NORTHERN IRELAND: Punishment attacks are at their highest level for decade

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The Independent Online
THE 42 punishment attacks that the Royal Ulster Constabulary says have taken place so far 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 that 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 shootingswhich is piling pressure on the peace process.

Kneecappings and beatings have been part of Ulster's recent history but they have become, with an impasse over the decommissioning of arms, part of the faultline 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 it.

The RUC Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, is unequivocal about who is responsible: "I have no doubt both from intelligence and the pattern of activity that this is organised by organisations; 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 [Ulster Volunteer Force] and UDA [Ulster Defence Association] - 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 UVF, 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 beatings and shootings to maintain "social control" in their areas while using 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 for rough and ready justice. And for various reasons a "policing vacuum" has indeed been created.

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 human-rights investigation, has been widely welcomed here.

Assaults by Paramilitaries

Republican Loyalist

1994 86 106

1995 141 79

1996 175 151

1997 104 124

1998 93 120

Source: Royal Ulster Constabulary