Ireland: Paramilitaries step up punishment attacks

Shooting of 79-year-old will not be the last, reports Kim Sengupta in Belfast
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT WAS John Browne's age, 79, that made his kneecapping by the IRA so shocking even in Northern Ireland, where people have become used to punishment shootings and beatings by the paramilitaries. He was the oldest person in the Province to receive this form of rough justice, but certainly not the last.

The main terrorist groups may have held the ceasefire in the war against the state and each other, but they have not laid down their arms when it comes to meting out punishment. Last week, two men were shot on the same night, one by loyalists, the other by republicans. Just days before, a man was left critically ill in hospital after the loyalists blasted him in the legs with a shotgun.

So far this year, there have been 34 such shootings. The Royal Ulster Constabulary say 21 were by republicans and the rest by loyalists. There have also been 41 beatings, 25 by loyalists and 16 by republicans. These assaults, often made with baseball bats or crowbars, can leave victims crippled with compound fractures, and can, on occasions, be more difficult for doctors to repair than "clean" single shot wounds.

The signing of the Good Friday agreement did not lead to a cessation of these attacks - 11 shootings have taken place since then. Previous ceasefires had also led to escalation of such actions - the 1994 one was followed by a fivefold increase in five years.

The paramilitaries say that they are carrying out retribution on behalf of aggrieved members of the community who prefer to go to them rather than the police to seek justice. The form of the punishment is decided by a local commander, and can be carried out by specialist squads known as "bone-crunchers". It may range from an expulsion order to execution. In between, there are beatings, shootings of knees and ankles and the "50-50" in which the target is shot in the base of the spine to paralyse.

Drug dealers risk shootings because the paramilitaries prefer to control the trafficking themselves, and because they do not want their pool of recruits, the working-class youths, contaminated. The vigilante group Direct Action Against Drugs is seen by the police as nothing more than an IRA front.

There are also attacks for a variety of other offences, from joy riding to sexual abuse. Mr Browne, for example, was shot in the mistaken belief that he was a child molester. His attackers had gone to the wrong flat.

The Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast deals with the bulk of the punishment attacks in the city and Dr Brian McNicholl is an acknowledged expert in repairing the damage. He said: "A handgun injury is like a large drill going through. It damages things in the track of the bullet as it goes through. A shotgun has a lot more power behind it, and it can also spread out widely so that you get a much wider crack of damage. It's almost like having a truck run over the leg."

Mr Browne has undergone two operations to remove bullets and faces five more weeks in hospital. He recalls being confronted by masked men the night he was injured. "I started to call the Holy Name. I started to call for the fellow next door. Every time I called, I was hit in the face or head. I put it down that they were searching for money, I didn't know I was going to be shot. They left me to die. I was sure I was going to die. I had a terrible time breathing. Had it been for another 10 or 20 minutes, I would not have been here."

Robert, a 22-year-old thief who was shot by republican paramilitaries two years ago, considers himself lucky. He said: "They shot me through the knee with a pistol. I can walk, although I don't think I'll be able to do much running any longer. The worst thing was the fear, when they came and got me I didn't know whether I was going to be a goner or just get a beating. I actually wet myself."

A group of community workers in the Shankill area have come up with a plan to stop the punishment attacks. The paramilitaries have shown a guarded interest. Tom Winston, one of the organisers, said: "The community wants justice and to a certain extent, instant justice, and there is a feeling the police can't give them that.

"If they come to our door we'll come up with a programme that takes punishment shootings out of the equation. The programme will consist of a pay-back to the community, clearing gardens for pensioners, or cleaning graffiti from the walls, rather than someone being taken up an alley and being shot or beaten."