in estates like Rathcoole.
As a result a gulf grew up between local people in the estate and the RUC. "They're never around to do anything," was a common complaint. In the absence of the legitimate forces of law and order, paramilitary groups filled the void.
Within 24 hours of the mugging the shop's takings were returned, an apology issued and the community assured that the perpetrator had been summarily dealt with. "He wouldn't be doing that again," they said.
I'd subsequently learned "on the grapevine" of the mugger's fate. He'd been beaten and kneecapped. Such was the efficiency of locally-based paramilitary groups in policing their areas.
During the Troubles this type of "rough justice" was an everyday occurrence in deprived communities across Northern Ireland. "Paramilitaries provided a community service," their apologists frequently claimed.
In an important study, published in 2004, Dr Rachel Monaghan, a leading authority on paramilitary-style attacks, argued that such "rough justice" existed for three main reasons: the absence of a perceived legitimate, or adequate, policing service; the rising levels of petty crime and 'anti-social behaviour', and the perceived failure of the formal criminal justice system.
According to Dr Monaghan, the high-water mark of loyalist rough justice came in 1992, the same year I caught sight of the mugger. Apart from another peak in 1996, the number of assaults and shootings has remained highest within loyalist controlled areas, with over 50 attacks recorded in 2017/18.
The continuation of paramilitary attacks a quarter-of-a-century after the 1994 ceasefires and a decade since they announced an end to their armed campaigns is alarming.
Those who haven't had their heads buried in the sand know the reality: paramilitaries rule with an iron fist in those communities that first gave birth to them half-a-century ago. And, if we are honest with ourselves, we know they do so because they are tolerated by some in the community.
Those who know the areas where paramilitary activity thrives also know that a solution to the problem remains elusive. Tactically, the joint PSNI-National Crime Agency-HMRC Paramilitary Crime Task Force is having modest success.
However, it is at the strategic level, with the formation of the Tackling Paramilitarism Programme, that has the greatest potential to remove these structures once and for all.
Their #endingtheharm public awareness campaign is as hard-hitting as the old DoE ads for road deaths. But it is not enough. Paramilitary groupings have long been part of the fabric of society in Northern Ireland. In order to transform this situation we must challenge the context which breeds such militancy.
Structurally speaking, multiple deprivations help foster gang sub-cultures around the world. Yet, the persistence of paramilitarism is also spurred on by the divisions between unionists and nationalists.
People live in separate housing estates, socialise separately, engage in separate recreational activities, send their children to separate schools and attend separate churches. This separateness is reinforced by the different newspapers they read, by the premium they put on different dates on their calendars and by the different political parties they vote for.
Not only is the basis of such division not challenged, it is positively reinforced by the architecture of the "peace process". On top of this perverse celebration of difference, there are repeated attempts made to refight the conflict through a rewriting of the past.
Additionally, Brexit has served to pit these diametrically opposed worldviews against one another even further. For the meantime it is camouflaged beneath deeply troubling rhetoric from extremists on both sides, many of whom were born years after major hostilities ended.
Twenty-five years since I witnessed a violent mugging in Rathcoole, the PSNI is still ignoring requests to investigate everyday crime in working-class areas. The Chief Constable says that tight budgets are to blame. Such claims ring hollow. Ordinary people on the ground know the truth.
For as long as there is a societal failure to challenge the perverse logic underpinning the thuggery in our midst, the longer we risk a relapse into conflict within and between our communities.
Dr Aaron Edwards is an historian, writer and academic. His most recent book is UVF: Behind The Mask (Merrion Press)