Beaten in the name of Ulster's rough justice

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"I JUST automatically thought he was dead; my legs just went beneath me," Grace Price said yesterday after her 13-year-old son had his bones fractured by paramilitary thugs. "Nobody understands what it's like to get that sort of news. I'd never wish that on any other mother because it's the most terrible feeling to get."

At just about the same time, just down the road from the Ulster hospital, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, was convening round-table talks at Stormont to tackle the political deadlock. "We face one of the most critical weeks for Northern Ireland in recent years," Ms Mowlam said. "It will need the most intensive efforts from all of us."

Back at the hospital, doctors and nurses were making intensive efforts to heal Ian Price's mutilated legs, elbow and fingers after his weekend beating. As Ms Mowlam attempted to patch up the peace process, the medics tried to patch the teenager's wounds.

A shocked Mrs Price was telling the television cameras: "Four men attacked him, he says. They're not men to me, just cowards, that's all they are, that's not men. My son said they held a gun to his head. Anybody that holds a gun to a child's head, they're no good."

Ms Mowlam was, meanwhile, appealing: "We have ahead of us the prize of a transfer of powers. There would be the best prospects we have ever had of lasting peace, underpinned by massive international goodwill."

Back up the road, Mrs Pricewas saying: "I came up to the hospital and saw him lying with an oxygen mask and drips and all attached to him. I'd seen that with my mother and I couldn't cope with it again. I was in shock - I couldn't believe that a 13-year-old boy... people could be so evil to do that."

Across and beyond the city, out at the Maze prison, Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein visited the jail where he spent many years to say he had met the remaining IRA prisoners to talk about de-commissioning. He emerged to deliver a hardline message: "Not a single prisoner suggested that there should be any movement on decommissioning. There is some anger that what took 30 years to put together could be brought down by David Trimble refusing to implement the agreement."

At Stormont, as the talks broke up for the day, a political source came out to say: "It was all very disappointing. The unionists and Sinn Fein just reiterated their positions, saying the same things privately as they do in public. They gave no ground at all."

At the hospital, Ian Price was facing the cameras. He only turned 13 this month and is small for age: his nickname is Buttons. He has blond hair, a smashed elbow, four broken fingers, and deep puncture wounds in his legs where nails pierced his flesh.

He was playing with other kids in the largely Protestant Co Down town of Newtownards when four men, believed to belong to a loyalist paramilitary group, appeared and systematically battered him with batons studded with nails.

As he spoke, blood seeped through the bandages from the gashes on his legs. "They started to hit me with the batons and then three of them went away," he said in his Northern Ireland monotone. "The other one, the fourth one, was still hitting me; he just kept on hitting me. They put a gun to my head and said I had 24 hours to get out of the country. They're a bunch of cowards. It took four men to beat up a 13-year-old with batons."

Mrs Price said Ian was trying to put a brave face on it "but he is only a child...

"The child's hurting but he wants to be brave in front of his mates. OK, he has maybe stolen something but what's that? Every other kid does it and they don't get batons and all taken to them."

The word from Newtownards is that a loyalist group was responsible, which has carried out a number of other beatings recently. The victims of some previous punishment attacks attracted little sympathy, according to a knowledgeable source in the town: "After some beatings, I've heard it said that it couldn't happen to a nicer person." But this time it's different, he added, for locals are shocked at it happening to one so young. Maybe young Price had done a bit of stealing, it was said, and probably this time he had stolen something for the wrong person.

At Stormont they are saying that the political heat will beturned up as the week progresses, with the hope that the positions of the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein will eventually soften. There could be prime ministerial helicopters on the lawn next weekend, with Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern flying in to try to clinch a deal.

Mrs Price is simply concerned with her son and her family's future, and with standing up to those ordering her family out. "I'm going nowhere," she said. "I'm staying in the Glen estate, and they can try and put us all they want. They're just animals, that's what they are. God will pay them back for it, that's all I'd say. God will pay them back."

In Stormont, the politicians will be going head-to-head in a negotiation which goes beyond the purely political and which is aimed at eventually eradicating the scourge of paramilitarism that has caused so much pain to young Ian Price.