Punishments herald new reign of terror in Ulster

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The Independent Online

A savage baseball bat attack by a Belfast gang that left four men in hospital with severe injuries to their arms and legs has aroused concerns that, despite a new era of peace and reconciliation, Northern Ireland is struggling to close the door on decades of paramilitary violence and vigilantism.

Police called the incident a paramilitary-style attack, latest of a series of such beatings demonstrating that organised "punishments" have not disappeared despite a marked fall in killings since the end of the Troubles.

Years of bitter violence have left some communities with ingrained habits. This attack, in the solidly loyalist Woodvale district, close to the Shankill Road, means suspicions are centred on a Protestant paramilitary organisation responsible for many such assaults. The Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Assocation, the two principal Protestant illegal groupings, are strong in the district.

There have been several recent incidents on the Loyalist side, one of them on the Shankill Road not far from the scene of Monday's attack, which have lifted the lid on the meting out of so-called "rough justice" to those who offend paramilitary groups. Fears are mounting that they may be staging incidents as a reminder that, though diminished, they are still a force to be feared.

This month, two teen-agers were forced to parade along the road near their homes in north Belfast carrying placards reading, "I'm a thief and a burglar". One had black eyes, bruises and cuts on his face and head.

Police removed the placards but said they could take no further action because neither youth lodged a complaint. In this district complaining to police in such circumstances would invite further retribution. Last August, in another loyalist part of Belfast, two balaclava-clad men tied a man to a lamppost, poured tar over his head and dumped feathers over him. A placard accused the man, who was rescued by relatives, of being a "drug dealer" and "scumbag".

Last year, the UVF and UDA formally pledged an end to their violence, and there has been a distinct drop in "punishments" since then. But over the years, more than 5,000 people have been injured by republican and loyalist groups; some died after being beaten or shot.

The security forces say the IRA as an organisation has ceased such attacks, though the recent death of a young man from the South Armagh area led to allegations that members or ex-members were involved.

Extreme Protestant organisations are strong in what tend to be poorer districts which suffer from burglaries and other criminality, and often have a serious drugs problem.

Many locals see the attacks as a brutal but effective reaction to "antisocial elements" who may elude police attention. Paramilitary groups can then pose as community defenders while simultaneously asserting their own power.