The Roughest Form of Justice

24 Aug 2018 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 24 Aug 2018

Twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement so-called punishment beatings are on the rise.

The bullet, the baseball bat and the iron bar are still very much in use – and, it would seem that there are plenty of people who either think this is fine, or else turn a blind eye.

This is a symptom of a society which is far from normal. It tells us that there are groups around who do not merely consider themselves to be above the law – in their own eyes they are the law. And by their actions they seek to control, and to coerce entire communities.

Ceasefires, decommissioning and the issuing of pious statements of good will are welcome. It is progress. But if we are serious about ending paramilitarism for good, then we have to stop the beatings. Today, this, as much as anything else, is how the various factions assert their power and defend their spheres of control.

Hand-wringing is not the answer. We need to be honest about this: to examine the roots of the problem, why it continues and the impact that it has. It is only then that we can understand  what it is required to bring the brutality of paramilitary attacks to an end.

This is important for everyone not least because we have entered a new era. In the past there was armed conflict in Northern Ireland. Today the battle has shifted and much of it concerns conflicting rights, mutual respect and the challenge of people with different cultures sharing the same territory.

This question of rights raises a bitter irony. When people accused of paramilitary offences are pursued by the police they are quick – rightly so – to assert their legal rights:  to be questioned properly; to be tried fairly in accordance with the law, with inadmissible evidence excluded.

Yet those who assert their ancient rights as citizens in their own defence have no hesitation in denying them to others – those that they decide are worthy of being beaten or shot.

For their victims there is no jury, no appeal, no opportunity to make a case for the defence, no proportionality in the sentence. There is no judge. For vigilantes there can be no distinction between accuser, prosecutor and judge. They are the same people.

It is not difficult to understand how this came to be. When Northern Ireland erupted into violence many communities became no go areas for the police and normal policing was no longer an option.

So who was going to deal with drug dealing, joy-riding and anti-social behaviour? The paramilitaries stepped in. So if people had problems with others they could – and did – contact the relevant paramilitary organisation. The alleged perpetrator was typically instructed to report to a specific location and a specified time where the “punishment” would take place.

Such attacks are not confined to “crimes”. They can also be used to settle old scores. As recently as April 2016 taxi driver Michael McCollum died from wounds suffered in a shooting: the reason was reported in the Belfast Telegraph as him having made an “unfavourable comment” to a girl.

Punishments varied from “batterings” to beatings to shootings, to curfews, expulsions from the community, or even from Northern Ireland – and ultimately execution.

To many this was justified, and the paramilitaries who carried out the punishments were their protectors.

But, right or wrong, that was when The Troubles was raging. We’re 20 years on from then and the attacks are continuing. Last year there were 22 shootings and 65 beatings. All but one of the shootings were attributed to republican groups and 50 of the beatings to loyalists.

Two years ago a group of medics at the Royal Victoria Hospital produced a paper which analysed the cost of treating victims of these attacks and the extent and type of their injuries.

They concluded that, contrary to popular belief “knee-capping” with high velocity weapons no longer happens.  These days shooting injuries are most commonly inflicted by low velocity weapons and result in flesh wounds. Beatings, often carried out with iron bars tend to result in more severe injuries.

But harm is not restricted to physical hurt. A disturbing report by Dr Sharon Mallon linked paramilitary attacks to suicide. It examined records of 360 suicides from a two year period and discovered that 19 had been subject to a paramilitary attack in the 12 months before death.

 It states: “One typical entry in a Coroner’s file simply noted the man: “had been subject to a severe beating around 12 hours before his death”.

There is a further example quoted: “Deceased was assaulted with iron bars by two men one month prior to death, then received a threatening visit from another shortly before his death, mentioned fear of further assault to a friend.”

Attacks are not confined to adults. In his 2013 report “They shoot children, don’t they” Dr Liam Kennedy calculated that between 1990 and 2013 there had been 4,000 paramilitary attacks, of which 500 were on children. It is not clear whether these are definitive figures. Such attacks tend to go unreported not least because those subjected to them are invariably instructed not to tell the authorities.

Some seem to think that rough justice works. That it deters crime. Yet this does not square with the facts. Most of the areas where beatings and shootings occur have the highest crime rates in Northern Ireland. And there is absolutely no evidence that “hoods” are somehow rehabilitated as a result of being beaten or shot.

It is clear that paramilitary attacks are brutal, morally unjustifiable, disproportionate and an affront to the values society strives to uphold. They represent an attempt by the perpetrators to put themselves above the law. To become the law.

Breaking this down will take time. There are still many in working class communities who struggle to trust the police. Trust has to be earned over time and is easily lost. And as paramilitaries are targeted, the clamour around “political policing” will grow.

After all the years of conflict and division and the profound sense of injustice, both real and perceived, nurturing a culture of lawfulness and respect for the rule of law is not something that can be achieved overnight. It will be a long haul.

 And finally of course the areas most impacted are those which suffered the most during the conflict and continue to do so today. Unemployment and economic inactivity are high, educational under-achievement is, sadly, rife. So is drug and alcohol use. Life expectancy is lower than elsewhere and opportunities often scare. For people within these communities a thriving, prosperous future is at best a distant dream.

Reviving such communities will take concerted investment. For this to happen we need a working government, focused on dealing with the regeneration of communities that have been left behind. Politicians need to play their part and show leadership.

The opinions, views or comments in this article do not necessarily reflect any views or policies of NICVA.

Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.