In Liverpool, courts issue exclusion orders; in Belfast, masked men issue death threats. Same problem, different solution

HE STOLE cars. Anywhere else in Britain the thief would have been punished with a metaphorical rap across the knuckles by magistrates, if he was caught at all; but in Belfast they go for the knees.

A 19-year-old man was walking across Strathroy Park in the nationalist Ardoyne area of Belfast at midnight on Sunday when four men in balaclavas appeared from the darkness and accused him of motor theft. They forced the youth into a car and drove across the city, before beating him with an iron rod. Seriously injured, he was left by the roadside with a warning to get out of the province within 24 hours.

Several such attacks took place across Northern Ireland last weekend. Punishment beatings, intimidation, and expulsion orders have become commonplace in both nationalist and loyalist communities.

To the politicians of Britain and Ireland such activities are not simply worrying in themselves. They become symbols of wider political significance. But for the communities at the grass-roots the issue remains: how, in areas where the writ of the police force does not in practice apply, do you deal with anti-social behaviour?

For anti-social behaviour is as much a problem there as in any other British or Irish town. One of the four youths from Dungannon ordered to leave Northern Ireland by the IRA on pain of death last week was due to appear in court on burglary and assault charges last Thursday. In the event the arrest warrant issued in his absence seems to many local people less effective than the strong-arm tactics of masked republicans. "In the absence of an acceptable police service the attacks will happen," as one Sinn Fein spokesman put it, insisting that the party was opposed to beatings, shootings and expulsions, but knowing full well that many of his supporters would condone them as the lesser of two evils.

The problem is not confined to nationalist areas. At the same time on the Protestant Shankill Road a 17-year-old youth was packing his bags after receiving a death threat, again for anti-social behaviour, but this time from the Ulster Freedom Fighters.

On Thursday the Ulster Unionists leader, David Trimble, spoke of the "ghastly prospect" of paramilitaries taking over policing and judicial functions, but there is evidence that this has already happened in both nationalist and loyalist communities where the RUC is not welcome. According to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Bureau, which collates information from the police, government sources and voluntary agencies, there have been 153 punishment beatings and 61 shootings by the IRA since last year's Good Friday Agreement, with 442 people forced to leave their communities. Loyalists have been responsible for 174 beatings and 72 shootings, as well as 380 expulsions. There have been murders attributed to both sides.

"You can steal all the cars you want if you're doing it for the IRA to use in their operations," said Vincent McKenna, a former IRA member who now leads the bureau. "If you are not carrying out criminal activity on behalf of a terrorist group you are anti-social and they will get you out."

"The IRA wants to be the police force," said Fr Denis Faul, parish priest of Carrickmore, who has monitored human rights violations against nationalists. IRA "godfathers" took control of Catholic areas after the 1994 ceasefire, he wrote in the Belfast Telegraph. "People were forbidden to send for the RUC, unless they got permission from the IRA representatives - easy in cases of child sexual abuse or burglaries, certainly not in cases of assault. Areas became almost lawless."

The real question on the ground now is whether the local community fear the activities of the anti-social youths more than they do those of the paramilitaries with their rough and arbitrary justice.

Different members of the community give different answers. Like Vincent McKenna, Fr Faul is clear in his opposition. "People put down their heads and do not speak or criticise, fearing for their children and homes," he said. But others couch their comments more in terms of realpolitik. David Irvine, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, which has close associations with the Ulster Volunteer Force, said: "I am pretty certain that if you went to someone in an inner-city area in Britain and said to them, 'You've got drug dealers and anti-social people, would you like somebody to come and deal with them?', they would say yes. I'm not trying to advocate the methods that are used here. I'm merely trying to point out that there is a gap between what the community expect and what the police can deliver."

His party is working hard to find other ways of bridging that gap, he said, but it was not easy to change habits that had grown up over three generations of hostility towards the RUC. "Sometimes people will be redirected by the police to the paramilitaries. 'They have a better chance of getting your video back than we do,' the police will say. And so they do. The paramilitaries have the capacity to know what's going on."

The thieves may be beaten or warned to leave, he added, but paramilitaries do not always realise the consequences of their actions. "The Compensation Agency will pay, so the perpetrator who has now become the victim is rewarded, whereas the original victim is not."

Expulsion orders can also be used as political tools. The day before Irvine spoke, two Catholic families on a housing estate in Antrim were given 72 hours to leave because of their anti-social behaviour. The threat was delivered in a note to the RUC that purported to come from the UVF, but David Irvine had spoken to leading members of that organisation and insisted they had nothing to do with it. "The hype around it just happens to coincide with a by-election at local government level where the PUP has a candidate. Do you seriously think that's happening by accident?"

Breidge Gadd, chief probation officer for Northern Ireland, agreed that the underlying problems were common across Britain. "For Belfast read Liverpool in terms of youth, their attitudes, the crimes they commit. Where you've got poverty, unemployment, low self-esteem, poor housing, you have youth crime. There are two differences: Liverpool probably has a more intractable hard drug problem than we have, yet; and here you have the paramilitary infrastructure."

Crime rates are still among the lowest in Europe, for now. "I'm cynical of the view that criminals diverted themselves with terrorist activity, but terrorism did suppress the influx of hard drugs into Northern Ireland. If you were a drug dealer you thought twice about bringing heroin into Northern Ireland when you knew your car was going to be searched anyway. We have had a rush of heroin in recent years because security has been more lax. Also, the drug dealers know the paramilitaries are less able to pick them off because they are on cease-fire, trying hard to be seen to be peaceful."

Most of those who have been expelled recently were well known to the criminal justice system. "There is a feeling in the communities of being very fed up with persistent young offenders. I think that's not peculiar to Northern Ireland."

The difference is that in Liverpool, Jack Straw has ensured Big Brother is watching you, while in Belfast he has a gun.