Peace process or no peace process, the paramilitary enforcers still go about their barbaric business. It was ever thus: in the 1970s their predecessors used to tar and feather "soldier dolls," young girls accused of fraternising with British troops.
After all the years and all the horrors of the troubles many thought they were beyond shock, yet the sight on their televisions of Andrew Peden, victim of one such attack, caused some to wince and to weep.
Loyalists shot him so badly nine months ago that both his legs had to be amputated. An infection in one of his stumps will not heal. He cries often when he gives interviews. He looks smaller than his children; his wife says that when she cuddles him in bed it's like cuddling a child. His life is ruined.
The continuation of such barbaric practices has caused many to question the worth of the peace process and the value of the efforts to lead former paramilitants on a journey away from bombs and into the democratic processes.
Many in Britain, horrified at the unending catalogue of brutality, ask whether things are as bad as they seem. With typical Northern Irish complexity, one answer is that in some ways it's better than it seems, while in others it's actually worse.
IT'S PROBABLY worse than many in Britain imagine, in that their newspapers and televisions don't convey to them a comprehensive picture of the scale of "low-intensity" violence. At the moment they are hearing much about the punishment attacks, but these are just one type of incident.
Although many parts of Belfast remain disfigured with high "peace lines" designed to keep sectarian factions apart, there are still places where youths gather to chuck bricks at each other. Much more seriously, an organised campaign of loyalist intimidation is under way, with Catholic homes the target for petrol bombings a couple of times each week.
Petrol bomb attacks, though terrifying for the families targeted, are rarely lethal, but every so often they take life: last year, for example, a loyalist attack claimed the lives of three young brothers during the Drumcree Orange marching stand-off. They are one of the reasons why the authorities are forced to maintain a busy emergency rehousing scheme, as intimidated families beg to be taken out of danger.
Those using the scheme include many police families. In a reversal of the general pattern of the Troubles, the police now have more difficulty with loyalists than with republicans. Most of the RUC families who move home do so because of loyalist threats or attacks.
In the town of Portadown in Co Armagh, which has become Northern Ireland's heart of sectarian darkness, loyalists continue to protest against the banning of last year's Drumcree march. Just last week, for example, a 200-strong mob attacked police lines with bricks, bottles, stones, fireworks and ball bearings fired from powerful catapults.
Seventy RUC officers have been injured in protests since last year's Drumcree march. One of them, Constable Frank O'Reilly, lost his life, dying two months after being hit in the face by a blast bomb. He was a victim of the Red Hand Defenders, the latest lethal outfit to emerge from the loyalist underworld, who also seem to be responsible for most of the sectarian petrol-bombings.
The persistence of such incidents is very familiar in that it is highly reminiscent of pre-Troubles Belfast. There never was a tranquil golden age back then, as a trawl through the press archives quickly reveals: even during the supposedly quiet years newspaper columns teem with reports of disturbances, riots, arson and street clashes.
The unpalatable fact is that Northern Ireland has never been at peace and at ease with itself, and that the settlement of all the destabilising political and territorial issues, and the healing of the scars left by the Troubles, is going to take decades.
The widespread perception, however, is that things in Northern Ireland are as bad as ever they were, that the peace process must be a hollow sham and that it's all back to square one. The cold statistics tell a different story, a story which offers some comfort.
IN THE 53 months leading up to the first IRA ceasefire of August 1994, 420 people died violently. In the 53 months since then 115 people have been killed, a very substantial reduction. To make another comparison: deaths at the beginning of this decade were running at an average of 92 a year while the annual average is now 28.
A number of the 115 most recent killings are difficult to classify. But 40 were killed by loyalists, 20 by the IRA, 29 by the Real IRA in last August's Omagh bombing, and 12 by the INLA. One encouraging sign is that, since Omagh, ceasefires have been declared by three previously active groups, the Real IRA, the INLA and by the Loyalist Volunteer Force.
It may surprise many to learn that loyalists have been responsible for such a high toll, and that the IRA has carried out fewer than one fifth of the killings of the last four years. This is, however, part of the familiar phenomenon that IRA violence will always receive more attention than that from other quarters. At the moment this is additionally because of an odd but highly effective tactical alliance which includes former republicans, unionists and the Conservative party. Ulterior political motives do not, however, negate the heart of the issue, which is whether republicans should now be admitted into a new Northern Ireland administration.
One stance is to hold that anyone even suspected of associations beyond the strictly political should be excluded from the political system. One problem with such a purist approach, however, is that the previous Conservative government had protracted dealings with the IRA even as it was setting off bombs in London and in Warrington.
Another is that quite a few unionist representatives have past associations with some highly dubious organisations and individuals. On the unionist side politics can be a rough old trade, as Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginnis and others found last week when they were kicked and punched by crowds of protesters who included members of the Rev Ian Paisley's party.
The goal of the present government is to get Sinn Fein into government, but to do so by securing the assent of Unionist leader David Trimble. This is a difficult proposition, given his insistence that the IRA must first decommission weaponry and the matching republican insistence that they will not.
The search for a middle way in all this is expected to take the form of an intensive negotiation, perhaps beginning later this month and reaching a conclusion by the target date of 10 March. If it fails, nobody really knows what might happen; if it succeeds, the peace process will have survived yet another apparently insurmountable hurdle, and will move on.
Either way the backstreets will continue to be the scene of barbarities. Even if there is progress, it will provide only marginal consolation to those such as Andrew Peden who are suffering so grievously.
But although violence may be endemic to Belfast, the killing rate is falling. While the peace process offers no magic solutions, it seems incontestable that without it many people who are alive today would be in untimely graves. It is not a perfect peace: if it were, there would be no need for a peace process.
A YEAR OF TROUBLES
April 1998: Good Friday agreement signed. Two Catholic men killed by loyalists.
May: Agreement endorsed in referendums north and south. Gardai in Irish Republic shoot dead member of Real IRA during armed robbery.
June: Elections to new NI assembly.
July: Drumcree marching stand-off in Portadown. Hundreds of violent incidents. Protests subside after three children die in firebomb attack on house. IRA kills Andrew Kearney in "punishment" attack.
August: Bomb planted in Omagh, Co Tyrone, by Real IRA kills 29 people including Protestants, Catholics and Spanish tourists. Afterwards British and Irish governments pass strong new anti-terrorist laws. Ceasefires declared by Real IRA, INLA and LVF.
September: Unionist leader David Trimble meets Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams for the first time.
October: RUC officer dies from injuries inflicted by loyalist blast bomb in August. Catholic man shot dead by loyalists in north Belfast.
December: David Trimble and John Hume collect Nobel peace prize in Oslo. LVF hands in some weapons for decommissioning.
January 1999: One-time "supergrass" and IRA critic Eamon Collins beaten and stabbed to death in Newry, Co Down, by unknown republicans. Punishment beatings and shootings by republicans and loyalists rise to rate of almost one a day.Reuse content