Northern Ireland: Attacks at highest level for decade

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THE 42 punishment attacks the Royal Ulster Constabulary says have taken place this year represent the highest number recorded for a decade in the province.

In one attack, masked men who smashed their way into Noel Diver's home and broke his legs with hurley sticks realised almost immediately they had got the wrong man. Shrugging off their mistake, they went next door to Michael Brennan, their intended target, and broke both his arms. It was just another example of the wave of punishment beatings and shootings which is piling pressure on the peace process.

Kneecappings and beatings have been part of Ulster's recent history but they have become, with impasse over the decommissioning of arms, part of the fault-line of the Good Friday Agreement. Critics of the agreement see the issue as an example of how the paramilitaries have kept on the path of violence and are therefore in breach of the agreement.

The RUC Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, is unequivocable about who is responsible: "I have no doubt both from intelligence and the pattern of activity that this is organised by organisations; this it is not the activity of individuals. This activity is engaged by organisations who say they are in a cessation of military operations. The IRA, UVF and UDA - these organisations have been involved in barbarity."

The political parties with connections to the paramilitaries try to deny involvement. A Sinn Fein spokesman said that not only was Sinn Fein not involved in punishment attacks, it had no knowledge of IRA involvement. The party also challenges the reliability of the RUC statistics and the pressure group Families Against Intimidation and Terror.

David Ervine, of the Progressive Unionist Party, which has links with the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force, when asked why he had not used his influence to stop the attacks responded: "Do you think if I had the capacity to stop them, they would not already be stopped?"

Sir Ronnie has maintained the paramilitaries carry out the beatings and shooting to maintain "social control" in their areas while putting out the excuse that there is a "policing vacuum".

However, many on the streets with knowledge of these attacks say the dynamics are much more complicated. Unpalatable as it may seem, they say the paramilitaries are in the vast majority of cases responding to the wishes of the communities in their heartland for rough and ready justice. And for various reasons a "policing vacuum has indeed been created."

It is not easy to disentangle what lies behind the attacks. With few notable exceptions, the victims are unwilling to speak publicly about their experience. While most attacks appear to be sanctioned by the loyalist and nationalist paramilitaries, a small percentage are the result of personal criminal vendettas. A small proportion of the sanctioned attacks are for disciplinary offences against wayward members of the paramilitary groups, but the great majority are against those accused of anti-social behaviour, ranging from joy-riding to burglary to drug-dealing to sexual offences.

Police and social service sources say there are discernible differences between punishment attacks in nationalist and loyalist areas. In the former they tend to be more structured, while in the latter they are more disorganised. Also in the loyalist areas there are vastly more beatings and shootings connected with feuds over drug- dealing.

Most of the targets are young men and the scale of the brutality of the punishment depends on the severity of the offence.

But they can "go wrong" and recent cases of this have included that of Andrew Peden, whose bloody stumps, due to a shotgun blast in a loyalist knee- capping which went wrong, have been extensively publicised and have caused widespread public revulsion.

Sir Ronnie said there is evidence that the punishment squads are shooting lower down in the hands and ankles "This is conscious decision to do it in a less debilitating way."

The news that Amnesty International is to send a delegation to Northern Ireland to look at the issue of punishment attacks, as part of a broad investigation into human-rights issues, has been widely welcomed here.

But according to Sir Ronnie they can be stopped immediately. "If the IRA, UVF and UDA as organisations decided they should stop, it will stop."

Punishments by Paramilitaries

Republican Loyalist

1994 86 106

1995 141 79

1996 175 151

1997 104 124

1998 93 120

Source: Royal Ulster Constabulary