Punishment beatings represent the final throes of terrorism, Fintan O'Toole believes
LAST WEEK I took part in a discussion at Waterstone's in Dublin with the writer and editor Neil Belton. He was talking about his new book on the anti-torture campaigner, Helen Bamber. He spoke eloquently about the way modern governments have abused the human body. But when the conversation was thrown open to the floor, the audience mostly wanted to talk about the current campaign of beatings and maimings by paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland. Neil Belton had edited Eamon Collins's chilling book on his experiences as a member of the IRA, A Killing Rage, and he knew the subject well. But the questions seemed somewhat beside the point. Only a week later, when Eamon Collins was found by a roadside so brutally mutilated that his body was unrecognisable, did it become clear how horribly apt they were.

Eamon Collins's book is the most devastating account we have of what actually went on within the IRA during its years of "armed struggle". Collins revealed the banality, the ignorance and the psychotic inhumanity of little men pumped up into village Napoleons by the Troubles. It is a fair bet that the IRA decided to take its revenge by killing him, and, in doing so, to prove the accuracy of his savage portrayal of them.

Where, though, does his death and the continuing series of so-called "punishment beatings" leave the peace process? For a long time, peace depended on getting across the idea that not all the members of paramilitary groups are psychopaths, thugs and gangsters. Mainstream politicians on all sides began to admit, at least tacitly, that many terrorists might be the inevitable products of history and political failure, capable of being re-integrated into the public life of a reformed democracy. Now, those in charge of the process have to face the fact that the opposite is also true. Some paramilitaries are psychopaths, thugs and gangsters, and they will not lightly give up the power and pleasure that they get from smashing up other people's bodies.

For 30 years, the IRA and the Loyalist paramilitaries used violence as a political instrument. Broadly speaking, their actions, however morally repugnant, had a political logic. The peace process has been an exercise in removing that logic by creating conditions in which the various groups can use peaceful and democratic methods to pursue their goals. Looking at the big picture, there is every chance it will succeed.

But the big picture is made up of thousands of small details. Zooming in from the wide shot to the close-up, what stands out is a great deal of pure sadism. Much of the violence went way beyond its supposed political function. Deliberately killing people in front of their families; torturing and mutilating victims before shooting them; strapping a man into a truck loaded with explosives, holding his family hostage and making him drive into a police checkpoint - these actions are not primarily about politics. This is not to say, however, that the leadership of the IRA and the other paramilitaries do not exploit and direct the sadists in their ranks. Psychopaths have their uses, especially for purposes of internal control. It is easy to forget that the paramilitaries have been engaged, not just in a struggle between communities, but also in a struggle within communities. Dissidents within their own ranks and within the areas they control have often been a greater threat than the official enemy on the outside. The IRA, for example, has always had a "nutting squad", whose job is to terrorise its own members by killing suspected informers and troublemakers. For such a task, you need people who enjoy their work.

Within the broader community, punishment beatings, for the paramilitaries, are both a means of asserting and retaining control, and a form of propaganda. In its own urban strongholds, a willingness to beat up petty criminals and joyriders allowed the IRA to replace not just the police but also the Catholic Church as the enforcers of community mores. And once you become the moral arbiter, you get to label anyone you don't like as a "hood" - a political dissident, a man caught making eyes at a prisoner's wife or a bloke who failed to apologise when he bumped your elbow in the pub - and to impose a sentence of exile or torture. At the same time, the punishment beatings serve an important ideological function. Crucial to both the self-image and the public posture of the terror gangs is the insistence that they are not criminals. And in the distorted world of the Troubles you prove you are not a criminal by punishing those who are - by criteria you impose yourself - guilty of crimes. Mutilating people deemed guilty of "anti-social behaviour" proves you are not anti-social. Murdering people you accuse of being drug-dealers (as the IRA did eight times after its first ceasefire in 1994) scotches the rumour that you might engage in a bit of drug-dealing yourself.

The advantages of this kind of violence are so great that there is a huge incentive for the IRA and the Loyalist paramilitaries to ignore the revulsion of mainstream opinion and to carry on beating. Apart from anything else, so long as the IRA remains in existence, it has to provide its recruits, especially those who joined too late for the real action, with adventures that rival the attractions of dissident republican groups. Young recruits can no longer be blooded by sending them out to put a bomb in a Protestant fish shop or to take a pot-shot at an army patrol. Letting them break people's arms and legs is a useful alternative.

Does that mean, then, that the IRA is psychologically incapable of weaning itself off violence and of beginning the process of disarmament? Not necessarily. All the evidence suggests that the IRA does what it has to do. It is striking, for instance, that, during the Westminster elections in 1997, punishment beatings virtually ceased. With Gerry Adams desperate to reclaim the West Belfast seat he had lost in 1992, Sinn Fein did not want the news bulletins to feature mangled legs and pulped-up faces courtesy of the IRA. So the beatings stopped. And when Sinn Fein decides that it is politically necessary for the IRA to hand in some weapons and to decommission the baseball bats as well, that, too, will happen. The task of the democratic politicians is to create the conditions in which those necessities are, for the IRA, unambiguously clear.

The psychopaths will not, of course, cease to be psychopaths. Working- class communities in Northern Ireland will have to live for many years with the fact that they have in their midst an abnormally high number of men who have gained from the conflict a taste for sadism. But there are, even in the grim aftermath of Eamon Collins's murder, two small consolations. One is that as their political camouflage is stripped away, the sadists can be seen more clearly for what they are. The other is that these beatings and maimings have been going on for decades but have been largely ignored in the face of even greater atrocities. That they persist is a sign of how far the peace process has to go. But that we are paying attention to them at all is a sign of how far it has come.

Fintan O'Toole is a columnist with the `Irish Times'.