Politicians and police warned yesterday that until the level of violence endemic in Belfast society dropped, the "precarious" political peace process would be in jeopardy.
Steve McBride, justice spokesman for Ulster's Alliance Party, noting the continuing high levels of sectarian-related violence, said that while people were still being maimed, threatened and intimidated, the risk that the ceasefire would crack was only too great. He said the incidents might look minor in isolation, but often had a "knock-on" effect. "Someone feels obliged to retaliate, a family feud turns into something much worse, they see someone else getting away with it, and it just escalates," Mr McBride told BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback programme.
"These groups are exercising violence and terror as a way of maintaining power and influence in particular localities," he said. "We have to take this very seriously. It's a real threat to what very precarious peace process or ceasefire we currently have."
He said the problem was that many in Ulster had become so used to the incidents that they achieved a degree of "acceptability. But these are horrendous injuries that are being inflicted on people, without any kind of defence. Any society that tolerated that sort of conduct as a legitimate form of punishment would be viewed by the rest of the world as reprehensible".
The organisation Families Against Violence, which deals with up to 30 such cases every month, said it had seen "no significant drop" in low- level violence since the latest ceasefire was called. "The beatings may have largely stopped, but the shootings are continuing and the intimidation and threats are still going on. And they don't get reported because people don't dare," a spokeswoman said.
She added: "A lot of these cases are one 10-year-old kid who's hit an eight-year-old and the mother has gone round to sort it out. Whereas before, the mothers might have had a good old talking to each other, now they're just saying `get out of my door', going inside and making the phone call.
"The paramilitaries have got nothing to do at the moment, so they don't mind getting involved. And the family is left with bricks through the window, intimidation, and they have no resort. What are they going to do?"
The Royal Ulster Constabulary, meanwhile, was said yesterday to be "concerned" by an apparently republican shooting in the province, the first since the ceasefire was announced. An RUC source said that up until Tuesday, signs had been "encouraging", due to the lack of republican activity. But Wednesday night's shooting of a taxi driver by gunmen who identified themselves as members of the IRA had halted that optimism.
He added that contrary to recent reports, while the sectarian violence continued, there would be no significant drop in security measures for the near future.
"The bottom line is that we're only a few days in. During the 1994 ceasefire it was months before police took on a reduction in security or anything. We've had a 1,000lb bomb at a hotel, the INLA saying they're going to carry on regardless and the LVF warning Catholics out of their areas. It would be someone foolish who would say everything in the garden is rosy," he said.
t Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, yesterday said that the Government was standing firm on its target of holding multi- party talks in Belfast on 15 September, in spite of a rejection of the process by Ian Paisley, leader of the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party, writes Colin Brown.
Mr Paisley said after a meeting with Ms Mowlam in London that the Government would be "digging its own grave" on the talks, if the format was not changed. He repeated his claims that the talks were "dead in the water" and put forward a four-page alternative plan, which it is believed seeks arms decommissioning by the IRA before Sinn Fein can join the talks. He warned he would not sit down with Sinn Fein leaders, and would not take part in "proximity" talks.
Meanwhile, Ken Maginnis, the Ulster Unionists' spokesman, and Sinn Fein's negotiator Martin McGuinness are to debate live and face- to-face on BBC2's Newsnight programme next Tuesday.
Sectarian violence since the truce
Sunday 20 July: Ceasefire announced; 25-year-old man beaten by masked men who burst into his home in loyalist area of Bushmills;36-year- old man attacked by men armed with guns and baseball bats in loyalist Carrickfergus.
28 July: Body of Catholic James Morgan, 16, found in Co Down. Police investigating whether motive sectarian.
31 July: Police detonate "substantial" bomb at the Carrybridge Hotel in Fermanagh. Security forces believe it may have been a republican device.
3 August: 21-year-old man beaten by masked men who burst into a house in Londonderry. Republican movement denies involvement. Two other beatings, described as "loyalist" by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, carried out in the period up to 4 August.
4 August: 34-year-old man from loyalist east Belfast shot in the leg; 19-year-old badly beaten after men with guns and baseball bats burst into his house in Londonderry.
5 August: Hoax suspect device sent to Sammy Wilson a Democratic Unionist Party councillor; Catholic taxi driver threatened with gun and attacked with petrol-bombs he when arrives to pick up fare from loyalist estate in Lurgan.
6 August: Hoax suspect device sent to Progressive Unionist Party headquarters; 19-year-old man kneecapped with gunshots after being abducted from the loyalist Rathcooke area; 30-year-old taxi driver shot in legs while picking up fare from Belfast's Grosvenor Road. The man's family said the masked gunmen identified themselves as Republicans.Reuse content