How has the IRA changed? Once it shot you in the knees, now it's in the hands

IoS investigation: The 'Padre Pio' is the grim nickname for the latest kind of rough justice being meted out by an IRA reluctant to give up its guns
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The Independent Online

In Belfast's brutal backstreet humour, the IRA practice is known as a "Padre Pio" - an ironic reference to an Italian Catholic priest who had stigmata on his hands.

In Belfast's brutal backstreet humour, the IRA practice is known as a "Padre Pio" - an ironic reference to an Italian Catholic priest who had stigmata on his hands.

But there is nothing godly in this practice, for it refers to paramilitary gunmen carrying out "punishments" on their victims by shooting them through both hands. In a grisly trend, a wave of attacks has been carried out in recent weeks: the IRA, which has renounced violence, believes that such a promise refers only to attacks on the Army and the police.

The Padre Pio mutilation of hands is the latest in a long history of punishments inflicted by republican and loyalist organisations on those who have offended them.

Gunmen on both sides of the divide regularly use the technique after years in which unfortunates said to be guilty of "anti-social activities" have been kneecapped, beaten and sometimes shot in the elbows.

Being shot in the hands is said to be particularly painful, as well as risking long-term damage to hand movement.

This type of punishment is inflicted on young men with a reputation as brawlersto curb their ability to fight. According to the Irish government, the IRA in particular has resorted to the practice since late last year, in the wake of the pre-Christmas breakdown of the peace process.

Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, said the IRA was responsible for shooting a man in both hands in addition to breaking his jaw. He said it had also carried out an attack in east Belfast on a teenager who received gunshot wounds in both hands.

Those who suffer a Padre Pio are ordered to place their hand, palm up, on the ground while a bullet is fired through it. Shots are usually fired through both hands.

In one recent example, a youth in his late teens was found with wounds to both hands at Seaforde Street in the Short Strand district of east Belfast on 8 January.

Brian Fisher, a consultant in emergency medicine at Belfast's Royal Victoria hospital, who has treated several victims, said of the Padre Pio: "Any injury to the hand could damage tendons or [the] nerve supply. Some numbness on your leg is not too much of a problem but numbness in the fingertips can significantly affect your hand."

Such attacks often generate little sympathy in Belfast's tougher ghettos, where many see them as a form of rough but effective justice against those regarded as habitual burglars and joyriders.

However, it is not clear whether the present wave of hand injuries was begun by loyalists or republicans. According to Dr Fisher: "It is occurring on both sides of the divide. There seems to be a certain degree of copycat."

Some of those shot, he says, feel relieved not to have received even more serious punishments. "They're often relieved to get away with a simple injury," he noted.

Thousands of punishment assaults have been meted out over the years, a few of them resulting in deaths. In at least one case the victim lost both legs, while in up to half-a-dozen cases victims subsequently took their own lives.

Although the IRA has been on ceasefire since 1997, it and other organisations have continued carrying out punishment shootings and beatings.

The IRA has also been busy with bigger targets. The organisation has been linked to bank robberies including the raid that netted £26m in Belfast in December. Both the British and Irish governments have blamed the IRA for the robbery. They also believe it carried out an abduction and robbery in September at a bank in Strabane, County Tyrone.

The IRA has in addition become a major player in the lucrative black market for cigarettes, hijacking a number of large consignments and smuggling them across the Irish border. In October, £2m worth of cigarettes was stolen from a north Belfast warehouse; other thefts took place last year at Dublin docks.

A raid on a Belfast supermarket last year yielded more than £1m worth of goods when armed men spent four hours loading a lorry with electrical devices.

Sinn Fein vehemently denies allegations that the IRA tailors the timing of punishment attacks in line with political developments. But police in Northern Ireland support Dublin's claim, saying that the level of paramilitary assaults can rise or fall in relation to events such as elections and key political negotiations.

However, London and Dublin are now insistent that an end to such illegal activity must be part of any new political settlement.

With scores of "traditional" attacks continuing, there is no sign that the IRA is willing to listen. In February last year 18-year-old Anthony O'Neill of Ardoyne in north Belfast took his life after a paramilitary beating. His sister Patricia said: "He was just a normal teenage boy, buying clothes and going out with his friends. He was generally happy, but after the beating he deteriorated. He was never the same."

A MONTH OF VIOLENCE

1 January: A taxi driver is hijacked at gunpoint and forced to drive a suspected bomb to a Belfast police station.

6 January: An 18-year-old man is shot in both legs in Ballybeen, east Belfast.

8 January: A man in his late teens is shot in both hands in east Belfast.

11 January: A 19-year-old man is taken to hospital with gunshot wounds to both hands following a shooting in west Belfast.

13 January: A 24-year-old man sustains a gunshot wound to the left leg in an alleyway in east Belfast.

19 January: A stash of petrol bombs is discovered by police in a house in a loyalist area of Belfast.

21 January: A 17-year-old is discovered lying in an alleyway in west Belfast, shot in both ankles. On the same day, a 26-year-old man is admitted to hospital after being shot in both legs in the Shankill area.

23 January: Two women are covered in tar and threatened by three hooded men who break into their west Belfast home.

29 January: Shots are fired outside a taxi office in the Sunningdale area of north Belfast but there are no injuries. It is the most recent attack on taxi companies in this area believed to be connected to a loyalist feud. Five taxi drivers have been hijacked at gunpoint and their cars set alight in the course of a month.

1 February: A man in his 30s is shot in the leg after masked men with guns and baseball bats force their way into his home. The men then flee the scene.

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