Belfast Telegraph

Surge in number of attacks shows how paramilitaries have regressed

By Liam Kennedy

These are dark times, and not simply because of the cold, wet winter evenings.

Open a Northern newspaper this month and you see stories of brutality that find a place only in societies that favour Islamist-style 'punishments'.

How did we get here? It goes back to the 'no-go' areas of the early Troubles.

The naive idealism summed up on a gable-end wall - 'You are now entering Free Derry' - soon gave way to the reality of the tarring and feathering of young women.

The cruel irony is that some of these sexualised attacks took place in the shadow of Free Derry Corner. Freedom for whom, it might be asked.

Worse was to follow as the Provisional IRA set up its civil administration units to mete out instant 'justice' to alleged wrong-doers within nationalist communities. Loyalist paramilitaries soon got into the game of community control with guns and iron bars.

But the Good Friday Agreement put an end to all that?

In fact, the number of 'punishment' shootings and 'punishment' beatings increased in scale and ferocity - including executions - during the early peace process. Swaggering, under-employed paramilitaries needed outlets for their aggression.

As the new century progressed the attacks were scaled down as the IRA and some loyalist paramilitary groups disarmed.

In recent times? In the last five years the trend in paramilitary-style attacks on members of the community has been upwards.

There has been an almost 60% increase in shootings and assaults from 2013 to 2017 - the number of reported incidents was 418.

The level of paramilitary-style shooting of victims, generally young men, often from troubled backgrounds, has varied around an average of one per fortnight since 2013. However, there has been a surge in the last year. The level for 2017 is one-third (35%) higher than in the previous year.

The vast majority of the shootings over the past five years, more than 100 in total, have been due to republican paramilitaries.

Taking the last two years only, the number of shootings to various parts of the victim's body - arms, elbows, legs, knees, ankles, feet - has risen by a quarter. Worryingly (unless you think mutilating members of your own community is a pathway to a United Ireland), the year has opened with a surge in these shootings.

Widening the picture to take in assaults - beatings with iron bars and other improvised weapons - it is loyalists who account for the majority (80%) of these attacks over the last five years.

There is a major contrast between loyalists and republicans in terms of the use of guns. Most 'punishment' attacks by republicans involve guns. This may be because their self-image is that of soldiers, 'soldiers of the republic'.

Assuming the airs and arms of soldiers fits that image. That their unaccountable actions amount to torture and in some instances child abuse seems not to trouble them unduly.

Their ideology derives from the socialist 'martyr' James Connolly, one of the leaders of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916.

One wonders what Connolly would have made of the shooting of three nationalist children, 16 and 17-year olds, by dissident republicans last year. There was a similar haul in 2016, the centenary of the Easter Rising.

The legacies of 1916 and the 'no-go' areas of 1969 live on.

Liam Kennedy is Emeritus Professor of History at QUB

Belfast Telegraph

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