Terror in the UK: yesterday Ulster thugs beat their 400th victim since the ceasefire

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The Independent Online
They came for Donal Gray in the silence of the night, their faces masked and their guns out. Just minutes later, in the early hours of yesterday, the young man, a promising football player, lay broken in agony on the blood-streaked front garden, his dream of sporting stardom shattered.

For Gray, who is only 19, and plays for Glenavon, Co Armagh, it was a tragedy. For the six men, who claimed to be from the Provisional IRA, he was the 400th victim of the so-called punishment beatings in Northern Ireland.

While the fragile ceasefire had appeared to free the streets of fear, the beatings never went away.

Instead they increased alarmingly in the insidious campaign by republicans and loyalists to maintain the control they have held over communities for 25 years.

Since 1994 republicans have carried out 266 beatings, loyalists 144. These figures compare with a total of 45 in the 14 months before the cease-fire.

Just as the authorities pay little attention to the 600 families whose lives in the past two weeks were turned upside down when they were forced out of their homes by thugs, so the politicians have largely averted their gaze from punishment beatings.

Families Against Intimidation, a charity that works with the victims of violence in Ulster, condemned the widespread failure of politicians to acknowledge such brutal beatings.

"As far as we're concerned, these figures are only the tip of the iceberg. Due to fear of reprisals people don't report them, they're too frightened, so there's been no easing up," a spokeswoman said.

Among the worst cases the charity has dealt with was the attack on Martin Donnelly, 18, at Easter. He was literally crucified by the IRA when they hammered spikes into his arms and legs, as deep as they would go. He was taken to hospital screaming in pain.

The spokeswoman added: "It takes something like that to get politicians to acknowledge the problem. But we are appalled by their lack of condemnation of these attacks. It's just brushed aside and they carry on happening as before."

Donal Gray, who has a broken leg, a fractured kneecap and deep cuts, received the typical treatment: he was rushed to hospital from his home in Newry, after being beaten savagely with cudgels studded with nails while his family listened helplessly to his cries.

He had been watching television with his father, Edward, on Tuesday night: after midnight, they heard the shattering of glass as masked men burst through the front door.

Edward Gray said: "They said it was Provisional IRA. They just came in: Donal was sitting there with me and they trailed him out and beat him in the hallway and then took him into the garden and beat him again."

Their weapons were those favoured by the IRA for their recent beatings. In the past year they have moved away from gun wounds to knees and elbows, and have developed a taste for spiked weapons, hammers, iron bars, and baseball bats, which often cause even more serious wounds.

Among the recent punishment attacks was the shooting of Simon Murray, 21, last August. It was the first use of guns for a beating in nearly a year.

He was kidnapped on his way home, dragged into a car at 1.30am, taken to a nationalist area, pinned to the ground, and beaten with sticks, before the masked men shot him in the knees and elbows.

The following month, IRA members were blamed for having left a man with a punctured lung bleeding in the street. He needed 30 stitches after they attacked him with a hatchet, a brick and an iron bar in front of his girlfriend.

In October the IRA was also held responsible for dragging a girl aged 16 out of her home, tying her to a lamppost and pouring paint over her.

The motives behind the brutal beating of Gray were still unclear yesterday. In most cases the IRA claims it is punishing "anti-social behaviour", often related to drug abuse, to keep communities under control.

But there was no evidence that Gray had ever crossed the law. He was a hard-working, disciplined young footballer who had been transferred from Partick Thistle in Scotland to Glenavon with dreams of making the big time.

He had played a few games for the club since his transfer, but a groin injury put him out of action before he was fit enough to play again at the end of last season.

Detective Inspector Alan Maines said: "This is a 19-year-old of great footballing talent. His injuries could mean a very promising career is in jeopardy."

In an attack on Tuesday, in the republican market area of Belfast, a man was beaten by a gang of masked men in an alley. They struck him with iron bars and broke his arm.

As Gray lay in Belfast City Hospital last night surrounded by his family, his dreams were hanging in the balance.

And, as the people of Belfast locked their doors for the evening, it was not just the end of the ceasefire they feared but the sound of shattering glass, and the glimpse of masked men who never went away.

Nationalist MPs from the SDLP, led by John Hume, last night told John Major that there was "no question" of the peace talks in Northern Ireland breaking down.

But they laid the blame for the latest spate of violence firmly on the shoulders of Orangemen.