Leading Article: There is no peace where gunmen rule private fiefdoms

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The Independent Culture
NORTHERN IRELAND'S peace process now faces yet another dilemma. Although the paramilitary ceasefires remain largely in place as far as bombings and killings go, evidence is emerging that so-called "punishment beatings" are on the increase in the province itself.

This is a matter just as serious as if the mainland were being bombed. An attack in London that killed no one, because warnings were phoned in, would attract much more press attention than the maimings and shootings that go under the relatively innocuous title of "beatings", even though the latter have done more physical and emotional harm. The Government has seemed so far to be turning a blind eye to these beatings. Northern Ireland has effectively been treated as a special case; this must cease.

Terrorist gangs have most power in their private fiefs among Northern Ireland's working-class housing estates, on which extortion, drug-dealing and intimidation are rife. This prevents the establishment of that civil society that Northern Ireland so desperately needs, and undermines the rule of law. If peace means anything, it must mean a return to normality. That still seems some way off.

This is the reason senior Labour figures are calling for the whole peace process to be slowed down: Labour MPs, including Frank Field and Henry Barnes, the vice-chair of Labour's Northern Ireland committee, have tabled a Commons motion arguing that prisoner release cannot continue while the organisations of which the prisoners are members continue to maim and disfigure people. Coming from members of a party historically sympathetic to Irish nationalism, this should serve as a warning to Sinn Fein and the IRA that the patience of the British Government and public is wearing thin.

Mo Mowlam and Tony Blair do not have many cards left to play, since there is so little ground left to give in the political process. Unionists will veto Sinn Fein's membership of any Northern Ireland Executive without the decommissioning of arms; the Government can make no more concessions in that direction. The only inducement they have left is the release of prisoners.

Prisoner release should be slowed, to show that the Government still has some bargaining power. Further releases should also be tied to decommissioning, for the process will collapse anyway without some measure of decommissioning. This is a dangerous gamble - it may provoke a violent response from the paramilitaries - but is the only leverage the Government now has. Citizens living on the British mainland, relieved that they no longer live in fear of some new atrocity, should remember that many of their fellow citizens in Northern Ireland daily face the reality of intimidation. That is unacceptable; if the Government ignores it, its negligence will not be forgotten.